How Meditation Changes the Brain
In recent years, studies on meditation have shown that regular meditation actually changes the structures and functions of the brain.
A 2011 study by Massachusetts General Hospital was the first to document changes in the brain’s gray matter as a result of meditation. In the study, which was published in the journal Psychiatric Research, MRIs were taken of the brain structures of participants two weeks before and after they took part in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. Participants attended weekly meetings that included instruction in mindfulness meditation and received audio recordings for guided meditation at home.
Participants spent an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises. Post-meditation MRIs indicated increased gray-matter density in four brain regions:
- The posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering and self-relevance.
- The left hippocampus, which is key to learning, memory, thinking and emotional regulation.
- The Pons, where regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
- The temporoparietal junction, which is the brain region involved in memory and learning, and in other structures that govern self-awareness, introspection, emotional regulation, and compassion.
In addition to increased gray matter in these brain regions, researchers found that decreased gray matter in the amygdala—the brain region that plays an important role in anxiety, fear, and stress—correlated with participants’ reported stress reduction. None of these changes in gray matter were seen in the non-meditating control group.
A UCLA study found another astonishing way in which meditation changes the brain. It found that long-term meditators have more gyrification, or “folding” of the cortex, which researchers believe allows the brain to process information faster, improving decision-making, memory formation, and other brain functions. A direct correlation was found between the amount of gyrification and the number of years participants meditated, which is further proof of the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt to changes in the environment.
5 Ways Meditation Helps You Recover from an Addiction
Meditation provides a number of benefits that help in recovery from an addiction.
1. It reduces stress and improves the body’s response to stress in the future.
Stress is frequently a trigger for relapse and treatment puts a heavy focus on stress-reduction skills, strategies, and techniques. Meditation not only reduces stress on the spot, but it may also help your body respond better to stress in the future.
A study from Georgetown University Medical Center divided healthy adults with generalized anxiety disorder into two groups. The first group went through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. This was a 2.5-hour weekly class where participants were taught the elements of meditation and learned to pay attention to the present moment without judgment. The second group participated in a stress management education course that focused on diet, exercise, sleep, and time management. Both courses lasted eight weeks and had the same amount of class time and homework.
Before the courses started and after they were completed, the anxiety-ridden participants were asked to engage in eight minutes of public speaking, followed by performing mental math on camera in front of a room full of people wearing white lab coats and holding clipboards.
The study found that not only did the people in the meditation group report less stress during this terrifying task the second time around, but their blood levels of the stress hormone ACTH were lower than the control group’s, as were levels of inflammation markers known as pro-inflammatory cytokines. In contrast, the control group, whose ACTH and inflammation marker levels were higher, reported more stress the second time through the task.
This study is strong evidence that mindfulness meditation helps people develop more resilience to stress.
2. It reduces cravings.
A recent review published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review found that mindfulness strategies, including meditation, interrupt cravings for food and drugs. The review of 30 studies found that mindfulness techniques engage the area of the brain that controls short-term memory, and this diffuses cravings at the moment.
But meditation can also reduce cravings overall, according to the review. Meditation occupies the part of the brain that contributes to the development of cravings, reducing their frequency, and it may also reduce the meditator’s need to react to cravings moving forward.
Another way meditation helps reduce cravings is by helping you develop an attitude of acceptance toward discomfort. Regular meditation teaches you to observe the present moment without judgment, and this detachment from your thoughts and emotions helps you build resilience against uncomfortable thoughts and sensations, including pain and cravings. Meditation produces a disconnect between impulse and action, helping you resist the urge to give in to your cravings.
3. It increases feelings of happiness.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that produces feelings of pleasure, and it is one chemical that all psychoactive substances act on. Drugs and alcohol increase dopamine levels and so does meditation, according to research. One study, published in the journal Cognitive Brain Research, found that active meditation corresponds to a 65-percent increase in endogenous dopamine release.
4. It reduces anxiety.
According to an article published in the journal Ancient Science of Life, meditation increases the activity of several neurotransmitters that play a key role in anxiety.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of calm and wellbeing. Lower GABA levels are associated with higher levels of anxiety. Meditation produces greater blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, where decision-making and problem-solving take place. This greater blood flow activates the area of the brain that produces GABA and increases the activity of this calming neurotransmitter to reduce anxiety.
Serotonin, another feel-good neurotransmitter, plays a major role in anxiety and depression. Low levels of serotonin are associated with greater anxiety. Studies show that meditation increases serotonin activity. In one study, the urine samples of experienced meditators were compared against those of non-meditators. The meditators’ urine showed a higher level of serotonin before meditating, and an even higher level after meditation.
Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that appears in higher levels in people who have anxiety. A reduction in norepinephrine activity reduces anxiety and dampens the stress response. Meditators have been shown to have lower blood levels of norepinephrine than non-meditators.
Melatonin, commonly known as the “sleep hormone,” is another brain chemical affected by meditation. A study of meditators who practiced meditation every other night found that melatonin levels were higher on the nights they meditated.
5. It improves emotional regulation.
For people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, automatic responses to emotional distress include unhealthy coping behaviors, including drug or alcohol abuse.
According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, mindfulness interventions like meditation help improve emotional regulation in three main ways:
- Participants learn to notice and accept difficult thoughts without reacting to them. This helps break habitual patterns of responding to negative emotions and unpleasant feelings in unhealthy ways.
- Non-judgmental acknowledgment of thoughts and sensations is the basis of mindfulness meditation. Regarding these thoughts and sensations without passing judgment limits the elaborative processes that usually go into appraising and acting on unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
- Meditation cultivates awareness of thought processes and helps you regard thoughts and feelings as simply mental events and not as real events to be acted upon.
Mindfulness is so powerful for emotional regulation that it’s the foundation of dialectical behavior therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy, which are widely used in addiction treatment programs.
Types of Meditation for Addiction Recovery
Many types of meditation are used for a variety of purposes. Some are spiritual in nature, and some are focused on specific outcomes, like reducing stress, depression, and anxiety. These are some of the types of meditation that can benefit people in recovery from addiction.
Mindfulness meditation is focused on bringing your attention to the present moment, where you notice your thoughts without becoming involved with them or passing judgment on them. Mindfulness meditation involves both concentration and awareness.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR is a mindfulness meditation program that’s commonly used in a treatment setting. MBSR generally consists of eight weekly, 2.5-hour group sessions and one full-day retreat, along with daily homework assignments that include meditation.
A systematic review of literature published in the journal Substance Abuse found that the promise of mindfulness meditation-based therapies as an effective complementary treatment for addiction is supported by consistent positive results across a variety of populations, study designs, mindfulness meditation modalities, and addictive disorders.
In mantra meditation, practitioners focus on a repeated sound rather than on the breath. The mantra can be a word, phrase, or sound, like the ever-popular “Om.” Mantra meditation is known to increase alertness and put you in tune with your environment, allowing you to experience deeper levels of awareness. Some people find it easier to focus on a mantra rather than on the breath.
During guided meditation, a trained teacher verbally leads you through the meditation process. Guided meditation involves visualization and relaxation and helps you keep your focus in the present moment as you follow the instructions of the teacher.
Guided meditations can take place in specialized classes, or they can be downloaded as audio files onto your computer or phone for use at home. They can focus on certain aspects of your life, including reducing cravings, increasing creativity, promoting better health, and helping you focus on gratitude.
The most-used and most-studied type of meditation worldwide is transcendental meditation. While mindfulness meditation involves focusing on breathing or chanting to bring awareness to the present moment, transcendental meditation promotes a restful state of mind beyond thoughts and feelings, bringing about a state of pure awareness. With long-term practice, this state of pure awareness leads to regarding oneself as omnipresent, marked by an identity shift from the individual to the universal.
The precise techniques of transcendental meditation can only be learned from a certified teacher with extensive training.
Progressive Relaxation Meditation
An effective form of meditation for reducing stress and anxiety on the spot and promoting relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation focuses your awareness on each part of your body as you intentionally relax muscles from head to toe. Progressive relaxation can be achieved through guided meditation or practiced on your own.
The most popular forms of movement meditation are Tai Chi and yoga. Both combine fluid poses with controlled breathing and can lead to a state of mindfulness and expanded awareness. Other forms of movement meditation aren’t as structured and include a walk in the woods or puttering in the garden.
How to Start Meditating Today
All you need to do to meditate is to find a quiet, relaxing place and sit in a comfortable position. Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and close your eyes. Turn your attention to your breathing, which is the very essence of what gives you life moment by moment. Become aware of the breath moving in and out of your body: Follow it in and follow it out. As you do, loosen your hold on your conscious thoughts. As physical sensations arise and thoughts enter your head—and they will—simply acknowledge them like you would a cloud—observe them without judging or dwelling on them and let them float away. When you notice that you’re fixating on a thought, simply return your attention back to your breath.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t about stopping thoughts or emotions from entering your mind, but rather it’s about noticing them without judgment. With 10 to 15 minutes of practice each day, you’ll likely find greater mental clarity, and you’ll be able to sustain your practice for longer periods of time.
Myths & Misconceptions about Meditation
Myths and misconceptions about meditation prevent many people from trying it. Here is the truth about the myths surrounding meditation.
Myth: Meditation is hard to do.
Meditation techniques are generally very simple, and you don’t have to be a yogi—or taught by one—to get the hang of it. People are often afraid that they won’t be able to concentrate, or that they won’t be able to “clear the mind.” Some who do try meditating are afraid they’re doing it wrong, or they worry that they won’t see any results from their practice.
While some types of meditation require instruction from a certified teacher, mindfulness meditation simply requires sitting comfortably, focusing on your breath, and letting thoughts flow in and out of your head as they will, without passing judgment or acting on them.
Myth: Meditation requires emptying the mind.
Meditation is less about “emptying the mind” than it is about learning to sit with your thoughts and sensations without trying to suppress them or respond to them. At first, thoughts and sensations will pass through frequently, but you’ll experience brief moments of pure quiet in your brain. As you practice daily, you’ll find that these moments occur more frequently and last longer. There’s no need to consciously try to banish all thoughts from your head.
Myth: It takes a long time before you see the benefits of meditation.
Meditation benefits you immediately by reducing stress and anxiety on the spot. Research shows that brain changes begin to occur as early as eight weeks with daily practice. Some people report improved concentration and better sleep after just a few days of meditation.
Myth: Meditation is a religious or spiritual practice.
While there are forms of meditation that are religious or spiritual in nature, the meditation styles used most commonly in the West are secular and provide proven medical and mental health benefits. People from all different religious backgrounds practice meditation without conflict with their religious beliefs.
Myth: Meditation is supposed to lead to spiritual enlightenment.
Some types of meditation are used to achieve universal and spiritual enlightenment, but mindfulness meditation and other meditation practices probably won’t lead to cosmic revelations. Rather, they will improve your stress and anxiety levels, reduce your body’s stress response, change your brain in positive ways and increase creativity, emotional regulation, compassion, and self-love.
Meditation as a Lifelong Practice
Meditation during addiction treatment has numerous benefits, and continuing the practice through solo recovery once treatment is complete—and maintaining it for the long-haul—will benefit your physical and mental health in many ways. Meditation can help you achieve true happiness in your life by improving your mood and increasing your ability to regulate your emotions, make decisions, delay gratification, and reduce your body’s stress response.
Meditation provides a state of restful alertness that refreshes body, mind, and spirit. Devoting just a half hour or so each day to meditation will improve your life and help you achieve long-term recovery from an addiction.