Mental Health Benefits
Meditation as an Emotional Regulator
- Meditation has a built-in ability to function as an emotional regulator
- Meditation increases positive feelings, emotional stability and resilience, enhances our sense of well-being, and strengthens our ability to inhibit negative cognitive and emotional thought processes that are linked to stress, depression, anxiety and other conditions
- Meditation regulates emotion through two mechanisms: attentional control (by controlling what we devote attention to) and cognitive control (by exercising conscious control over our thoughts and feelings)
- Studies show that meditation may be effective in treating disorders of attention, anxiety, mood and other affective disorders.
- Studies show that the long-term meditator’s brain is better connected, better balanced, better synchronized, better organized and more efficient.
- Meditation functions like “push-ups” for the brain, improving intelligence, reasoning, memory, creativity, learning, motivation and self-actualization
- Meditation takes advantage of the brain’s natural plasticity to induce lasting changes in emotional processing
One of the most important dimensions of meditative practice is its built-in, seemingly magical ability to function as an emotional regulator. And thanks to the human brain’s remarkable natural plasticity short-term state changes, for the regular meditator, may evolve into long-term trait changes.
Meditation increases positive feelings and enhances our overall sense of well-being. In meditation, we are able to maintain a calm, balanced, non-judgmental state of mind. We can let go of painful thoughts and feelings.
The reduced emotional reactivity we experience during meditation infuses us with greater emotional stability, which better equips us to manage challenging life events. The result is enhanced long-term psychological resilience.
Meditation strengthens our ability to inhibit cognitive and emotional thought processes that exacerbate stress, depression, anxiety and other affective disorders. Affect refers to the experience of feeling emotions — the emotional feeling, tone and mood attached to our thoughts and our resulting behaviors.
Research suggests that meditation may regulate emotion through two mechanisms: attentional control and cognitive control.
Cognition includes mental processes such as, awareness, knowledge, thought, reasoning, judgment, intuition and perception — all of which are seamlessly integrated in the healthy mind.
Sahaja meditation techniques, in particular, enhance our ability to control what we pay attention to. Spending time in a higher state of consciousness — thoughtless awareness — allows us to transcend the mental plane of thoughts and feelings.
We’re able to direct our attention, rather than allowing it to wander into stressful territory. From this higher plane of consciousness, we can detach and observe our thoughts and feelings non-emotionally, and with clarity. Periods of thoughtless awareness free the mind of the negative, self-defeating thought patterns and rigid belief structures that aren’t serving us well.
Enhanced attentional control and the ability to resist distracting or disturbing thoughts and feelings reduces our emotional reactivity by controlling the amount of attention we allocate to processing emotional events and by preventing negative emotions from intruding on our thoughts and triggering reactive — and often, self-damaging — behaviors.
The meditator’s ability to exercise cognitive control over thoughts and feelings can regulate emotions in many different ways; for example, by changing our expectations and interpretations of stressful or emotion-charged events, or by learning to associate new emotional responses with stressful events. And meditation’s inherent ability to effect key neurochemicals (e.g., serotonin, dopamine, GABA, melatonin) and brain structures helps regulate the deepest aspects of human experience, such as mood, awareness, attention, perception, reasoning, intuition, self-esteem and judgment. (For details on how meditation influences neurochemicals, see: Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters & Neurohormones.
Many studies have established the ability of experienced meditators to cognitively regulate emotional states such as happiness and a sense of well-being (e.g., Hölzel, B., Hempel, H., et al, 2007). Anxiety disorders and disorders of affect regulation (such as depression and bipolar disorder), in particular, beneﬁt from meditation’s ability to relieve stress and anxiety, create emotional resilience, regulate mood, and up-regulate (increase) activity in fronto-limbic neural networks that are involved in emotional processing and regulation. Often, the mechanisms through which Sahaja meditation’s energy-based techniques facilitate healing automatically relieve symptoms of multiple mental health problems at once; for example, one might experience relief of symptoms of both depression and anxiety.
Sahaja meditation techniques, in particular, employ the dual and simultaneous techniques of attentional control and replenishment of the energy force that drives the sympathetic nervous system activity underlying emotional processing.
Each Sahaja meditation session provides an instant increase in this vital energy supply, which instantly enhances emotional or psychological resilience. More energy flowing through your parasympathetic nervous system, up through the 6th energy center, prolongs thoughtless awareness. Quality periods of thoughtless awareness, in turn, enhance attentional control; less attention and emotional energy is devoted to negative memories and thoughts that tend to worsen symptoms of depression or anxiety. Over time, your attention gradually shifts from the past to the present, a shift that, in itself, can significantly relieve depression and anxiety symptoms. Ultimately, you’re able to re-establish positive emotional energy and psychological resilience for the longer term, which better equips you to cope with stressors that might otherwise trigger a relapse.
Recent studies have provided some evidence for the effectiveness of meditation in treating disorders of attention, anxiety, mood and other affective disorders. The combined evidence from neurobiological studies and clinical studies is promising.
One study showed that meditation can reduce risk of relapse in people suffering from depression (3 or more episodes) as well or better than standard interventions (Chiesa, A., 2010). A meta-analysis of 20 mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation studies found that meditation’s ability to enhance a person’s moment-to-moment awareness of mental processes had the effect of reducing negative emotions and improving vitality and coping in people suffering from a wide spectrum of clinical disorders, including cancer, heart disease, depression, anxiety and chronic pain (Grossman P., 2004).
Let’s explore how some of these healing mechanisms work on the mind and body…
Meditation Increases Emotional Stability & Positive Emotions
Meditation teaches us to pay nonjudgmental, nonreactive attention to all aspects of experience, both internal and external. This experience is perhaps the seed of the mystical experience of oneness often reported by Sahaja Meditators. Meditation, over time, gradually decentralizes the ego, causing what psychologists sometimes describe as a “decathexis of the self.” Cathexis is the process of investing mental or emotional energy in people, objects, or ideas. The state of balanced attention brought about by meditation teaches us that we are but one tiny speck in a vast universe.
Sahaja meditation turns one’s attention inward, rather than outward toward the external world to other people, objects or ideas. By focusing inward, we become more introspective and can improve from the inside out. When facing a difficult situation, we may be tempted to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” and look to the external world for solutions. But meditation encourages us to look for answers and root causes from within. Our relationship with our problems changes. We now ask, “Is this happening because of something I did? What steps do I need to take to fix this problem?”
Several studies, including a few Sahaja meditation studies, have found that regular training of the mechanisms of internal attention, coupled with the positive emotional experiences that occur during the meditation process, can increase a person’s psychological stability. Researchers have found that long-term meditators (in this study, 3-7 years of meditative practice), compared to novices (6 months or less), have greater activity during meditation in a left-hemisphere area of the brain associated with the capacity to cope and respond adaptively to negative events (Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2001; Davidson, R., et al, 2003). These traits are known to result in a more positive outlook on life and greater overall emotional stability.
This kind of anterior left-sided dominance during meditation has previously been linked to emotionally positive experiences.
In fact, experienced Sahaja meditators with greater left-sided baseline brain activity were found to have a much more positive outlook on life than novice meditators, who showed more right-sided electrical activity (Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2001).
Other studies have corroborated that this left-sided dominance has been found to be much greater in the brains of meditators who tend to react positively and let go quickly of negative emotions than in the brains of people who are prone to nourishing negative emotions (Davidson, R., 2004).
Past studies have established that this left-sided activity is also associated with an enhanced ability to: orient and concentrate attention, effectively encode new information in memory, and process emotional information (Demiralp, T. and Basar, E., 1992; Basar, E., et al, 1999; Sasaki, K., et al, 1996; Klimesch, W, et al, 1998; Doppelmayr, M., et al, 1998; Krause, C., et al, 2000; Aftanas, L., et al, 2001).
But studies of Sahaja Meditators during rest also found a reduction of the typical left-over-right hemispheric asymmetry observed in the parietal lobes of healthy control subjects, suggesting that meditation helps create hemispheric balance (Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2005) and lasting, long-term changes. Long-term practitioners showed greater positive affect (emotion) and stronger electrical “long-distance” connectivity and coherence (“orderliness”) between brain regions that are required for experiencing positive emotions and are not associated with heavy mental processing. The meditator’s brain is better connected, better balanced, better synchronized, more efficient.
Several studies over the past three decades have shown that people who have been meditating for around five years are physiologically 12 years younger than their chronological age, based on standard measures of biological age that assess, for example, blood pressure, near-point vision, and auditory discrimination.
In a 2009 MRI study, UCLA researchers called meditation “push-ups for the brain,” finding that the brains of active meditators were larger and contained more gray matter than the brains of non-meditators. In 2011, UCLA diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) studies found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue, which facilitates stronger, faster electrical connections between brain regions, was considerably reduced in active meditators; in fact, these white-matter fibers were more numerous, more dense and better insulated throughout the brains of meditators, compared to control subjects (Luders, et al, 2011). What this suggests is that meditation helps improve critical aspects of cognitive functioning… intelligence, reasoning ability, memory, creativity, learning, reaction time and efficiency, emotional stability and self-actualization (the ability to achieve one’s potential).
Research has also shown that the regular meditators can even learn to “switch off” neural circuitry that can interfere with their ability to function optimally. Several studies have found that the Sahaja meditative experience involves switching off irrelevant neural circuitry in order to maintain focused, internalized attention and to inhibit negative, intrusive or distracting information (Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2001). In other words, experienced meditators are able to reach and maintain their target meditative state by switching off the mechanisms of external attention.
The default mode network (DMN) manages the brain’s “standby” mode. The DMN is a network of brain regions (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex) that are active when the brain is at wakeful rest, idling — in other words, when we’re awake but not attending to a particular task and aren’t focused on the external world. The DMN engages when we’re daydreaming or our attention lapses. But an overactive DMN has been associated with depression, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety disorders, autism, schizophrenia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.
One study found that the default mode network of people with Major Depressive Disorder, as compared to healthy people, showed greater hyperconnectivity with areas of the brain involved with rumination and brooding (posterior-cingulate cortex and the subgenual-cingulate cortex) while at rest, but not while they were busy with a task (Berman, et al, 2011). These depressives were spending their idle moments ruminating and brooding.
Some studies have found that experienced meditators experience decreased activity in the default mode network, even when not meditating. One Yale University study found that experienced meditators may even be able to switch off the brain’s default mode network (Brewer, J., 2011).
Meditation Reduces Negative Emotions
One of the most interesting studies of Sahaja meditation practitioners used spectral EEG to examine differences in the emotional experiences of short-term and long-term practitioners (Aftanas L., Golosheykin S., 2005). The researchers chose Sahaja meditation because, in contrast to many other meditative techniques, Sahaja is characterized not only by the meditator’s ability to internalize attention, but also to experience the emotional state of happiness or bliss (Rai, U.C., 1993).
This 2005 study, which investigated how experienced meditators respond to negative stimuli, was the first to provide neurophysiological evidence for the long-term effects of Sahaja meditation on emotional stability, detachment from negative events, and greater emotional resilience to stressful life events. Long-term meditators, compared to the control group, showed much lower psychological, physiological and neurophysiological reactivity to stressful stimuli.
All participants were shown stressful video-clips and the responses of Sahaja meditators were compared to controls. The Sahaja meditators experienced reduced negative emotions, which was objectively demonstrated by reduced levels of an autonomic (involuntary) indicator of stress (skin potential levels) and reduced gamma activity across frontal brain regions that would normally reflect arousal, emotional involvement and reactivity. The EEG readings of novice meditators showed increased gamma activity in frontal brain regions, indicating that they were experiencing significantly increased arousal, emotional reactivity and emotional workload, which coincided with their self-reports of experiencing negative emotions.
Meditation Induces Lasting Changes in Emotional Processing
The regular practice of Sahaja meditation appears to stabilize changes in the rhythmicity of the thinking (cortical or cerebral) parts of the brain, which ultimately translates to improved neurophysiological functioning.
Experienced Sahaja meditators, compared to beginners, were shown to have higher psychoemotional stability, which is characterized by lower levels of trait anxiety and neuroticism and a greater ability to identify the emotions they were feeling (Aftanas L., Golosheykin S., 2005).
In other words, the experienced meditators had a higher Emotional I.Q.. They also had a wider spectrum of positive emotional experiences and were shown to bounce back quicker after stressful events.
This study and others (e.g., Cahn and Polich, 2006), have demonstrated that the typical slow-wave (alpha-theta) brain patterns elicited during some yogic meditation techniques (including Sahaja meditation) are also observed during rest, thus suggesting meditation’s ability to induce lasting emotional trait effects, beyond the shorter-term “state effects.” Some research has suggested that long-term meditators, even when resting, may be entering into a semi-meditative state, or that regular meditation may help them achieve a permanent reduction of unhealthy internal mental dialogue. The Cahn and Polich study suggests that the practice of meditation may actually alter the fundamental electrical balance between the brain’s cerebral hemispheres, which inevitably influences our affective or emotional processing.
One 2016 Sahaja meditation study using MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume (GMV) across their entire brains, a phenomenon that has not previously been found in practitioners of any other meditation technique (Hernández, 2016). No GMV increases were found in non-meditators.
Grey matter plays important roles in our mental and physical health. Grey matter contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies and includes brain regions involved in memory, emotions, speech, decision making, self-control, muscle control, and sensory perception modalities such as sight and hearing. Thus, increased gray matter increases neuronal activation, which improves corresponding functions and capabilities. Inversely, however, evidence consistently shows that abnormalities in GMV are associated with reduced cognitive and behavioral functions. In fact, GMV is typically abnormal in the brains of individuals with mental health disorders (Grieve et al, 2013; Rubia, K., 2012).
In addition, the 2016 Hernández study found gray matter volume to be particularly enlarged in right hemispheric regions (insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices) associated with sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoception and perception, monitoring of autonomic functions, and feelings of empathy and compassion.
GMV was also found to be greater in the Sahaja practitioners’ left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and left insula, regions involved in attention, improved performance in cognitive tasks and emotional intelligence. Increased GMV in the insula has been associated with increased “good life” traits such as personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose in life, self-directedness and autonomy that have been shown to be good predictors of good health (Lewis et al, 2014).
These results suggest that the long-term practice of Sahaja meditation may increase neuroplasticity and enhance our ability to regulate emotions.
In the brains of experienced meditators, several studies have found heightened activity and cortical thickness in areas involved in emotional processing, leading researchers at Massachusetts General to use voxel-based morphometry to reveal significantly greater gray matter concentration in the right hippocampus of experienced meditators, which may help explain the enhanced ability of meditators to cognitively regulate emotional responses (Hölzel, B., Ott, U., et al, 2008). The hippocampus helps down-regulate the amygdala, our emotion-processing factory. The amygdala and the hippocampus, sometimes referred to as “the almond and the seahorse,” are a pair of small brain structures that work in tandem to generate emotions, attach emotions to memories, and store and index those memories.
The almond-shaped amygdala is the brain’s emotion factory, Alert Central, the “gut feeling” center. The amygdala is your personal crisis manager, always on the lookout for new threats. It registers events, directs your evaluation of the event, then prods you to respond. The amygdala tells you how you should feel about something, how it relates to your history, and what you should do about it. The amygdala directs signal traffic in the brain and is responsible for activating or fight-or-flight response. It sends signals that are integrated with maps stored in memory by the hippocampus. The hippocampus, a small, seahorse-shaped brain structure, is conveniently located next to the amygdala. The hippocampus is the brain’s specialized spatial memory bank. Think of it as a sort of a master memory map that stores and keeps track of memories, similar to a directory system on a computer hard drive.
Some studies have suggested that the amygdala may have a special ability to mark memories created by other parts of the brain as being “emotionally significant,” which might help explain why we instantly react to the same emotional memories over and over again and why our sense of place ties to our recollections of our experiences and, subsequently, our sense of comfort or uneasiness in the world.
In regulating or dampening the amygdala’s reaction to potential stressors, meditation can help head off mental health problems at the pass, as well as physical health problems that are caused or exacerbated by an inability to effectively manage and cope with stressors.
A 2014 EEG study found that long-term Sahaja meditation practice (compared with non-meditators) was associated with increased efficiency of attention-related activity in right hemispheric fronto-central regions while meditators were processing salient (the most emotionally significant) emotional stimuli (Reva et al, 2014). The authors of the study interpreted this phenomenon as increased top-down control over fast automatic salience detection, the sort typically processed by the amygdala. The Sahaja meditators experienced enhanced top-down attention control and emotional regulation (mediated by the frontal lobe).
Another 2016 MRI/Voxel-Based Morphometry study of long-term Sahaja meditators found increased gray matter volume in these brain regions, which may help explain the enhanced top-down emotional processing (Hernández et al, 2016). Increased gray matter volume in these attention and emotional regulation regions suggests that the regular practice of Sahaja may foster the ability to flexibly appraise and manage our own negative emotional states (Reva et al, 2014).
While the research exploring the mental health benefits of meditation is still in its infancy, the existing body of research does indicate that meditation positively influences the regulation of emotional processing by exerting both attentional and cognitive control.
The practice of meditation has been shown to affect the connection between cortical areas (responsible for higher brain functions such as thought, reasoning, memory, sensation, voluntary muscle movement) and the emotional limbic system in ways that may change our appraisal and interpretation of emotions.
These studies also further demonstrate the true plasticity of the brain and show how regular practice of meditation can have long-term effects on our mental and physical health and well-being.
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