Meditation and mindfulness are quickly becoming the hot new trend – you can hardly get out of the grocery store without someone or something suggesting you try mindfulness. But meditation is hardly new – people have been practicing mindfulness for thousands of years!
I imagine it was a lot easier to be mindful when you had only a few things to focus on each day – getting food, staying safe, and getting a good night’s rest as soon as the sun went down. We now have to handle notifications from everything with a battery and many of us, myself included, find it’s a lot hard to focus on a singular task.
Improving focus and serenity is one of the draws of meditation – we all want to calm our mind instead of having the attention span of a gnat, but what really happens to your brain when you meditate?
Your brain activity can be measured by EEG scans (electroencephalography) and there are 4 main classifications of brain waves based on frequency.
- Beta brain waves = a working brain
- Alpha waves = a relaxed or reflective brain
- Theta waves = a drowsy yet creative period
- Delta waves = sleep and dreaming
Alpha waves are believed to be responsible for creativity, relaxation and the ever elusive “peace of mind.” In general, alpha states are only accessible when the eyes are closed and any disturbance, bet it visual, auditory or touch, will disrupt them.
For those of you who do have a regular mindfulness practice, you know this to be true. If you are distracted by a sound during your meditation, you can reign your focus back into the breath rather easily.
I have found that my ability to refocus my mind is variable. Some days, it is really easy to focus while other days I can’t focus at all. This is why a regular practice of meditation can be helpful. The more practiced you are at focusing your attention in a variety of settings and situations, the better you’ll be at focusing during your day!
So why meditate? Having the ability to tap into alpha brain waves means that you are more internally focused, which may make it easier for you to recognize bodily sensations such as pain or pleasure. I have mentioned many times that self-care makes you “more aware” of your body – this is a specific way that you can build that skill. People who meditate and practice mindfulness are also able to think more clearly and soothe their own negative emotions.
When you meditate, you feel a very grounded sense of calm. If you imagine your stress levels on a scale of 1 – 10, most of us probably are living in the range above 5 all of the time. From the notifications on our phone to dealing with difficult people at work or school, to driving a car or riding a bike next to cars – there are an endless number of daily activities that require hyper-alertness and awareness. For some, bringing your stress levels down at the end of the day is quite easy, but when you spend so much time upregulated, it’s almost as if your body forgets how to relax.
A meditation practice can help you to feel again what being at a 2 or 3 on the stress scale feels like, so that when you have a stress spike, it’s not fluctuating from 7 to 10, but maybe 3 to 4. It is also much easier to return to a state that is familiar – how can you feel deeply relaxed when you’ve never experienced it?
When you meditate regularly, EEGs show an increase in alpha wave frequencies and an overall slowing in EEG activity, signaling that the brain is processing less and doing less during meditation.
So, what changes happen with a long-term meditation practice?
- Increase in body awareness, attentiveness, and better attunement to your body’s needs at any given time
- Improved memory
- Better self and emotion regulation
- Increased density of grey matter
- Decreases pain
So, which type of meditation should you practice? One that you like and can stick with – you’ll have to try them out and see! As in most everything, there is no one size fits all. When I first started meditating, I could only do it laying down, as I felt breathless when I did it sitting up. As my breath control increased and my meditation practice matured, I now am able to meditate sitting up or laying down. It’s better to have some variability than to rely on one set up every single time.
Learn all about how meditation affects your brain in this episode of Anatomy with Alex, my regular FB Live show where I share anatomy and physiology facts to help you maximize your mobility and live pain-free in your body.
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