By: Miraval’s Alysa Volpe, Yoga & Meditation Specialist
Meditation is not only a practice that increases our ability to gain insight into our own perceptions, expectations and judgements but it is essentially a brain strengthening exercise.
When meditation is regularly done, it increases the grey matter of the orbital-frontal cortex of the brain and hippocampus which are the parts of the brain that regulate our emotional reactivity. When we are able to bring our attention to a one pointed focus as we do in meditation (for example an image, the breath or a mantra) without getting carried away into a story, we are able to calm the nervous system. What this means is that we can quickly go from a stressful state that stimulates our “fight or flight” response to moving to a more relaxed state. As we reduce the stress hormones of the body, like adrenaline and cortisol, we then reduce our heart rate and improve the efficiency of our immune system which can be incredibly helpful with managing chronic conditions such as anxiety pain. During meditation, we are trading ourselves to become observers of our current experience. In the case of anxiety, the practitioner is able to become more aware of their personal triggers and physical queues before they become overstimulated and overwhelmed. They can then recognize a feeling of restlessness or anger and redirect their focus to their breath; therefore, again reducing their stress hormones and bringing them back to a more neutral state.
Likewise, with chronic pain the body becomes fatigued and often reverts into a habit of functioning in a state of “fight or flight” which then means we become hyper aware of the constant subtleties of nerve endings being aggravated. With meditation, the sufferer will still experience the pain but will be far more apt to redirect their focus to maybe their breath or a neutral sensation of the body which will calm their nervous system and diminish the intensity of the pain.
Overall, meditation is indeed a highly useful tool for chronic illness management.