Generally, meditation is a mindfulness-based practice in which an individual sits quietly, focuses on breathing, and tries to clear their mind of any distracting thoughts or worries. Some meditators even choose to supplement their meditation practice with repeated mantras (think “ohmmm…”) or visualization (“imagine you’re a stick, floating down the river of zen”). Though often viewed as a wacky, spiritual practice reserved only for yogis, hippies, and monks, meditation is a critical tool that has recently gained more support as a source of daily restoration for CEOs and doctors as well as an effective, supplemental treatment for chronic mental and physical diseases. For now, however, let’s just take a moment to focus on meditation as a tool for combating the everyday stress and anxiety of college life.
When in a situation known to induce cortisol-driving symptoms, such as sitting down to start your homework in the evening or preparing for a big presentation, taking a few minutes to meditate allows you to tackle stress mindfully. This mindful approach involves taking a minute to sit, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing rather than how many Organic Chemistry problems you have. As you focus on your breathing, your respiratory rate and pulse rate should start to decrease, thereby allowing you to override many of the cortisol-driven symptoms of stress experienced just minutes before. Additionally, you are more likely to have an increased level of attention and concentration – helpful, right?
The long-term effects of meditation are also worth noting. For example, in Health Psychology (2012), Shelley E. Taylor argues that meditation has been shown to outcompete other, unhealthy stress behaviors we might typically resort to, such as over-eating, self-medicating with marijuana or alcohol, or general avoidance of the stress-inducing situations. Furthermore, Grant and Rainville (2009) found that meditation and other mindfulness strategies can help with pain and may even offer some analgesic effects.
So how does this work? How do a few minutes of sitting quietly and breathing create such profound physiological and psychological changes? For these answers, we must turn to neuroscience – specifically, the principles of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon in which our brain anatomy moves around gray matter and synaptic connections in order to facilitate certain, repeated habits (such as juggling and playing the ukulele) or to regain lost functions from a traumatic brain injury. Meditation also shows neuroplasticity. For example, in 2011, Hölzel, Lazar, et al. found that an eight-week meditation program, in which participants meditated for only 30 minutes each day, lead to increased gray matter in the left hippocampus (the center for learning and memory), the tempero-parietal junction (activated during arguing, empathy, and compassion), and a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala (a small region responsible for perceiving threats and stress). In other words, the pre-frontal areas targeted during meditation overlap with those that provide the functions necessary to being productive, happy college students.