By Sarah Z. Wexler for Men's Journal
Meditating isn't easy. Instead of sitting on the floor cross-legged for half an hour, you probably want to be tweaking your fantasy football team, working through your Netflix cue, crossing things off the to-do list. Yet, new studies show that meditating could be just as good for you as those obviously relaxing and productive activities, plus offer surprising, cool mind, body and health benefits. Take a few minutes a day to focus on one thing -- a mantra, a word, or your own breath; basically, anything but that to-do list -- and you'll benefit in these ways.
Feel Less Pain
Researchers put healthy participants in an MRI to see how their brains light up when they experience pain, and how meditation could change their evaluation of that pain. After only four days, meditation during pain was found to reduce the participants' rating of unpleasantness by 57 percent, and also decreased the intensity by 40 percent. How? Meditation-induced reductions in pain were associated with increased activity in the areas involved with cognitive processing and reframing the contextual evaluation of sensory events -- meaning the pain you feel can be reframed in your brain as less terrible and more tolerable.
Meditate, and you'll stress less in the moment, and you may be able to also stop yourself from worrying about the future, according to recent research. Nearly a hundred patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (a disorder characterized by chronic worry and physiological hyperarousal symptoms), were trained in a type of meditation called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. After eight weeks, without adding any traditional cognitive therapy, their anxiety and distress levels went down. The study's takeaway: If you can learn from mediation that thoughts are just thoughts, and physical sensations are just physical sensations, you can more easily shut down the anxiety-causing negative self-talk about those feelings.
Furthermore, participants in the study who had to do public speaking (perhaps the world's greatest anxiety-inducer) even showed more confidence, saying things more often like "I can handle everything" rather than the self-sabotaging, "I'll probably bomb anyway."
This year, a Johns Hopkins professor did an analysis of 47 of the best existing mediation studies on more than 3,500 participants. He found that meditation provided as much relief from depression symptoms as antidepressants. And unlike drugs, which can come with a host of unpleasant side effects -- drowsiness, reduced sex drive -- meditation has never been shown to have any risk or negative side effects. Well, other than a little flack from your friends.