Meditation is an ancient art that is still used in our modern day albeit for different reasons. Some find it therapeutic and others use it for physical healings. The art itself is practiced amongst all cultures due to the physical and mental health benefits people obtain from the practice.
Archaeologists believe that meditation dates back to sometime between 3,500 – 5,000 BCE, thanks to a wall art that was found in the Indus Valley. In the art, people were depicted in meditation-like postures, sitting with their legs crossed, back straight, and hands resting on their knees.
People of different religions and cultures have cultivated a meditation practice for hundreds of years. It is now also becoming mainstream here in Western society.
How does Anxiety Work?
The reputation of meditation correlates with mental and physical healing. Most holistic therapists recommend the habit to those coping with anxiety and depression thanks to its ability to elevate one’s mood while also calming one down.
Anxiety itself stems from several mechanisms of the brain and it occurs when one has the inability to govern ruminative cognitive thoughts, or rather, having excessive self-focus on one’s distress rather than finding solutions. This is associated with a decreased executive-level brain activity in the bilateral prefrontal cortex, PFC (regulates behavior, cognitive, and emotional functioning), and the anterior cingulate cortex, ACC (plays a major role in decision making and processing emotions).
The cognitive control of ruminative thoughts is mediated by the PFC and ACC.In other words, the brain creates a sense of fear due to uncertainty, and instead of thinking rationally towards a non-threatening situation, it blows it out of proportion.
How Does Meditation Help?
Mindfulness meditation training is premised on stabilizing attention, acknowledging sensory events as momentary and releasing them without an emotional reaction. This practice modifies the mind’s cognitive and affective evaluations of sensory events and allows one to reevaluate them.
A study was conducted to show the effectiveness of mindful meditation on the average person. Fifteen healthy people participated and none of them had prior meditation experience. The training was spread over four days with each session lasting 20 minutes.
They found that after each session, every participant’s anxiety dropped between 15-22%, suggesting that meditation activates higher functioning of the PFC and ACC. Thus, meditation is postulated to regulate emotions by stabilizing the attentional processes, allowing one to detach from affective appraisals and having the individual remain in the present moment.
How Does Mental Illness cause Substance Abuse?
Living in constant fear makes benzos and liquor all the more appealing.
Even though there are medications to help one cope with anxiety, it only acts as a band-aid as most pharmaceuticals do. It simply represses the thoughts temporarily and teaches the user to avoid the issue altogether. Once the substance wears off, fear and stress will come back with a vengeance, further enticing the user to take substance more often.
Thanks to the human ability to create a tolerance, the user will eventually have to take more of the substance to get the same result. Self-medicating this way may lead to a co-occurring disorder where the individual suffers from both a mental disorder and substance abuse.
How Does Meditation Train the Brain?
The effects of meditation can exceed what medication can do for an individual. Medication is a tutor who is there to help one better understand the subject material, whereas meditation is the teacher who provides the lesson material. Studies have shown that arts training can open neurological pathways for the high functioning of executive brain activity.
The act of mindfulness is having nonjudgmental attention to experiences in the present moment.
There are two components involved when obtaining mindfulness:
- Regulation of attention in order to obtain immediate experience.
- Approaching one’s experiences with an orientation of curiosity, openness, and acceptance regardless of how desirable they are.
This can be acquired through various meditation practices:
- Walking Meditation
- Sitting Meditation
- Mindful Moments
To break it down even further, there are an array of components interacting with one another when practicing mindfulness meditation:
- Attention Regulation – Focus attention on a single object.
- Body Awareness – Ability to notice bodily functions.
- Emotion Regulation – The alteration of ongoing emotional responses through the action of regulatory responses
- Change in Perspective of the Self – Mental events that occur which lead to the perception of the self.
These components interact with each other like clockwork and lead to enhanced internal awareness, which assists with the mental processing of emotional reactions.
To maintain a mindful state when an emotional reaction occurs is the goal of mindfulness meditation and the process is integrated as such:
- The executive attention system identifies the emotional reaction that causes a conflict with their peaceful state of mind.
- Body awareness detects the physical reactions of the emotional reaction (tense muscles, increased heart rate, shallow breaths)
- The feelings that are acknowledged by body awareness act as a prerequisite for emotion regulation to become engaged.
Now, the first two mechanisms – attention regulation and body awareness – will correlate to open up the individual feeling a sense of exposure. This is where the person will fall back on habitual reactions such as avoidance. However, mindfulness meditation teaches the mind to relax, opening up an opportunity to diminish the habitual reaction to the situation.
The teachings of meditation are notorious for their mental health benefits. People who suffer from a co-occurring disorder (when one suffers from both substance abuse and addiction) are usually taught this art in dual diagnosis treatment centers since it enhances the patient’s body awareness, which emphasizes the effect substance has on their body and what triggers them to use.