Facing Stress with a Focused Mind

The saying goes that your college years are supposed to be the best years of your life. While bits and pieces of this may be true, these years are often also the most stressful. What’s college without a filthy room you’re too busy to clean, a seemingly never-ending list of theings to do, and a frantic internal dialogue questioning your every life decision and telling you you’ll never get all your work done?

A team of Harvard researchers has suggested that there may be a way to alleviate stress on a cognitive level. What's better, these changes begin to appear after only eight weeks! All you have to do is find a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing.

Meditation has been shown, through various studies, to have a myriad of positive effects. One such effect is a reported sense of calmness and relaxation. The Harvard researchers sought to find out why meditation makes us feel so calm. They discovered that the brain scans of subjects who participated in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program were structurally different from the brain scans of subjects who did not do any meditation.

Before I get into the specifics of the study, I want to clarify what I mean by meditation and mindfulness. Meditation is an ancient practice that is believed to have originated in India several thousand years BCE. The practice has a rich and significant history, having been adopted into the religions and practices of cultures throughout the world. Mindfulness is a form of meditation, but while meditation involves a mental release and a connection with some external force, mindfulness practices aim to train the mind to be able to concentrate on a single task or phenomenon for longer periods of time. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the MBSR program, said, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Meditation techniques vary from culture to culture, but this study focused on the practices used at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, which offers the eight-week MBSR program participants attended. These practices included Body Scan Meditation, Sitting Meditation, and Walking Meditation. Though each individual practice is different, the main goal is to slow the body and mind down, and help the meditator focus on breathing, the sensations of the body, and his or her surroundings.

After completing the program and recording how much they meditated each day (participants reported an average of 27 minutes each day), the participants underwent a second round of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). These MRI scans were then compared to the scans of the non-meditating control group. An analysis of these images revealed an increase of gray-matter density in the hippocampus and a decrease of gray-matter in the amygdala. Gray-matter, which consists of nerve cell bodies and branching dendrites, serves to process information in the brain, and the volume of gray-matter has been suggested to correlate with the strength in function of that particular brain region.

An increased volume of gray-matter in the hippocampus, a brain structure associated with learning and memory, and a decreased volume of gray-matter in the amygdala, a structure associated with emotional reactions, including stress and anxiety, seems to suggest that meditation and mindfulness enhance the function of the hippocampus while reducing the function of the amygdala.

What does this mean for us college students, drowning in homework? Meditation seems to have the capacity to change our brain structures, enhancing our learning capabilities while slowing down the structure that plays an important role in negative emotional reactions.

While the study is speculative, relatively new, and done on a small sample size of only 26 individuals, there is a growing field of study that is exploring the effects meditation can have on the body. Many of these new studies suggest that meditation alters brain function to produce a relaxed feeling, and those who meditate often feel less stress. Much more work still needs to be done on uncovering the cognitive and physical effects of meditation and mindfulness, but if you have a few minutes in your hectic day to sit and be mindful, it doesn't hurt to try. 

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