The Alternative Way of Self-Care: The Science of Meditation

As we are facing another lockdown with COVID-19 worldwide cases going up again, stress and the feeling of uncertainty have risen along. In the meantime, us students have to continue our best academic performance and deal with endless responsibilities. It is easy to get carried away by our thoughts and emotions, focusing on what’s to come and where the pandemic will take us. Worrying stops us from thinking clearly and, when continuous, it can have negative effects on our body, like disrupting our sleep pattern or hindering our ability to concentrate.

Our brain is designed to rewire itself all the time depending on how we use it. It’s called neuroplasticity. The term refers to the brain’s ability to modify and adapt as a result of extrinsic factors – either positive or negative. Throughout our lives, the brain is making new connections, so that we can increase cognitive and physical skills. Emotions, among many other factors, can affect this process. Anxiety, for example, increases the responses in the amygdala and hippocampus, which are the regions that play a role in the acquisition and expression of fear. The brain loves simple patterns because it’s more ‘economical’. So, it interprets the situations from the past in the previously known manner, leaving a permanent trace in the neuronal structure. What we focus on will be the factor shaping the connections within our mind. More and more studies from the area of psychology show that states of mind affect brain function, which means that the ability to control them can make us happier. Unfortunately, there is this general psychological phenomenon that makes us receive and process negative information more strongly than the good one. It means that the effects of bad events outweigh those of the good ones. But the great news is that like any other muscle, you can train your brain and start to notice the positivity around you even more. Especially now that the virus outbreak is out of our control, it is important to learn how to manage anxiety and improve the body’s functioning.

Being stuck at home, people have been looking for ways to cope with the overwhelming distress that is in their heads. One of the methods of conquering this feeling is meditation – a practice of being fully aware of our thoughts and feelings. Staying present in the moment, without negatively thinking about future-relating events. Many studies show that this exercise of the mind increases some of the regions within the grey matter- the prefrontal cortex, responsible for focusing attention, and the hippocampus, playing a role in memory. By ‘catching’ the moment and temporarily blocking ourselves from the outside world during the practice, we can rewire the brain into more rational thinking. Put ourselves above any experiences. Besides, the reported long-term benefits of relaxation practice include reduced levels of cortisol. This hormone can be overproduced, when we are exposed to stress chronically, leading to disruption of almost all our body’s processes. And the list of meditation benefits goes on. More recent studies looked at its effects on telomeres, which are DNA–protein structures found at both ends of each chromosome. They play role in protecting our genome from degradation and cellular death. Short telomeres are associated with an increased incidence of diseases due to ageing. What is promising, the scientists found that the practice of meditation positively correlates with the telomere length, which could help with preventing illnesses, like dementia.

Now that we know how beneficial meditation is, you might be wondering where to start. It might seem overwhelming to just sit on the floor with all your thoughts while listening to some YouTube videos. Like with any other exercise, one of the mind also requires practice. It doesn’t have to last long- give yourself just 5 or 10 minutes initially. Try making it your habit, for example by incorporating it into your morning routine, giving yourself the space to start a new day. Meditation doesn’t only reduce stress, but also speeds up the mental processes, allowing for increased productivity. By learning how to be present during meditation, you can also learn how to stay focused outside of it. So, when you have a task to do, you can bring your attention to the moment and forget about other worrying responsibilities.

[Zuzanna Bogusławska – she/her]

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