What’s up with meditation? My experience as a skeptic
For a long time, I associated meditation with religion or pseudoscience like crystal healing, and thus had an aversion to the practice. My preconceived notions about meditation in the West were that it was something people do out of naive bliss or escapism, and that it appropriated Buddhism in the same way as tasteless merchandise. Fortunately, I discovered how flawed my assumptions about meditation were, and that the practice—despite its theological associations—provided psychophysiological changes that would drastically improve my quality of life.
Meditation is a body-mind practice involving purposeful attention spent on a moment, state, or experience. There are many different types of meditation. My secular practices have been in Vipassanā and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—both include letting go of thoughts and judgement, focusing on the breath, and observing physical sensations. Although meditation is rooted in altering the experience of the self, researchers in the West have discovered numerous psychosomatic (involving both the bodily/physical and mental/psychological) benefits of the practice (1-21).
Before and after meditating
I’ve struggled with my mental health throughout my life. I used to dwell on bad experiences and anticipate failure. Negative patterns of thinking is symptomatic of depression and anxiety, for which I’ve been diagnosed.
My experience of reality was framed by my thoughts that I held as truth. I was on autopilot—I scurried from working and exercising to eating and engaging in recreational activities. Throughout and in between these events, I wallowed in all my emotions, and would get distracted while hardly realizing how distracted I was.
I felt immensely tense—not just from tricky social situations, but also from just being lost in pessimistic thoughts. Although I would have delightful moments, I also regularly overindulged during good times to compensate for dissatisfaction. But I figured this was all just part of life for someone in my circumstances.
But after time and major depressive episodes, different antidepressants, and therapy, I realized how debilitated and unstable I was. Therapy and medication have been extremely useful. However, in my anecdotal experience, it’s been meditation that has been most effective in alleviating my disordered behavior and negative thought patterns, while making me calmer.
I feel my experience is similar to the story of Dan Harris. Harris is a journalist who didn’t effectively manage his mental health until he suffered a panic attack on-air. After trying many methods, it was the science of meditation that led him to explore the practice.
Meditation is by no means a lifehack or one-size-fits-all solution to all woes,* but it’s an anchor. People who practice MBSR, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, have been found to have less prolonged emotional reactions to negative self-beliefs (1). Kabat-Zinn is a pioneer in incorporating meditation into clinical healthcare treatments, as he originally developed the MBSR program for chronic pain patients who weren’t responding well to medical treatments.
Another form of meditation, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), has been suggested to be more effective than medication in preventing depressive relapse for people who have experienced multiple depressive episodes (2-4). MBCT is based on MBSR and is incorporated with psychotherapy.
Meditation taught me how to be okay with not feeling exuberant all the time, and how to not fester in pessimism. A pressure to be constantly happy misguided me, and made the experience of normal emotions like sadness and fear unnecessarily distressing. It’s refreshing to just feel stable. I’m more grateful now, especially for meditation; through meditation practice I now react to the oscillation of emotions in a balanced way.
Science of meditation
Here’s a little neuroscience I dug up about meditation:
The amygdala, the paired almond shaped cluster of neurons in the brain, part of the limbic system, is associated with the emotional processing of positive and negative stimuli. It is involved with increasing emotional attention and significance to particular stimuli (1). So the more the amygdala activates in response to experiencing emotionally stimulating things—such a scary movie (negative stimuli)—the more physically and psychologically you’re affected.
Specifically, in people with social anxiety disorder, MBSR (particularly using breath focused meditation techniques) has shown to be helpful in reducing amygdala activation, decreasing anxiety and depressive feelings, while increasing self-esteem (5). Further research has found that people who meditate have less amygdala activation from negative stimuli—even when they’re not in a meditative state (1). This means that a committed meditation practice can improve everyday emotional processing by actually altering the activation of neuronal pathways in the brain (1, 6).
These emotional regulatory changes can be attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity — how the brain changes over a person’s lifetime. Just how you learn piano or how to ride a bicycle through practice, you retain skills through neuroplasticity by forging neuronal changes in the brain through the creation of new neuronal pathways (6).
The theory is that the less your amygdala over-activates in response to positive and negative things, the more emotionally regulated you are. Being emotionally regulated is a great thing—it means being able to effectively respond to a range provoking experiences, both positive and negative, with a healthy, rational outlook (7). Having emotional regulation can prevent you from becoming overwhelmed by feelings that can lead to harmful behavior, such as feeling excessive guilt, abusing substances, being avoidant or aggressive, or self-injury. Meditating is a powerful tool in becoming emotionally regulated.
Improved cognitive changes that comes with long-term meditation practice can include emotional regulation, improved attention, reduced anxiety, better adaptive responses to stress, less prolonged physical reactions to emotional stimuli, lowered blood pressure, and more (1-21).
Beginning slow with 10 minutes a day, and eventually increasing my time to up to an hour daily after an 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, helped me achieve equilibrium that is quite different from my once erratic, self-absorbed behavior. My progress led me to sign up for my first 10-day silent Vipassanā retreat this year. Long-term meditation practice has made me a compassionate and less emotionally/physically reactive individual, which—as neuroscientist Sam Harris emphasizes—is also better for those around me.
Considering my cycle: mindfulness, pain, and premenstrual symptoms
I can suffer from premenstrual magnification before my period—the exacerbation of symptoms of my illnesses. During this time, I sometimes feel a defeatist attitude become more pronounced, and have less energy. I’m also more self-aware—observing negative thoughts rather than attaching to them, which stops them from feeling valid and spiraling. Since I started meditating, I notice and counteract negative thought patterns earlier. That’s particularly helpful during the luteal phase (the second half of the menstrual cycle). Having less energy can make me sleepy during meditation, so sometimes leaving my eyes open for a bit during practice can help prevent me from falling asleep.
Dysmenorrhea (cramps) and back pain can be intense during my period. From MBSR, I also learned that anticipation and emotional response to expected pain can actually worsen the experience of physical pain (4, 8-10). People with high levels of stress in the preceding cycle are more than twice as likely to report painful menstruation, especially if they have a history of painful periods (11). So rather than getting carried away in thought about how much pain I’m in or will be in—which would aggravate the experience—I focus on the just raw, physical sensations and then take action to reduce that pain if necessary. MBSR is helpful in improving the experience and management of pain for people chronic pain/illnesses (8-10).
Research has found that women are more prone to infections during certain times of the cycle (12)—and preliminary research done by Clue’s Oxford University partner Dr. Alex Alvergne is further exploring the link between the cycle and immunity, STIs, and inflammation (13). Since immunity can change with the cycle, having a solid baseline immunity is especially important—and MSBR has also been found to improve immunity (14-16). One study found that compared to non-meditators, people who practice MBSR had an increased antibody production in response to a flu vaccine even four months after completing their 8 week meditation class (14). More research is needed here.
I don’t consider myself the embodiment of enlightenment or a pure stoic. But simply becoming comfortable being alone with a still mind—without the constant assault of distractions typical of Western society—has led me to be my best and healthier self, which has improved my relationship and friendships. As I was writing this article, my close friend testified that I’ve morphed into a levelheaded person, which she noticed has benefited my creativity.
If you’re still a mediation skeptic, try to put aside any negative associations you might hold. If you think you’ll just feel too ridiculous sitting alone in silence, that’s fine, but just give it a shot with an open mind. Just how you wouldn’t give up learning an instrument after a few attempts, meditation requires lots of practice before noticing benefits.
If you can, take a step back every day, shut down the discursive mind, and watch your breath. We’d be all the better for it.
Track your meditation, emotions, and cycle in Clue.
*When your experience of mood symptoms regularly impacts your well-being, it can be helpful to talk to your healthcare provider.