Anxiety isn’t just a bad feeling. Anxiety changes the structure and function of your brain. Chronic anxiety decreases the size of your hippocampus, which is an area of your brain that stores memories and helps you deal with stress. This powerful emotion also changes the size of your amygdala, which is the area of your brain responsible for the fear response. This double whammy causes you to be even more anxious and fearful. Stress, fear, and anxiety cause the release of chemicals in your brain that lower levels of essential neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. These changes are what cause you to feel anxious.
Meditation can help solve this problem.
How Meditation Changes Your Brain
As we have discussed in detail in our free video course on meditation, it has been known for millennia that meditation promotes clarity of mind and relaxation. It turns out that it does even more! The clarity brought about by meditation, just like the emotions of anxiety and stress, can change the structure and function of your brain. The good news is that, unlike anxiety and stress, the changes promoted by meditation are positive and productive!
Meditating regularly will not only reduce the symptoms of anxiety, it will also reverse the negative consequences in our brains caused by excessive levels anxiety. With cutting-edge neuroimaging technology, these brain changes can be tracked and measured. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University examined over 18,000 mindfulness meditation references to determine its most effective uses. They ended up including 47 studies that involved nearly 4000 participants. The researchers concluded that the primary proven value for meditation was anxiety relief.
Additional studies have shown that meditation can help with mental disorders of all kinds including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, binge eating disorder, bipolar disorder, and addictions (references 1– 2– 3– 4– 5).
Let’s dig into some of the incredible ways meditation improves your brain and mental well-being.
Meditation Can Stop Anxious Thought Patterns
One of the main ways that meditation can benefit people with anxiety is by altering their habit of focusing on negative thoughts. Anxiety promotes a nasty cycle of uneasiness, which supports more feelings of worry and stress. Breaking this mental loop is an area where meditation can benefit anxious people. Meditation can reduce excessive habitual worry, even in those with lifelong mood disorders (reference: 6). Regular meditation practice reduces the impulse to worry and enhances your control over random, undesirable thoughts (reference: 7– 8). Meditation can also alter the way your brain responds to stress (reference: 9).
What is a habit? A habit is a strong neural pathway that is created through constant repetition. The way that we talk to ourselves is a habit, and it can either bring us up, or it can bring us down. Few habits are more difficult to alter than negative patterns of self-talk. The good news is that our brains have an incredible capacity to change and develop new connections, this ability is called neuroplasticity.
Meditation allows you to view your thoughts in a new way. Through the practice of meditation, you learn to recognize and stop worrying about the future, while also thinking less about the past. This is what it means to let go and live in the now. When you create a new thought pattern/habit, you can teach your brain to be less anxious and focus on the things you want in life (reference: 10).
Meditation Balances the Chemicals in Your Brain
We don’t know exactly what causes anxiety on a biochemical basis, but we have a few clues. Risk factors include things like your personality, past emotional trauma, it can even include your genetic history. There’s also strong support showing that anxiety can be caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals/neurotransmitters brought about by severe or prolonged stress (reference: 11).
A consistent meditation practice can help re-establish an ideal balance in brain neurotransmitters.
Meditation amplifies the level of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in our bodies. GABA is a crucial neurotransmitter for feeling happy and relaxed. Feeling anxious, easily overstimulated, and overwhelmed may be signs that you are low in GABA (reference: 12). Meditation can elevate your mood by increasing levels of serotonin, another neurotransmitter vital to focus and satisfaction (reference:13). Finally, meditation can lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that, in excess, significantly contributes to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and memory loss (reference: 14).
Meditation Builds a Robust Brain
As we discuss in detail during our free video course, regular meditators have been shown to have measurable increases in their amount of gray matter, the volume of their hippocampus, and an increased density of their cortex (reference: 15– 16). Their amygdala, the area of our brains that is related to fear, anxiety and stress, decreases and becomes less reactive (reference: 17– 18).
Meditation also increases blood flow to the brain. This increase in nutrition and other vital factors improves neural connections between various areas of the brain, thus increasing neuroplasticity (reference: 19– 20– 21).
Meditation cools inflammation in your brain
Cytokines are chemical messengers that moderate your immune response. Increased cytokine levels are directly associated with chronic inflammation, including inflammation of the brain. Inflammation in the brain is associated with a variety of mental health issues, including, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders (reference: 24). A regular meditation practice reduces cytokine activity (reference: 25).
Meditation Can Relieve Anxiety
Now that you know some of the details behind how meditation works to reduce inflammation in the brain, and that it decreases our body’s response to fear, it’s easy to see how a regular meditation practice can reduce anxiety. In fact, research has found that meditation is especially helpful for anxiety (reference: 26).
Until next time!