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The Neuroscience Behind Meditation: The Therapeutic Potential for Stress-Related Disorders

Updated: May 1

Author: Michel di Ponzio - Master's in Cognitive Neuroscience and Clinical Neuropsychology - Researcher

In a world filled with the demands of modern life, the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle remains a universal aspiration. Stress, a prevalent trigger for various neuropsychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety (Sanacora et al., 2022), compromises both the nervous system and the immune system (McEwan, 2013). Although conventional treatments like antidepressants and anxiolytics exist, their long-term side effects warrant alternative approaches (Bet et al., 2013). Nonpharmacological interventions, such as meditation and yoga, have emerged as promising solutions, offering efficient relief without the detrimental aftermath (Balasubramaniam et al., 2013; Kumar et al., 2022).

The mechanisms behind meditation's calming effects lie in psychoneuroimmunology, a field that explores the intricate connections between the mind, physical health, and self-healing (Magan & Yadav, 2022). This concept suggests that negative emotional states can make individuals more susceptible to illnesses, a phenomenon mediated by the interactions of the nervous system with behavior and the immune response (Ader & Cohen, 1995).

Meditation has proven effective in treating anxiety and mood problems in patients with depression and anxiety disorders (Hofmann et al., 2010). Recent studies indicate that meditation can dynamically recalibrate the balance between mind and body by modulating the psychoneuroimmunological effects of stress (Magan & Yadav, 2022). Stress alters the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenocortical axis function, leading to heightened levels of cortisol (Smith & Vale, 2006). Cortisol crosses the blood-brain barrier, changing the brain's architecture and thus modifying the thinking, cognition, and emotional processes of the stressed individual (Dedovic et al., 2009). However, yoga and meditation reverse the effects of stress by decreasing cortisol levels, increasing blood flow within the brain, inducing neurogenesis and synaptogenesis, and thereby increasing neural plasticity (Aggarwal, 2020; Xiong & Doraiswamy, 2009).

Recent advancements in neuroscience tools, such as EEG signal processing, provide insights into the neurological impact of yoga and meditation. Brainwave analyses reveal that these practices induce positive alterations in brainwave patterns. Breathing exercises like Bhramari pranayama and Ujjayi breathing have been associated with changes in gamma, alpha, and beta wave activities (Kaushik et al., 2020). Other practices like Yoga Nidra and various meditation techniques have led to alpha and theta wave dominance in the brain, contributing to mental relaxation (Kaushik et al., 2020). Distinct meditation practices also yield specific neurological outcomes. Transcendental Meditation (TM) is linked to increased frontal theta and alpha activity, while Zen meditation influences frontal theta and alpha power (Chiesa & Serretti, 2010). Specifically, TM alleviated symptoms in anxiety-related disorders by increasing theta activity (Tomljenovic et al., 2016). Mindfulness meditation activates the left anterior brain region, and breathing meditation induces alpha wave increases (Chiesa & Serretti, 2010). The effectiveness of these practices is evident in their impact on brainwave patterns and subsequent reductions in anxiety and stress. In depression, mindfulness meditation acts by increasing right-frontal alpha activity, i.e., a neural pattern indicative of elevated approach motivation, suggesting an enhanced motivation to seek and obtain rewarding stimuli and environments (Keune et al., 2013). When practiced together, yoga and meditation synergize their effects. Sudarshan Kriya yoga and Sahaja Samadhi Meditation, for instance, enhance frontal theta activity and theta coherence, leading to improved overall health, sleep patterns, and psychological well-being (Baijal & Srinivasan, 2010).

Meditation practice shapes the brain's structure and function, enhancing emotional regulation, attentional control, sensory processing, and overall well-being. As our scientific understanding expands, meditation is increasingly recognized not merely as a philosophical concept but as a tangible tool for nurturing mental health in our fast-paced world. These insights represent merely the opening chapter of a larger narrative. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that meditation practice also affects brain areas linked to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotional regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self, with potential impacts on a variety of brain disorders.


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