Well-being is not a sprint, but a marathon.
A crash diet might let you squeeze into a tight dress for an important event, but it won’t help you develop healthy eating patterns in the long term. One early night after three nights of partying won’t give your body the proper rest and repair time it needs.
Healthy habits take time to form, but if you can stick to them, the payoff is huge! When it comes to meditation, sure, even after just a few sessions, you may feel a greater sense of calm or serenity. But if you persevere and make it a regular daily habit, you’ll find it offers lots of long-term benefits. Why? Because meditation practices train your brain to build and strengthen neural pathways that can have a real impact on many aspects of your health and wellbeing.
So what does science say about the long-term effects of meditation? And what cadence of meditation is necessary to actually see those benefits?
In this guide, we share twelve different ways that meditation may affect the brain and create long-term mental, emotional and physical benefits.
What Are Some Long-Term Benefits of Meditation?
Stillness and energy that comforts you like a loving embrace — this is the way that some people describe the immediate sensations of meditative practice.
Beyond that instant feeling of relaxation, meditation also has long-term benefits. Over days, weeks, months or even years of regular meditation practice, the calm physiological state that meditation evokes has sustained benefits on your brain’s health and activity. Here are a dozen ways that meditation can have a positive impact on the brain in the long term, if you choose to stick to it.
#1: Increases Attention Span and Concentration
Millions of Americans — both children and adults — have been diagnosed with ADHD. But plenty of people without this diagnosis also find their minds wandering from time to time.
Think of meditation as a mental workout for your attention span.
Mindful meditation involves bringing attention back to your breath every time you feel your mind wandering. In this way, you are helping strengthen the brain’s wiring for focus, and retraining your brain to concentrate better on the task at hand. Studies have shown meditation to have several different long-term effects on attention and concentration, including increased focused attention, improved attention span and improved accuracy in completing tasks.
#2: Decreases Anxiety
40 million adults suffer from anxiety every year. Anxiety can manifest in many ways: insomnia, panic attacks, inability to concentrate, feeling short of breath, chest tightness and pain, or just an overall feeling of discontentment or malaise.
There are many different ways to help combat anxiety — meditation being one of them.
Slowing your breathing and your mind during meditation can help push out worrisome thoughts and restore your sense of calm and inner peace. As you do this repeatedly over time, you are training your brain to return to a more relaxed and balanced state when anxiety creeps in.
Studies show that meditation can help regulate stress responses in the body and reduce episodes of stress.
#3: Reduces Depression
Depression is more than just feeling “down in the dumps.” It can be incredibly debilitating, affecting one’s ability to function properly or feel any sense of joy. Not surprisingly, this can lead to a host of physical symptoms and ailments too. Practicing mindfulness and meditation has been shown to help reduce depression. In fact, studies show it may be as effective as antidepressants in controlling depression for some people. How?
Over time, meditation can change the medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala regions of the brain, which both play an integral role in depression. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is responsible for helping you process information about yourself, while the amygdala controls your body’s “fight or flight” response. Meditation trains the brain to become calm and focused, which can help those experiencing depression to detach themselves from negative thoughts and feelings. It also dampens the primitive stress response of the amygdala. With meditation practice, you can help stop the mPFC and amygdala from feeding off each other and prevent the brain from ‘spiraling’ into a depression state.
#4: Increases Gray Matter in the Brain
For most people, the frontal cortex — the area of the brain associated with decision-making and working memory — begins to shrink with age. It turns out that meditation may help you beat the clock. A study has shown that 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of frontal cortex as people half their age.
How much time must you spend meditating to increase your gray matter density? Should you channel your inner Buddha and sit in deep meditation for days? Actually, no!
One study found that those who practiced mindfulness meditation for just 30 minutes a day over eight weeks had an increase in gray matter density in the areas of their brain responsible for stress management, sense of self, empathy, and memory.
#5: Increases White Matter in the Brain
White matter in the brain is responsible for helping you think quickly, and stay physically balanced and upright. Myelin, the insulating layer of the white matter, can break down with the disease, age, or prolonged stress, so the signals allowing you to do these things have a harder time getting through.
Meditation has been shown to help increase white matter in the brain. And when white matter increases, your brain develops stronger, healthier neural pathways of communication between the different areas.
We don’t promise that meditation will make you the next chess champion or allow you to walk perfectly on a tightrope. However, with long-term meditation practice, you may benefit from an increase in white matter that enhances your sense of balance and clarity. These can make a significant difference to your daily functioning and productivity.
#6: Increases Gamma Brain Waves
Have you ever had a “lightbulb moment”? You can thank gamma waves for that! Gamma waves are the fastest and strongest frequencies in your brain, designed to help you process information. When you solve a problem, have a powerful realization, or are very alert, this is the moment when gamma waves kick into gear.
One particular study measured the brainwaves of advanced meditators and observed higher-than-normal levels of gamma waves. This led to the determination that with long-term practice, meditation can indeed increase gamma waves in the brain. And that’s great news because studies have shown that people who produce higher levels of gamma waves tend to be happier, more receptive, and able to concentrate better.
#7: Improves Sleep
You wake up at three in the morning. Again. Dreaded insomnia strikes back.
70 million people in the US experience insomnia every year. There is no easy cure. The pharmaceutical industry promises a magic pill, but sleeping medications are highly addictive, and won’t give you the quality of sleep that comes with naturally falling asleep.
Meditation is not a magic pill, and it has been proven to be a powerful tool in the treatment of insomnia — with no side effects or risks! That’s because long-term meditation practice trains the mind to trigger a powerful relaxation response, which is particularly conducive to sleep.
For people who are stressed, depressed, or anxious, the brain remains overactive at night, making it harder or even impossible to fall asleep. When this happens repeatedly, bedtime becomes associated with anxiety about not being able to fall asleep, and the cycle continues.
Meditation can bring about a state of acceptance and awareness that reduces psychological stress. Mindfulness practice is known to improve sleep quality by giving people the tools they need to calm the nervous system, get out of the fear loop, and prepare properly for rest.
#8: Speeds Stress Recovery
You feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, you’re on high alert, maybe even a little frantic. While the feelings are unpleasant, these are very common human responses to the everyday stress of life.
Yet even after those anxious moments pass, you may be left feeling rundown, exhausted, and wondering how you’ll cope. Your cortisol levels are through the roof. This is when the natural stress response has gotten out of hand. This is all too common as well.
Over time, meditation can train you to “calm the storm” of anxiety. One study determined that people who have a history of practicing meditation bounce back from stress much quicker. In the experiment, not only did long-term meditators have a faster cortisol recovery after completing a stressful task than the control group, but they also reported feeling less self-conscious and judgemental. Sounds soothing? Start meditating!
#9: Calms “Monkey Mind”
Imagine a monkey in the jungle, flinging wildly from branch to branch in search of food or fleeing from predators. Always on the go!
Now imagine your mind swinging like a monkey from thought to thought, jumping to conclusions that lead to anxiety or frustration. This is the state known as “monkey mind”.
Being in monkey-mind mode can stifle your creativity and keep you from trying new things you may be passionate about. It gears up your body to go into “fight or flight” mode even if you’re simply sitting in front of the TV. Mindfulness meditation is a way to confront and tame your monkey mind, and to free yourself from frantic thoughts and overly active emotions that can hold you back from realizing inner peace and your true self.
#10: Aids in Addiction Recovery
Addiction is serious business. It kills thousands of Americans each year — and impacts millions. Even if you have just a mild addiction, you’ll understand the importance of a healthy coping mechanism to lean on when cravings return.
While it may not work for everyone, studies are underway that indicate meditation can be effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction, due to its effects on the regions of the brain governing impulse and self-control. By practicing meditation, you can train the mind to observe and experience cravings in a more detached way, without fear. This can help reduce the power of the craving and lessen addiction over time.
#11: Enhances Creativity
Do you find yourself longing to be more creative? Could negative thoughts or self-doubt be blocking your innate creativity?
A study conducted in 2012 by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato noted that one particular style of meditation could enhance creativity in participants. Open-monitoring meditation — being aware of things happening in the present moment and keeping attention unrestricted and flexible — was found to stimulate divergent thinking in participants. Divergent thinking is known to be a key element of creativity.
This was followed up a couple of years later by psychologist Matthijs Baas who conducted a series of studies in this area. He looked at the importance of specific mindfulness skills in the creative process and found that high levels of observation were the only consistent predictor of creativity. Observation is enhanced by open-monitoring meditation and can help improve working memory, increase cognitive ability, and reduce cognitive rigidity, which is essential to the creative process.
#12: Improves Memory
Meditation may help some people fight off the memory loss that naturally comes with age and stress. One review found that multiple meditation styles increased attention span, memory, and mental agility in older volunteers.
Another study discovered that meditation at least partially enhanced memory in dementia patients. This may be because of improvements in clarity of thinking and attention that meditation brings about.
There is no need to wait — the younger you start meditating, the more positive long-term effects it will have on your memory performance as you become older.
Start Your Journey to Wellness With Meditation
There are so many long-term effects of meditation on the brain, and they are all excellent reasons to add meditation to your daily routine. Every individual is different, with varying physiological makeup and stress responses. Naturally, everyone will experience the effects of meditation differently too. Even gaining just one or two of the ongoing benefits can make the daily investment in regular meditation practice worth it.
If you are feeling skeptical about your own personal journey with meditation, stick to the course. Over time, you’ll learn more about yourself and how to adapt your meditation routine to your needs and personal growth, and you’ll start experiencing a sense of enhanced wellbeing, calm, and joy that you never imagined you would.