Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Meditation and emotion
What is the effect of meditation on emotion?
The world we live in today is not an easy one. It is fast-paced and filled with innumerable hassles, demands and worries. More often than not, this has negative effects on emotional wellbeing. You would be surprised how much changing your focus of attention can change the way you think, and in turn, feel. Meditation is one of the ways to do this. It may involve clearing the mind of worries and negative thoughts by focusing on something else. It can also involve being mindful of our internal and external environment, and acknowledging anything that is occurring in these, to be more accepting of the world in and around us. Either way, its aim is to bring about inner peace and tranquility to be able to deal with our everyday lives more efficiently and effectively. Originally used for spiritual enlightenment, its practice grew towards a focus on self-enhancement and stress reduction. Since the 1950s, meditation has become a powerful tool for these means, worldwide. In fact, regular meditation has been proven to have amazing benefits for emotional wellbeing. In this chapter, you will learn about meditation, how it affects you and your emotions, and how you can use this knowledge to improve your life or the life of someone you know!
What is meditation?
Meditation is a mental exercise that can be used for spiritual or mental means, and comes in a family of techniques (Reis, 2011). It is designed to enhance self-knowledge and wellbeing by achieving a deep state of tranquility (Reis, 2011). It's a form of consciousness alteration, in that it involves turning the attention of the mind ‘inward’, by focusing on such things as internal processes like breathing; a thought; a feeling; objects (real or imaginary); or words, like mantras, or phrases important to the individual. A certain family of meditation techniques employs this, and is done in an attempt to interrupt the typical flow of thoughts, worries and analysis that goes on in everyday life, by shifting focus on not dwelling on discursive, ruminating thoughts (Jyoti, 2010). The exercise emphasises focus and relaxation. It also helps to take control of the mind and thus, provides a focused state of mind which can deepen into a profoundly peaceful and energised state of mind. Other techniques on the other hand, are used to promote mindfulness-rather than focusing on a singular stimuli, the aim is to acknowledge all stimuli as it is occurring, including thoughts and feelings, without dwelling on them (Smith, 2005). It promotes peace and acceptance to live with what is inside and outside us, rather than what isn't (Jyoti, 2010). This technique has become a tool for personal growth and self-awareness. Meditation overall has become known to foster the development of emotional and even physical wellbeing, and reducing stress. It is a time-efficient and free (if you don't take classes) tool for uncovering the positive and catalysing internal potential for healing and development. Whether it is practiced alone or with a group, it is has been recognised and found that the more it is put to practice, the more benefits it provides (Smith, 2005).
Where it all began The origins of meditation go back to the 7th century, with its references found in ancient Indian scriptures called tantras, which mention meditation techniques like mantras and focusing on breathing (Bharati, 2008). Thus, it is believed that it first began in the sacred religious practices of Hinduism. Meditation made its way into East Asian countries such as China thereafter under the teachings of Buddha, a sage who became a major proponent of meditation—his teachings (now a religious practice known as Buddhism) were based on finding inner peace and spiritual awakening, by becoming aware with oneself through quiet contemplation and speculation (Bharati, 2008).
From East to West Meditation was introduced into Western world thousands of years later after its adaptation and spread in the East—where it took a turn from religious and spiritual growth, toward self-growth—through means of stress reduction, relaxation and self-knowledge and improvement (Bharati, 2008). This secular form of outlook on meditation emerged in the 1950s in India, and a decade later, it emerged into the Western cultures of the United States and countries in Europe (Waccholtz & Pargament, 2005). The world had experienced turbulent events like the World Wars and events of mass changes in capitalism, consumerism and development of technologies, which brought about alterations to peoples political, economic, cultural, moral and social values. The changes in these ethos generated increased stress and tension which lead people to seek ways to cope and reduce stress—one method was meditation. The Westernised or secular use of meditation hence stemmed out of a humanitarian concern to improve the lives adversely affected by social changes (Waccholtz & Pargament, 2005). The exploration of the effects of meditation began to take place, starting in the early 1970s and has since increased exponentially in all different fields such as medicine and psychology, and much has been learnt about its multitude of benefits (Jyoti, 2010; Waccholtz & Pargament, 2005; Bharati, 2008). Although people differ in their preference of use of meditation for either spiritual or religious growth and enlightenment, or for personal and health benefits, or for both, for the purpose of this chapter, the focus will be on the latter.
Despite the growing popularity of its usage and the numerous studies on the benefits of meditation towards emotional and mental wellbeing, there is a surprising lack of elaborate psychological theories that make sound predictions about what to expect if one engages in meditation. However, there are a few psychological constructs or theories that may well be relevant to exploring the effects of meditation on emotion and emotional well-being.
Self-regulation and biofeedback
In psychological jargon, meditation techniques are “self-regulation strategies” (Shapiro & Giber, 1978). Self-regulation strategies refer to the ways in which an individual is able to take control, direct and maintain the system of an activity— in order for it to operate at a satisfactory level. In saying this, when an individual is overly stressed, they have an unhealthy state of mind—therefore, they will self-regulate in order to alleviate this stress, to be able to function properly and healthily. At a physiological level, self-regulation through meditation is able to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for generating stress and tension (Tang et al., 2007). Instead, meditation allows for the increase of activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to regulate heart rate, breathing and other involuntary motor functions which is responsible for relaxation and calm (Tang et al., 2007). This essentially refers to what is known as biofeedback—a self-regulatory technique by which an individual acquires voluntary control over non-conscious biological processes. Today, stress is a major cause for concern in peoples health, creating a vast array of stress-related health problems (Shapiro & Giber, 1978). Meditation is a self-regulating strategy that has clear implications for a healthy state of mind, and thus, emotional wellbeing (Tang et al., 2007; Shapiro & Giber, 1978).
Since meditation is based heavily around consciousness, it makes sense to discuss mindfulness— it is an attribute of consciousness which refers to a mental state, achieved by focusing ones awareness on the present moment, by means of calmly acknowledging and accepting ones feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations (Ramesh, 2011). Being mindful allows for increased attention and reduced anxiety, due to the fact that it provides the disengagement of worrying about the past and the future—two things that people cannot exert control over, and hence, tend to cause a lot of stress (Batchelor, 2011; Reis, 2011; Ramesh, 2011). It therefore emphasises the improvement of awareness (focusing on what is known, instead of what isn’t). Stronger mindfulness has been found to be associated with greater self-regulation and more positive emotional states and emotional stability (Batchelor, 2011). Mindfulness allows one to become conscious of monitoring and understanding ones emotions, instead of ignoring them—this promotes self-awareness, and self-awareness is an important ingredient for experiencing positive emotions and thus, fosters emotional wellbeing (Batchelor, 2011; Reis, 2011; Ramesh, 2011). The concept itself takes on to be a type of meditation, adopted due to its mental frame, and is distinctly known as 'mindfulness meditation' (Batchelor, 2011).
The different effects of meditation on emotion, including practical applications
It is not often that people like to feel lonely, but sometimes due to stress or anxiety, social isolation can come about, and this has negative effects on an individual, mentally and physically. A study on the importance of social connection for conferring mental and physical health benefits, utilised a loving-kindness meditation exercise to see whether social connection could be generated towards strangers (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2008). It revealed that even just a few minutes of the exercise increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals on both implicit and explicit levels. Through these results, it is suggested that this easily implemented technique may help to increase and bring about positive social emotions, like friendliness and contentment, and decrease social isolation which causes loneliness and depression (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2008). However, it is important to note that there is a limitation in this finding in that strangers were approached in a laboratory setting, which might yield different results outside of the laboratory context.
Effects of meditation on emotional regulation
Research has revealed that meditation has been shown to reduce activation of the amygdala, a complex brain structure associated with emotional regulation and memory. Desbordes and colleagues (2012) recently investigated how 8 weeks of training in either mindfulness meditation or compassion meditation affected amygdala responses to emotional stimuli in participants in a non-meditative state. After 8 weeks of meditation, participants were required to view either positive, negative or neutral emotional images, whilst undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Those within the mindfulness group experienced decreased activation in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. Those in the compassion meditation group experienced a decrease in response to positive or neutral images, but an increase in response to negative images of human suffering. This suggests that these two forms of meditation enhance different aspects of the mind, with compassion meditation enhancing feelings of empathy. For the sake of this chapter, it is important to note that feelings of empathy are integral to understanding the people around us—something that can enhance your life.
Effects of different types of meditation on emotion
The family of techniques of meditation include styles such as Vipsana meditation, Zen meditation and compassion meditation, to name a few. For the sake of simplicity, these family of techniques have been divided into two categories (Goleman, 1972): mindfulness meditation and concentrative meditation. Although mindfulness meditation was mentioned above for emotional regulation, research has shown numerous other effects. But firstly, what is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness Meditation As the name suggests, it utilises the mental construct of mindfulness. It is aimed at paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of stimuli both internally and externally, without getting caught up (ruminating on) them (Holzel et al., 2011). It widens attention to embrace a total, nonjudemnetal awareness of the world as it arises and as it is, rather than what it could or should be (Goldin & Gross, 2010). Instead of struggling to get away from experiences we find difficult, it teaches us to practice being able to be with them. A study conducted by Muller and Santorelli (2003), similar to the one aforementioned also used mindfulness-based meditation on participants who practiced the exercise for 8 weeks. However when using fMRI, this study found that mindful meditation produced significant increases in left-side anterior brain activity. Studies have shown that individuals with more left-sided activation tend to be more approach and reward oriented, displaying emotionally positive states (Muller & Santorelli, 2003). Conversely, most of the control group showed more right-sided activation. Individuals with this tend to be withdrawn and avoidant, exhibiting negative emotions such as anxiety and anger, as well as depression (Muller & Santorelli, 2003). Thus, due to this finding, researchers delved into studying its effects on negative mental states. In fact, studies have revealed observable, positive impacts on individuals suffering stress or anxiety-related illnesses or disorders (Smith, 2005). It has been used to treat such disorders as OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) (Niemann, Grossman, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004); major depressive disorders (Carmody, 2009), bipolar disorder (Chambers, Gullone, & Allen, 2009; Carmody, 2009); eating disorders; and sleep disorders like insomnia (Goldin & Gross, 2010). This suggests that this meditation technique can help to alleviate the symptoms of these disorders which are emotionally debilitating to individuals. It is believed that it is due to its trait of seeing things as they are and acknowledging them, makes one become more accepting of the situation (eg., depression)- which allows one to effectively deal with and accept it, instead of loathing it and suppressing it, that opens up the opportunity for positive change in these mental and emotional illnesses; and thus, fosters emotional wellbeing (Smith, 2005). Chances are, you or someone you know, suffers from these anxiety-related disorders. Meditation is both a free (if you don't take classes) and time-efficient alternative to medicine and psychotherapy or counselling (Batchelor, 2011). Furthermore, this type of meditation promotes positive emotional states in that they foster enlightenment and self-knowledge by helping one see familiar thing in new ways (Goldin & Gross, 2010). This can be an extension of explanation on its effectiveness in treating mental illness.
Concentration meditation Unlike mindfulness meditation, concentration meditation, as the names suggests, aims to get the practitioner to focus on a singular stimulus; such as breath. It is done in order to shift attention away from, and discourage, discursive negative thoughts and emotions (Shapiro, 1980). The state is free from greed and hatred, for instance. As such, it effects emotions in that it employs harm-avoidance (Valentine & Sweet, 1999). This type of meditation employs a self-regulatory process in which certain things are inhibited (Shapiro, 1980). It doesn't have as many effects on emotion compared to mindfulness meditation (Muller & Santorelli, 2003; Valentine & Sweet, 1999; Prakash, 2011). However, research has shown that it generates feelings of peace and contentment (Shapiro, 1980; Tang et al., 2007; Valentine & Sweet, 1999). Other research has shown that regular practitioners of concentration meditation having practised for years, develop a remarkable ability to concentrate on a stimuli of focus. This is due to the fact that it actually brings about positive changes in the brain regions associated with this activity (Prakash et al., 2011). To test this hypothesis, the researchers (Prakash et al., 2011) recruited two groups of participants; twenty individuals with extensive meditation experience and 15 control individuals with no meditation experience. All the participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to provide measures of the thickness of relevant areas of cortex. As the researchers had predicted, these scans revealed that the meditation groups had thicker cortex in areas of auditory and somatosensory cortex. The researchers carried out further analyses that indicated that those individuals who had the most meditation experience also had the greatest extra thickness in relevant areas of cortex. These areas play key roles in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness (Prakash et al., 2011). As people grow older, they typically lose cortical thickness, and thus, their abilities in these things deteriorate. Based on their findings, the researchers speculated that this type of meditation could help slow this natural loss of neurons, which can promote excellent benefits in these areas over the time of the individual, in that they may maintain a steady ability in these things without them deteriorating like in the average brain-which can provide a huge contribution to emotional wellbeing (Prakash et al., 2011 ). Further research is needed, however, in order to support this fully. This recent research suggests that meditation might also literally be good for your brain. The health of the brain is important overall, and in this case, as it stores chemicals known as neurotransmitters that can generate positive emotions, like serotonin for instance- a contributor to feelings of wellbeing and happiness (Newberg & Iversen, 2003). In fact, research studies have shown that this type of meditation, as well as mindfulness meditation, can effectively increase serotonin levels naturally. Additionally, there is an increase in the body's levels of GABA, endorphins and melatonin, which are other important mood-enhancing neurotransmitters (Newberg & Iversen, 2003).
The 'Relaxation Response' in meditation and its effect on negative emotions (stress)
People are adapted to particular environments, whether at work, home, school or anywhere; however, the environment in which the individual finds themselves is rarely static, and may exhibit changes daily—work may be calm one second, and a chaotic environment filled with tension and hard work the next; at school you can be achieving the best grades, only to be suddenly stricken with personal problems that impede on your ability to do well. These things cause hassles, deadlines (pressure), frustrations and demands which all trigger stress. Stress is an enormous part of todays fast-paced living. It strips the self of a good quality of life, healthy relationships, productivity and damages physical health—all of these can damage emotional wellbeing (Davidson, 2001). To reduce stress and promote emotional wellbeing, meditation has become one of the most prominent strategies for doing so (Davidson, 2001). Research has been conducted on meditation that shows it is a useful and practical technique for managing stress. The key research on meditation and stress reduction was carried out by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University, who proposed a technique he calls the ‘Relaxation Response’, which psychologists keep in mind in their studies (Hernandez & Harhammar, 2013; Davidson, 2001 ). Benson believes it is the heart of meditation. The technique creates a condition in which muscle tension, cortical activity, heart rate and blood pressure all decrease, and breathing slows (Benson & Stuart, 1992; Hernandez & Harhammar, 2013). There is reduced electrical activity in the brain, and input to the central nervous system from the outside environment is lowered- in this low level of arousal, recuperation from stress can take place (Benson & Stuart, 1992). The relaxation response is essentially an innate pattern that opposes the body’s fight-or-flight mechanisms (Hernandez & Harhammar, 2013). Studies involving training on the relaxation response have shown that participants experience a remarkable reduction in stress levels and thus more positive emotional states (Benson & Stuart, 1992; Hernandez & Harhammar, 2013), through its physical benefits like lowered blood pressure and relaxed muscles (Hernandez & Harhammar, 2013), as well as improved immune system activity (Davidson, 2001). It is important to note that when you are sick, it may cause further stress, so this last benefit may foster emotional wellbeing as it lowers your chances of getting sick!
These conditions are regarded as necessary to produce the Relaxation Response (Coon & Mitterer, 2010):
1) A quiet environment
2) Closed eyes
3) A comfortable position
4) Deeply relaxing all your muscles as much as possible, beginning at the muscles at your feet and progressing up to your face
5) Breathing through your nose
6) Becoming aware of your breathing
7) Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace
8) Keeping a good, straight posture
9) A repetitive mental device such as the chanting of a brief word or phrase (mantra), like 'om' over and over again silently to yourself or out loud, smoothly
10) Don’t be surprised by distracting thoughts, simply ignore them when they emerge and just repeat your phrase or mantra
In this chapter of Motivation and Emotion: Improve your Life, we have learnt about meditation and the positive effects it has on emotions, which can ultimately help you improve your life, or the life of someone you know. Now that you know it's benefits, it is your chance to decide if you want to practise meditation even if it is for a few minutes in your daily, busy schedule. Undue stress in our hustling, bustling lives can take its toll on the body not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Meditation is an alternate to medicines and expensive bills from seeing a doctor or counsellor. What have you got to lose? Meditate today!
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