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What is meditation?

We’re often told of the benefits of meditation are:

  • reduces stress, anxiety and depression;
  • improves concentration, learning and memory;
  • helps find emotional balance;
  • increases the ability to handle new situations or information; and
  • allows more compassionate and empathy toward others.

Sadhbh Joyce, Senior Psychologist and PhD Candidate at the Black Dog Institute, says at its core, meditation is an acute attention skill. “While there are many forms of meditation, all provide for an interplay with the inner world of thoughts and feelings. Commonly, meditation seeks to bring focused attention to the present moment with self-compassion and without judgement.”

Mindfulness meditation has particularly gained widespread popularity in recent years which is due in large part to the growing body of research which is demonstrating its benefits in workplace, educational and sporting arenas. “Mindfulness meditation often takes just a few minutes and the wide availability of apps providing guided mindfulness is making the practice far more accessible,” says Ms Joyce.

Mindfulness meditation can have a number of different focuses. “Within our online resilience training program RAW Mind Coach, we provide a range of guide mindfulness exercises to help with various things such as relieving physical tension, managing challenging thoughts, traversing difficult decisions, reflecting on values, developing self-compassion and aiding in relaxation and sleep.”

Can meditation help alleviate mental health conditions?

Meditation is a well-established way to help manage common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. “When guided by those with appropriate psychological training, meditation can help people to interact in a more helpful manner with difficult thoughts and feelings,” says Ms Joyce.

“Many people choose to incorporate meditation as part of an overall strategy for managing their mental health. While drug therapies certainly have their place, some commonly prescribed medications can have side effects, issues with long-term use and limited effectiveness when treating those with mild to moderate conditions.

“A good long-term strategy can involve a regular meditation practice, making use of psychological therapy (i.e. Medicare rebated sessions with a qualified Psychologist) and paying attention to sleep quality, diet and exercise.”

Physiological effects of meditation

There are numerous physiological benefits from practising meditation. “Meditation can bring the brain into a restful, restorative state. During meditation, levels of the stress chemical cortisone can drop, and individuals may experience other physiological changes such as reduced blood pressure,” said Ms Joyce.

“Those who regularly practise meditation may experience a wide range of benefits, from stress reduction, to improved attention and pain relief. Meditation can also allow us to develop meta-awareness, so that we recognise when we are getting caught up in difficult thoughts and emotions. This can help us to respond in a less reactive way to stressful events.”

What happens to the brain during meditation? 

Recent findings have shown that meditation can also affect how the brain functions, developing neural pathways and building grey matter. “Unsurprisingly, we use different parts of the brain and think in different ways when meditating, compared to when we are busily multi-tasking,” says Ms Joyce.

“When freed from the task of processing so much external stimuli, the brain has the opportunity to focus its resources differently. For this reason, meditation can often lead to us to experience greater creativity. Meditation allows us to take advantage of our brains’ neuroplasticity and effectively rewire it to enhance things such as concentration, focus and memory.”

To try a mindfulness meditation, check out Black Dog Institute’s playlist of guided meditations here

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PIR is a Federally funded program. Other consortia members include Gold Coast Health and Mental Health Association QLD