Meditation can be a great way of combating stress, and in fact changing the way in which we respond to stress. Relaxation is often a by-product of meditation, but it is not the objective. Therefore, it is not something you do when you are in a stressful moment, rather it is a ‘way of being’, which for best results is accumulative, and therefore daily practice is best.
There are many different styles of meditation; they can mostly be divided into ‘concentrative meditation’ and ‘mindfulness meditation’. The difference being, in concentrative meditation unemotional focus is brought to a single object (i.e. breath, or a mantra) in an attempt to ignore all other stimuli (thoughts about other things or looking at other people or things in the room for example).
In mindfulness meditation an attempt is made to broaden ones attention to all stimuli in a non-judgemental way, not getting caught up on any particular thing. Much of the research done into meditation has been done on mindfulness meditation.
The psychological and physiological benefits of meditation have been the focus of considerable research for the past thirty or so years. Findings have shown meditation has to be a highly effective intervention for cardiovascular disease, anxiety and panic disorders, chronic pain, substance abuse, dermatological disorders, and reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms in non-clinical populations.
This is a fantastic track record, however, if one were to look at the original intention of meditation it is targeted to aid development and training of the mind towards optimal states of joy, compassion, empathy, awareness, and insight with the ultimate intention of total liberation.
So what has science found in relation to these intentions?
Improvements in the functioning of the immune system or the reversal of immune suppression represent physiological foundations of health and wellbeing. Taking this into account studies on meditation have found increases of influenza antibodies, greater physiological rest (reduced respiration rate, plasma lactate levels, and increased skin resistance), higher alertness ie increased cerebral blood flow, greater power and coherence in the middle and frontal regions of the brain among other hightened brain effects (even though associated with physiological rest).
Meditation is said to increase left–to–right activation of the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is linked with positive emotions and mental health. Studies have been mostly carried out with pupils still in school, into meditations effects on memory and intelligence with positive results however, there is evidence that these improvements apply over a life span.