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Meditation Research

Mind and Meditation for Stress, Pain, Sleep, Memory, Time Management, Productivity, Happiness, and More

By Katrina Luise Everhart

Meditation, practiced for thousands of years, is still considered new in the US and by most Western medicine practitioners around the world. Yet, more than ten million people practice meditation in the US (Haijtema, 2011). Naysayers wanting to discredit the effects of meditation conducted scientific studies only to prove that meditation has positive results, statistically significant positive results. Meditation helps stressed folks sleep, older folks with memory, workers increase productivity, and folks reduce pain and their use of pain medication, whether they have fibromyalgia or cancer.

The mind and the brain are often used interchangeably. Yet, the brain is an organ, while the mind is how we think. It relates to our body, other people, and our environment. Massachusetts General Hospital surprisingly noted that regular meditation causes the cerebral cortex to thicken. The Cortex is the area of the brain that is responsible for higher mental functions. Brain scans of monks who meditate demonstrate that the gray matter of their brains is more than double the size of folks who do not meditate. Why should we care? Often the larger our cortex is, people are able to learn more, have different levels of awareness, have better memory, and some indicate that they are able to manage or control disease.

Like a runner, tennis professional, or Olympian doing drills of some kind, meditation trains our mind. Meditation allows our brain to create new pathways for efficiency. Meditation allows our brain to repair itself. So, like a band aid that protects a wound, meditation protects our brains from the everyday effects of internal or external stress and damage.

Brain Waves – Memory, Recall, Happiness, Depression, & Pain

There are beta, theta, alpha, delta, and gamma brain waves. Beta brain waves occur when we are awake. Most of us when we are thinking are in a beta state. Alpha brain waves occur when we are relaxed. Alpha states help us become creative and learn. Alpha brain waves are believed to help us heal. If we never relax, the stress hormone never goes down and our ability to learn and be creative diminishes. Theta brain waves occur when we are asleep, sometimes often known as REM or dream sleep. Theta waves allow us to learn, heal, and grow. Delta waves also occur during sleep or are unconscious. Gamma waves occur when we are hyper-alert and perceptive to our surroundings and information.

One of the changes that meditation can create over time is the emission of more gamma brain waves. Gamma brain waves allow the brain to link or connect information in various locations. That means high gamma-wave activity benefits or increases intelligence, self-control, natural optimistic attitude, and increases compassion. Connections mean we have better memory, more memory capacity, and a higher level to perceive connections between and among systems.

This is particularly helpful for entrepreneurs and anyone who is responsible for product or service delivery, customer service, and/or satisfaction. There is another benefit of gamma brain waves – better recall. If you have ever had trouble remembering a list, a name, a place name, or why you went into a room, meditation can help you.

Finally, people with increased gamma waves are less likely to be depressed. In self-reporting surveys, folks report they are more likely to feel they have a fulfilling life. And, there is evidence that meditation also decreases pain by changing the brain waves. Zeidan (2011) noted that four, 20-minute sessions in mindfulness meditation, can reduce pain intensity and the unpleasantness folks felt when subjected to painful stimulus.

Meditation and Stress

Stress increases the levels of cortisol in our bodies. Constant stress over time increases the levels of cortisol, which increases our likelihood of gaining weight, feeling sluggish, fatigued, tired, and unhappy. To combat these items we often turn to food, whether fast food which has high calorie and fat contents, or comfort foods which often lead us to overeat.

Cortisol is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands. It helps us regulate blood pressure, heart, and it helps us use fats, proteins, glucose, increases insulin release for blood sugar maintenance, and increases inflammatory responses … or that swelling that occurs in various parts of our bodies which is not there when we are not stressed. Generally, we have higher cortisol levels in the morning; lower levels in the evening, naturally. By drinking coffee in the morning, we actually increase cortisol in our bodies, above the normally higher levels.

High levels of cortisol tell the body to hold onto fat. High levels also increase blood pressure, suppress thyroid function, impair our cognitive abilities such as thinking, and impair our recall ability. Consistent high levels of cortisol over time can create blood sugar imbalances which can increase the likelihood of diabetes. Over time, high stress and increased levels of cortisol decreases bone density and our body’s ability to heal. That means wounds may stay around longer for someone who has high levels of stress than for someone with normal cortisol levels. Folks with high levels of stress are also more likely to get colds, the flu, and various other diseases because their immune system is depressed.

High blood pressure is generally a common negative side effect of stress and high cortisol levels for everyone. And, many folks have proposed that various activities beyond meditation, work. For example, going to church is often recommended to reduce stress. Yet, Heinrich, Shoham, Dugas, Kittle, Kurtz, (2011) at Loyola Medicine, note that contrary to earlier studies, religious activity does not help protect against high blood pressure! Meditation does lower blood pressure and thus cortisol levels, which reduce the negative effects.

Meditation and Sleep

Once we reduce stress and the negative effects of cortisol, we are able to sleep better. Besides calming the mind, meditation helps individuals deal with various sleep disorders. Specifically, meditation helps you focus on the present. While we all have 1,000 thoughts per second, meditation helps train our minds to concentrate or focus on specific things. Contrary to popular belief, we cannot really just empty our minds. We can, however, train them to focus. This focus helps us slow our pulse, which means our blood pressure (BP) falls. As BP decreases, blood supply increases to our extremities, warming our hands and feet, and our brain waves change.

Meditation and Productivity

Stress does not just affect our ability to remember things, sleep, or deal with our health, weight, and general happiness, but it also affects our productivity! “Buck” Montgomery, a believer in the benefits of meditation, instituted a meditation program at his Detroit chemical manufacturing firm in 1983. At one time 52 workers were meditating 20 minutes before work and 20 minutes in the afternoon on company time. Within three years, “absenteeism fell by 85 percent, productivity rose by 120 percent, injuries dropped by 70 percent, sick days fell by 16 percent—and profit soared by 520 percent. “People enjoyed their work; they were more creative and more productive” as a result of the meditation breaks, Montgomery says. “I tell companies, “If you do this, you’ll get a return on your investment in one year” (as quoted by Haijtema, 2011).

Haijtema (2011) further notes a documentary by the Institute for Mindfulness and Management. In the documentary, Kabat-Zinn (2008) noted: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can surf.” Surfing colloquially means that folks are more adaptable and amenable to change and less stressed because they meditate. In India, meditation is common and in many areas is attributed to efficiency and the ability to think creatively. In turn, many believe this makes them successful and more competitive against other organizations in countries that do not meditate.

Absenteeism is rampant in the US but not as prevalent in other countries. Stress alone costs businesses about $300 million a year! Just a one percent reduction, or $3,000,000 is worthwhile for any company to pursue, even if employees are just happier, rested, and less stressed! The latter alone would reduce health insurance premiums and medications.

Meditation, Time, Length, and Time Management

Productivity relates to stress, sleep, happiness, and even time-management. The less stress we have and the better sleep we get, the more likely we are to manage our time well. While we can meditate almost anywhere – driving a car or operating any type of power machinery is not a time or place to meditate. We can meditate most other places, even in a train station, or on a plane. Time is often a problem. We all have busy lives these days and meditation in the past has been thought by many to be a luxury rather than a necessity. Now, as more people suffer from sleep deprivation, stress, health, memory, and productivity issues, many are beginning to see it as a necessity.

There are times in which yogic masters believe meditation can be more effective for us – first thing in the morning,  between 4 - 8 a.m. and in the late afternoon, early evening between 4 - 8 p.m. Morning is better in most cases when looking just at time and time management. During evening times, we have events whether they are family-related such as music lessons, sports activities, grocery shopping, or just commuting to our home or a business event. But the nice thing to know is that we can meditate anywhere at anytime and it will have benefits. Certainly, a regular time and place help, but in the current fast-paced world that is not always feasible. But, meditation always has benefits – even for just three minutes. Also, length of meditation is always a concern. Folks often hear about two and a half hour meditation programs, or one hour meditation classes. While there are meditations that last for hours, there are benefits from three minute meditations.

Many meditations in Kundalini yoga are done for 11, 22, or 31 minutes. But sessions can be broken down, such as five minutes in the morning and six minutes in the evening, or 15 minutes in the morning and 16 minutes in the evening, or vice-versa. Morning and evening meditations can have different effects. In the morning, meditation can lessen stress and make us more efficient and productive, while evening meditation can calm our bodies and prepare them for sleep. Several medical studies with blood pressure have had participants break up their meditation sessions, similar to how Buck Montgomery broke up his company’s meditations.

To help you plan for yourself, think about your own schedule and needs based on time and the results you are seeking. For example, within three (3) minutes of meditation our circulation and blood pressure change. At five (5) minutes, our breathing changes.  By 11 minutes, there is a change in our glandular system; our so-called nerves which create stress and increase cortisol in our bodies, and our cortisol level decreases. In 22 minutes the different sides or minds begins to make connections crossing the corpus callosum allowing our different sides, meaning right and left to connect and heal.

By 31 minutes our glands, lungs, blood pressure, and both sides of our mind have synced together. And, if possible to meditate 62 minutes a day, you can change the gray matter of your brain. While 62 minutes may not be feasible, 3, 5, and 11 minutes is doable for most folks even on a busy schedule. No matter how long you meditate, it is important to remember it takes practice just like running, swimming, tennis, golf, or any other type of sport or hobby. It is better to practice consistently, rather than just one time a week for a long period of time.

How to Meditate

Meditation can be done sitting in a chair or on the floor. It is important that if you sit in a chair, it has a straight back so that your spine is straight. If this is not feasible, laying down on a bed, as long as you are not sinking in and your are able to lay straight will work. Hands can be positioned on your knees with your thumb and forefinger touching, one on top of the other in your lap, or in a specific hand position or mudra, if you are following a specific meditation style or format, such as Shabad Kriya, nicknamed the Bedtime Meditation. Often the first thing to accomplish is learning how to breathe deeply from your belly. This alone will benefit your mind and body.

Specific Meditations for Memory and Sleep

For Shabad Kriya, sit in easy pose or in a chair with a straight back, place your right hand inside your left, thumbs touching. Inhale in four equal parts through the nose, much like a sniff and mentally repeat the words, Sa, Ta, Na, Ma. Hold your breath and mentally repeat the mantra four times, or 16 counts. Then, exhale in two equal breaths, mentally saying Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru means ecstasy. And, after you have held your breath, relieving the breath is ecstasy.

Kirtan Kriya, a Kundalini meditation, which also uses the mantra of Sa, Ta, Na, Ma, was used with a Harvard Medical study conducted by Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa. The use of this meditation with mantra demonstrated to help memory within eight weeks time. To do Kirtan Kriya, sit in a straight-backed chair or in easy pose on the floor. Rest your hands on your knees with your palms up. For each sound, tap one finger to your thumb.

There are many meditations; meditations with mantras or words that are repeated sound are sometimes difficult to do when others are around, but they can be repeated silently if it is not possible to practice at any other time. These mantras help focus and relax the brain. Just a quick internet search will yield thousands of results. The best thing to do if you are interested is determine what you need first, find a meditation, or a practitioner to help instruct you, and get started. The nice thing, you do not need any additional equipment and you do not have to go to any special place. You can meditate anywhere, anytime, for less than 15 minutes, and you will achieve benefits. Remember that Rome was not built in a day, and practicing meditation may not be easy the first few times you try it. Having worked with folks on 11 minute meditations, in the beginning I hear how difficult it is. After a week, I hear it is not so difficult. Within a month, many folks who stick with it cannot imagine not meditating, and after three months, most folks tell me they would rather give up coffee, chocolate, or some other daily ritual than their meditation practice. From personal experience, it is easiest to start with 3 minutes and start increasing at realistic intervals.

References:

Barrett, J. (2011). Healing Power of Yoga, Yoga Journal. Retrieved on October 30, 2011 from http://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/3016

Boyles, S. (2011). Zeidan demonstrates Brain Imaging Shows Impact of Brief Mindfulness Meditation Training. Retrieved October 30, 2011 http://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20110406/meditation-may-reduce-pain

Haijtema, D. (2011). Management as meditation. Ode Magazine, Retrieved October 30, 2011 from http://www.odemagazine.com/doc/74/management-as-meditation/

Heinrich, L, Shoham,  D. Dugas, L. , Kittle, N., Kurtz, A, Lees, B,  Rent, S. Richie, W. Stoltenberg, M., Teng, S., Walsh,  J., Weaver, M. & Wusu, M. (2011). Religious activity does not lower blood pressure. Retrieved October 30, 2011 http://www.loyolamedicine.org/News/News_Releases/news_release_detail.cfm?var_news_release_id=973441444

Rattana, G. (2003). Shabad Kriya: Bedtime Meditation. Retrieved on October 30, 2011 from http://www.kundaliniyoga.org/kyt16.html

Katrina Everhart grew up in LA. She earned her Bachelor's at Stephens; Masters at University of Missouri, & is ABD at Walden University. Specializing in conflict resolution/mediation, qualitative and quantitative research, systems theory, organizational behavior, project management, competitive intelligence, sea research, and decision sciences she’s worked in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, & the US, training & conducting product research, product/service development & marketing.

Past projects include Sprint's DSL, Talking Call Waiting, P&G Floor Care, American Express's Leadership Development. She is an author, artist/weaver (Blackfoot/Navajo styles), 180-year old family farm manager, Certified Project Manager, Indexer, Mediator, Parliamentarian, Researcher, Underwater Naturalist/archaeologist. Her avocations include social entrepreneurship, making buffalo & owl sculptures, yogurt, cheese, knits, weaves, and crochets, and s individual size personal items such as shampoo/soap for homeless or women's shelters, and helps with genealogical research for DAC.

Presentations include: Using Robert’s Rules of Order, Native American Justice, Mark Twain, Missouri Indians, Olive VanBibber Boone, Thomas Paine and Common Sense. She volunteers as a therapeutic clown, scuba dives, and racewalks competitively; she is a Barbeque Judge for KCBS, a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) in Hatha & Kundalini yoga; is certified in Yoga in Chairs for MS, Reiki Master, Pilates mat, ball, & reformer specialist, Tai Chi, Qigong, and Zumba instructor.

To learn more about Katrina, product development, mediation, meditation, and thinking outside the box, email her at: [email protected] or call 573-234-6222.