Meditation on the brain: how long makes a difference?
You’ve probably heard someone talk about the benefits of meditation. Countless studies and experts have praised the practice’s transformative qualities.
It’s true—meditation can affect the brain and body in myriad ways, from reducing the risk for chronic diseases to lowering the risk for anxiety and depression.
Maybe most notable in the age of burnout is meditation’s impact on stress levels and its ability to reduce the fight or flight reaction, or the acute stress response that activates your sympathetic nervous system and can raise blood pressure.
“Fighting and fleeing was an adaptive response back when there were saber-toothed tigers, but it’s not very adaptive when the stressor is the morning commute or anticipating a bad email,” Dr. Elizabeth Seng, an associate professor of psychology at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University, tells Fortune.
Being mindful through meditation can reduce rumination on negative thoughts and help you stay in the present moment. This can alleviate that heightened stress response in everyday situations.
“You’re teaching yourself to be non-judgmentally aware of the present moment,” Seng says, who works with people taking up meditation for her research. “We want them to be more focused on what’s going on right now than regretting what happened in the past or worrying about what will happen in the future.”
Over time, practicing mindfulness through meditation can improve concentration, clarity, and help us process our emotions more effectively, Maria Gonzalez, a mindfulness coach and author of Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways to Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others, tells Fortune.
How meditation affects the brain
Research shows meditation reduces stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms. A 2016 study found that longer-term meditation practice was associated with structural changes of the “white matter” in the brain, which is responsible for “relaying sensory information” and can explain why meditation helps people stay in the present moment and may help combat age-related cognitive decline.
A more dated study found an increase in gray matter in the brain’s hippocampus, the areas associated with memory, emotional regulation, self-processing, and perspective taking, with regular meditation.
The practice also enhances attention, and increases the ability to cultivate awareness around emotions so they don’t bubble up later, Gonzalez says.
Practicing meditation regulates breathing, Seng says. Unlike being in fight or flight mode, when our stress response jumps into action, meditation enacts the parasympathetic nervous system which is in charge of calming our nerves.
Imagine a highway system with an infrastructure bill, Seng says. If you keep investing in roadways toward places you don’t want to go, those roads only get longer. Our mind works in the same way. The more we fester, catastrophize, and overanalyze, the windier that road becomes, meaning the more our mind gives it validity to keep going.
Mindfulness meditation can help us instead stop the unwanted pathways in their tracks and focus on a smaller dirt road of acceptance, presence, and gratitude, that in time, will also extend the more we give it credence. We slowly create new connections in the brain that teach us to let unwanted thoughts pass by like a train car versus internalize them and lose focus.
“You build more and more neural connections with these pathways, and therefore, it’s easier for you to go down this path,” she says.
How does meditation affect the body?
Given that meditation reduces stress, and chronic stress is a risk factor for other health problems, our physical bodies benefit from meditation.
“So many chronic illnesses are exacerbated by your body being in fight or flight all the time,” Seng says. These chronic illnesses include heart disease and sleep problems.
Stress also lowers immunity, which is why we sometimes feel like we get a cold when we are overwhelmed like studying for an exam. When cortisol (the stress hormone) constantly surges, it depletes the body. When the body relaxes, the immune system doesn’t get challenged.
Routine meditation for 8 weeks was also associated with helping migraine symptoms 6 months after the practice, in a study Seng authored this year.
“Our studies have found that mindfulness produces big changes in headache related disability, which is basically like how many days you didn’t go to work, or weren’t able to be with friends because of migraine attacks,” she says.
For those experiencing chronic pain, meditation also increases symptom awareness. When people can detect subtle symptoms earlier they can intervene and take medication or other proactive measures immediately, Seng says.
How long do you need to meditate to see results?
Studies point to 8-weeks of meditation practice to see results. One study found improvements to memory, emotional regulation, and mood with 8 weeks of 13 minutes of meditation a day. But there isn’t a magic number.
Gonzalez, who has trained over numerous leaders in the practice, says as little as 10 minutes can make a difference. What matters most is dedicating yourself to the technique (that means not checking work notifications in the middle of a practice).
Whether guided meditation, meditation on-the-go, counting your breath, or repeating a mantra, being intentional about committing to mindfulness matters the most.
“If someone were to follow their breath, 10 minutes a day, every single day, I would be really surprised if they didn’t experience benefits,” Gonzalez says.
Seng says starting slowly and incorporating meditation into your day in any form is better than doing nothing.
“Finding something that you do think you can do the most. That can be more important than starting a stopwatch,” Seng says.