Meditation, cortisol and stress

One of the great successes of meditation research is the evidence that both medicalised mindfulness and belief-based methods such as shamatha and tonglen reduce the physiological effects of stress, such as high cortisol and elevated blood pressure levels.

Both scientific and belief based meditation reduce stress levels

There are several symptoms connected with abnormally high stress levels. These include pain, tiredness, headaches and dizziness, elevated levels of blood pressure, muscle tension and related problems such as jaw clenching and a wide range of issues linked to the stomach and digestive systems. Stress is quite a complicated concept, with many triggers related to emotional,  psychological or physiological states. Circumstances in our day-to-day lives such as overwork,  relationship problems and financial worries can create conditions where higher stress levels are much more likely. Ironically, stress can be self-perpetuating, where for example, worries over one problem can lead to poor health, triggering further long-term stress and anxiety.

Meditation’s potential to reduce stress’s physiological and psychological symptoms, such as high blood pressure, has been known about for more than 50 years.  So it’s not a surprise to find scientific studies demonstrating that regular meditation correlates with lower levels of damaging chemicals created by stress reactions, like cortisol.  Because of its relationship with stress, cortisol is called the ‘stress hormone’, and it plays a vital role in the human stress response.  Although cortisol has some critical functions, such as regulating blood sugar levels and metabolic states, too much in the blood can be a serious health problem.  Among the symptoms of high cortisol levels include weight gain, thinning skin and a tendency to bruise easily, problems concentrating and high blood pressure.  Although all of the symptoms can be severe, elevated blood pressure levels for prolonged periods is particularly dangerous.

Details of several scientific experiments linking meditation to lower levels of cortisol have been published in recent decades.  Convincing data illustrates both medicalised mindfulness and Buddhist meditation methods can lower cortisol levels in the blood; however, reliable comparative data are scarce. The point is that most of these studies show that following meditation, serum cortisol levels are significantly lower.  As you might expect, meditation also mediates blood pressure and breathing, but we still don’t know how these relationships work. Does meditation lower all of these physiological signs of stress, or just one leading to a knock-on effect, or does the cause lie elsewhere?

There are several exciting experiments in published journals, Kees Blase and Adeline van Waning explored heart rate variability, cortisol and attention focus during shamatha quiescence meditation in 2019. They found that six weeks of practice in methods including tonglen and loving-kindness reduced stress and increased attention focus. The experiment was written up in the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback journal. The take-away message is that regular meditation is correlated with lower levels of stress; the bonus is that all positive brain functions impeded by stress will experience a boost as well.

This is also a meditation for health podcast.

Listen to the podcast

.

What is tonglen meditation?

Tonglen meditation is a compassion mind-training practice., but the method and purpose are frequently misunderstood in the West.

Learn about tonglen on the podcast
Tonglen brings happiness and health anywhere and everywhere

Tonglen is a meditation practice where you exchange suffering for happiness, both literally and as a metaphor. It highlights the unlimited nature of human compassion. That we can at any moment, make our experience of the world more joyful by altering our cognitive understanding of self and others. By transforming ourselves into the solution of suffering for others, we also become the catalyst for positive self-development. In any meaningful way, tonglen cannot simply be used to benefit one’s health without reference to others. This truth is self-evident to people seeking holistic solutions to health problems. The idea that only I matter doesn’t seem to be positively correlated with good physical and mental health.

Through tonglen meditation, we transform ourselves, but not necessarily in any mystical way, we reorganize our understanding of the interdependence between people. In doing so, we gain the confidence to challenge the self-centred dualistic thoughts that are the source of many of our day-to-day problems. Tonglen is a compassionate practice; traditionally, you breathe in others’ suffering and breathe out the solution to solve their problems. It is this selfless act that also brings benefits to the practitioner. Depending on the knowledge of teacher and student, the nondual foundations of the practice might also be taught as part of the preliminaries, but this is becoming quite rare.

As a simple example of how to apply this meditation consider when you have a difficult day at work, you can practice tonglen, taking on the problems of workers who have also had a challenging day. You mentally exchange their problems with compassionate wishes and solutions. If you can generate a strong sense of relative compassion, then your ability to overcome your own problems can be greatly increased. Tonglen meditation also develops your own real world compassion. This same approach can be used to address almost any aspect of suffering. But be advised; you can’t trick your own mind; the curative potential rests in the compassion for others.  

Where does tonglen come from?

Tonglen (giving and taking) has a documented history of at least 1,000 years in Buddhism. The theoretical framework of this practice can be found in the slogans used to illustrate the Seven Points of Training the Mind (lojong). Tonglen has been popularized in the West by a range of meditation teachers, and modifications to the original practice appear from time to time. New meditators often undertake compassionate meditation as an essential preliminary to tonglen. It is also possible to encounter Westernised forms of Tonglen more accessible to non-Buddhists. However, it is essential that modified versions of the meditation are consistent with the original elements of the training. I tend to base my tonglen teaching on the Jamgon Kongtrul commentary translated by Ken McLeod. This is generally regarded as one of the most reliable expositions. As I’ve already suggested, because of ontological conflicts, there are no secularised equivalents of tonglen.

What do you have to do?

No text can fully explain what tonglen is and how to practice it. I highly recommend you receive training from a qualified and experienced meditation master if you wish to practice. In its essence, tonglen meditation is the breathing in of suffering and problems followed by the exhalation of happiness, virtue and solutions. The breath is the device, the method by which the meditator exchanges suffering for happiness as a psychological and physiological training. A key point to remember is that you begin the practice with your own conditions; you (the meditator) are always included in the transformation of suffering into happiness and joy. The object of the meditation can be as narrow or as wide as you wish, for example you can exschange with someone in particular, such as a sick relative or perhaps everyone in a hospital or even all living beings.

You should not think of yourself as a filter that absorbs suffering but rather as a catalyst to solve problems and transform negativity. This is a crucial point and one an experienced teacher can help you with. The tonglen meditation should not be seen as a passive, passionless exercise, but the meditator should attempt to generate a sense that they are transforming suffering. You visualize all suffering, limitations and obstacles as thick black smoke; you imagine it entering your nostrils on the in-breath. On the out-breath the black smoke is transformed into white smoke or’ rays of moonlight’ bringing happiness, surplus and solutions to the object of your meditation. Consider that in one breath you have taken in many difficulties and instantly transformed them into joyful solutions. You can’t trick your own mind; if you don’t generate compassion, the practice will be limited and may even make things worse for you. If you naturally struggle to feel compassion for others, tonglen should be seen as progressive training, starting with some simple objects of compassion and extending your reach as you become more experienced.

Tonglen is a spiritual practice that should be taught by someone of relevant experience and practiced within the appropriate context. This is a meditation method to persevere with, if you put your heart into tonglen and practice diligently, it can offer significant benefits to both experienced and novice meditators alike.

How does tonglen work?

From the neuropsychological perspective, we don’t have a complete understanding of the brain networks and cognitive processes linked to compassionate behaviour. For example, the scientific understanding of absolute compassion is in its infancy. However, there is preliminary evidence that compassion for others might be associated with increased health and wellbeing through mirror neurones and network correlations. The Buddhist theoretical framework of tonglen considers that selfishness and lack of compassion are causes of mental and physical suffering. By training ourselves in compassion, we rebalance the brain networks to restore our ‘natural state’. It is the return to this condition that improves our health and wellbeing.

As always, email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.

Is nondual meditation good for your health?

Despite the health potential of nondual meditation, this is the area of contemplative science that we know the least about.

Visit the podcast
The inseparability of self and other; nondual

What is nondual meditation?

Although explanations of nondual meditation are often complex, the broad concept is accessible to all of us because we think in the dual and nondual all the time. The human brain has structures that emphasise both the relationship and separation of people and concepts.  So, for example, when you decide to recycle your bottles, you may be thinking about just yourself, or your family, the community or perhaps even the whole world. The focus only on yourself is an example of dualistic thought, but to consider the needs of others and the environment is nondual thinking.  Humans fluctuate between the dual and nondual all of the time; we all carry the potential for greater or lesser nondual thinking. Some forms of meditation can teach us to recognise nondual thoughts and use nonduality systematically. We call the ability to recognise the difference between our dual and nondual thoughts nondual awareness (NDA). Although many meditators claim to have NDA, it is relatively rare and can be simple to spot in a meditation teacher when you know what to look for. With training, NDA gives way to the nondual view (NDV), a more permanent condition where nondual cognitive processes become established as mental states.

Is nonduality good for health?

NDA and the NDV are under-researched in the West, but extensive work has been done in Buddhist spiritual traditions to study, document and explain nondual cognitive processes. However, science indicates abnormal levels of dualistic thinking are likely to be linked to many health problems. Put simply, if your only concern is for yourself and your short term needs, this can give rise to several physical and mental health problems. It will impact how you relate to people and society more generally. We associate NDA with a balanced outlook on life, where the wellbeing of self and others are equally important. Some anecdotal evidence supports the theory that nondual meditators live longer, happier lives.

How does it work?

From a scientific perspective, we know that there are brain networks that regulate our interaction with others. It seems highly likely that we humans have developed to care both for ourselves and those around us. Society would not function without significant levels of cooperation between individuals. The phenomenon of super-rich individuals uncaring for the needs of those around them is, in terms of human evolution, a relatively recent phenomenon. Attending to those brain networks that allow us to care for ourselves and others may represent the ‘natural state’ of being human, and one where we can be happiest and healthiest.

How to find out more

This explanation is only the briefest introduction and hasn’t dealt with key concepts such as integrating the dual and nondual and the correlations between brain networks. Modern psychological research barely recognises NDA and although all Buddhist meditation is either implicitly or explicitly nondual, we have few scientific studies on which to consider these states. Many spiritual texts (perhaps thousands), particularly in the Mahayana, Dzogchen and Mahamudra schools of Buddhism, offer explanations about NDA. But most traditional roads to NDA begin with compassion training.  

Can meditation help to lower blood pressure?

There’s plenty of evidence that links meditation and mindfullness to lower blood pressure, but there’s a few factors to consider.

Is meditation a short cut to better health?

It should not be a surprise to hear that meditation might be related to our health and wellbeing. We know, for example, stress, anxiety and anger can all increase our blood pressure and heart rate. It, therefore, follows that calming and relaxing activities might help to reduce blood pressure.  Scientists have been studying the relationship between meditation and the performance of the heart and circulatory system for at least 60 years.  Many scientific studies have been produced that indicates meditation and mindfulness have a calming effect.  If you have a simple blood pressure monitor at home, you can test this for yourself.

However, from a scientific perspective, the problems occur when we try to repeat these experiments.  Just because positive results are achieved in one scientific study, it doesn’t automatically follow that this can be scaled up to all populations.  There are many reasons why in psychological experiments, an individual study may not reflect typical human behaviour. Therefore the scientific method requires that we repeat the study in different times and places to see if the same effect is evidenced in other circumstances. Within the psychological sciences, only at this point can we say that there is clear evidence.

Many of the hundreds of experiments looking at the relationship between blood pressure and meditation are individual studies, very few of which have been replicated.  This doesn’t mean that meditation doesn’t lower blood pressure; I’m very confident that it does.  But we need much better scientific evidence before we use it as a universal mainstream clinical treatment. There is also a second problem; it’s essential to understand how effective meditation is in lowering blood pressure in relation to other therapies. Unfortunately, many studies don’t compare the effects of meditation with any other potential treatments.  For example, we know that art therapy, spending time in nature, gardening or other relaxing activities can reduce blood pressure.  But we have very little data on the effectiveness of meditation compared to other potential treatments.

There are thousands of different forms of meditation, and each method can influence our mind and body in different ways.  How often you practice and for how long may impact the health benefits of meditation. Your meditation teacher’s knowledge and experience are also essential, as is where you meditate and the people you meditate with. From my research, I know that achieving a lowering of blood pressure while meditating or shortly afterwards is a relatively simple effect to achieve. But to translate that short-term effects to permanent 24/7 improvements is much more problematic.

So if you are concerned about high blood pressure, you might want to talk to your doctor about the best possible course of action for you. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that meditation is likely to be a helpful tool, but the amount of benefit you receive may depend on several factors, not least what you do with your mind while you meditate.

How to start a successful meditation practice

Up to half of all new meditators stop the practice before they gain any benefits. Here’s the explanation why and some clues to building a great meditation habit.

Need help to get your meditation practice going?

How can I learn how to meditate? The answers are pretty simple and backed by centuries of experience in meditation.

Sometimes even experienced meditators find it difficult to meditate, although the obstacles we encounter later on are different from those that trouble us at the beginning.  But please remember that meditation and mindfulness are forms of mind-training; this means we are literally changing brain function and structure over time.  So in the first weeks, when you start to meditate, you are likely to be doing something quite unnatural; meditation practice is simply about training yourself in a new way of working with your body, speech and mind.  Therefore, it can be difficult to begin with, just like  learning how to; run, play a musical instrument, or learn a new language. The first principle of meditation, therefore, is that practice makes perfect. 

However, before committing yourself to a particular method or a teacher, you should satisfy yourself that they are suitable for you and consistent with your goals. Only when you feel confident with the technique can you dedicate yourself to regular practice.  I think this is the case with secular medicalised meditation and mindfulness as well as traditional methods.  Your starting point as a new meditator is to find something that appears to be reliable.  However, meditation should never cause pain or suffering, so if your practice leads to physical or psychological difficulties you should stop immediately.

If you have reached the point where you have a method that you’re confident with and a teacher that is reliable, you have the foundations to build a regular meditation practice.  If my own new students still find difficulty meditating at this point, I encourage them to commit to three weeks of practice or take a break.  Practising four times a week over three weeks is usually sufficient for a new meditation student to get comfortable with sitting still, holding a normal meditation posture and working with the psychological concepts of the practice.  In short, they should know how to sit and what they are supposed to be doing with their mind.  Typically even at this stage, the major obstacle is controlling one’s thoughts, which is the ultimate goal of meditation.

Meditation and mindfulness are not for everybody, almost everyone has the capacity for some meditation, but they may lack the motivation.  If you’ve undertaken three weeks of practice in a reliable method with a competent teacher and are still not making any progress, you may want to rethink your strategy.  Your meditation teacher may have some explanations and guidance for you.  But eventually, you may need to identify a more suitable teacher or method, or just ‘park’ the idea of meditation for a while and return to it at a later point.

Some meditators experience almost immediate benefits from practising and have visible signs of: improved emotional stability,  mental health, and happiness. At this point, meditation practice becomes much easier because we can see the effects. Many people stop meditating or develop bad habits before they reach this point and so never really create the relationship between meditation and its great potential. But if you don’t see immediate benefits, don’t be distracted by the progress of those around you; meditation is a highly personal experience.  Your progress as a meditator is dependent on many causes and conditions, sometimes physical, sometimes psychological.  My understanding from teaching hundreds of people to meditate is that those with the greatest persistence tend to reap the most significant rewards. 

This is an excellent moment to summarise.  Firstly find a method that meets your meditation goals and connect with a knowledgeable teacher. If you experience difficulties meditating at the beginning, talk to your teacher and consider committing to three solid weeks of practice to develop a basic meditation capacity.  If the meditation leads to physical and mental suffering, stop immediately and seek advice. Once the basic skills have been acquired, it is usually a matter of training.  In traditional meditation, it is typical to change meditation teachers and meditation methods as you develop, but the fundamental challenge of working with your mind remains the same.

It is frequently said “the only bad meditation is the one you don’t do”.

Good wishes to you all for your meditation practice and drop us an email to let us know how you are getting on.

Does lots more meditation lead to better mental health?

“I’ve been meditating for seven weeks; it’s having a big effect on my mental health, I know monks meditate every day, if I meditate more often or for longer, will I see more progress?”

Is more meditation better for your mental health?

Consider medicalised meditation as a treatment and follow the instructions given by your health care practitioners. Spiritual meditation practice offers much more freedom but it has a spiritual rather than a wellbeing goal.

There is no simple answer to the question. Most medicalised meditation forms have been studied over relatively short periods, eight or ten weeks, for example.  And three or four sessions a week is a fairly typical level of practice. Few scientific studies reliably explain the cognitive mechanisms underpinning meditation’s benefits, and we have even less data regarding the optimal frequency and duration of meditation in clinical contexts. From the scientific history of meditation and mindfulness, it appears that experiments used eight to tend week cycles of treatments on an arbitrary basis, and that has just been repeated ever since. As a starting point, you should ask your meditation teacher or Doctor to explain if more meditation is likely to be helpful in your particular case.

Although the use of meditation in a medical context assumes that most people meditate in a similar fashion and receive the same benefits, this is far from true.  Individual differences are amplified during mind-training.  While one person may experience little benefit, someone sitting right beside them can be transformed by the practice.  Typically, in scientific studies, we average the effects of meditation across a group; this makes it hard to predict the benefits of medicalised methods in individual cases.  In thinking about the frequency of meditation practise, we need to consider; the current state of your health, the particular technique you use and your overall capacity as a meditator.

Things are different when we think about spiritual-based meditation. It’s not unusual for experienced Buddhists to meditate more than once a day or for several hours at a stretch when on a retreat. But in many cases, experienced practitioners have developed their ability to meditate over many years. Secondly, they are likely to be meditating for spiritual rather than wellbeing goals.  Buddhists access methods that are supported by hundreds of years of anecdotal and observational experience. A traditional meditation master may have taught tens of thousands of students. In contrast, some new forms of meditation and mindfulness have only been around for a short time, and the data supporting their clinical use may be based on studies of just a few dozen people. However, even in spiritual practice, there are occasions when too much meditation can be counterproductive.

An important distinction to make here is that traditional meditation is often regarded as a practice, which means it is not the goal. Instead, the meditation method is likely to lead to new ways of thinking more generally. Medicalised forms of meditation and mindfulness rely on the method itself as the treatment without the support of more broad-based changes to the patient’s world view. 

Student Mental Health – University Mental Health Day

Always seek help if you need it. But many of us are able to take steps to boost our mental health as part of our daily routines.

Mental Health, it’s an issue for all of us

Today (the 4th of March) is University Mental Health Day. It’s a valuable moment to think about our own mental health and the wellbeing of the people around us, particularly in universities.  Before beginning my PhD research, I spent a year as a higher education mentor, supporting undergraduates and postgraduates diagnosed with poor mental health. I worked with people from several universities across the Southeast of England; they were of different ages and backgrounds. But one of the characteristics shared by all the students was that their mental health problems were linked to many issues.

Because of how the psychological sciences have developed, we often understand and treat mental health as separate from the rest of our lives. However, where we live, how we relate to people, our finances and many other factors are linked to our mental health. And they can get worse over time. Social isolation, a sense of underachievement, relationship problems, and financial worries can all affect our wellbeing long before a diagnosable mental health condition arises.

So while reliable diagnosis and treatment are essential when we become unwell, we should consider our health in the broadest sense. This is not just the responsibility of healthcare practitioners; we all could be creating the best possible conditions for our own mental health. We don’t need to wait for problems to become critical before we make changes. This is particularly true of student populations in higher education, where many people will be remote from their friends and families and face new and daunting challenges.

I generally think of mental illness as an effect that grows out of causes and conditions. It rarely arrives out of the blue without warning. If we can recognise those negative changes early enough, we have the opportunity to halt deterioration in our mental health. However, if we allow problems to grow unchecked and accumulate, we are more vulnerable to illness. If we become unwell, we should seek help as soon as possible. But the University Mental Health Day is also a reminder that support is available even before we reach a crisis or a low point.So I would urge everybody to consider their mental health as a work in progress; we have the potential in every moment to increase our happiness and wellbeing.  Reliable meditation methods are just one of the tools available to us. The most import ideas are that we recognise the need to treat our mental health seriously and actively build resilience, and never be afraid to ask for help when we need it. 

Is mindfulness a medical or spiritual practice, and does it matter?

Mindfulness comes in many forms, not all may be right for you or your health and wellbeing goals.

Is mindfulness spiritual?

This is a question asked my many scientists and therapists over the last fifty years, and you can find spiritual, medicalised and blended forms of mindfulness in use today.  There is also an obvious follow-up question: does it matter?  The answer will depend on each person, why they wish to meditate, and what kind of method they feel more comfortable with.

In the context of meditation, mindfulness was first translated into English from the Buddhist pali term sati at the end of the 19th century by the scholar of Asian languages Monier Williams. By the 1970s, scientific research into spiritual forms of meditation was already quite advanced, and meditation scientists started investigating how spiritual meditation could improve human health and wellbeing.  In the mid-1970s, psychotherapists were using Buddhist meditation in therapy sessions.  Jon Kabat-Zinn took the use of meditation in psychology a stage further in 1979 when he created his own Americanised version of Buddhist mindfulness and called it Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Over the last 40 years, MBSR has been used in many different ways.  The most successful application is the combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (MBCT). MBCT is now used as a low-cost group therapy to support patients at risk of relapsing into a third phase of clinical depression.

Although there are hundreds of forms of secular/medicalised mindfulness (MBIs), the scientific evidence supporting their clinical use is mixed. There are now concerns about some of the claims made by scientists for the benefit of medicalised mindfulness. If you’re thinking about using mindfulness to support your physical or mental health, you need to ask your doctor or therapist about the reliability of the method they recommend.

So how is this similar or different to spiritual or Buddhist mindfulness? Although the term mindfulness was translated from Buddhist texts, its original meanings are more complex than today’s psychological definitions. Firstly, in its original settings, mindfulness is one of eight interrelated elements, so its use in isolation fundamentally changes its psychological effect.  Also, different schools of Buddhism have different ways of understanding mind and matter.  For example, the meaning of mindfulness in Tibetan Buddhism may differ from Sri Lankan Buddhist insights.  We should also remember that Buddhist meditation is concerned with spiritual progress, which in traditional understandings, is linked to physical and mental health. The health benefits of spiritual practice inspired the relocation of meditation to psychology. But by removing its spiritual elements, meditation changed, perhaps altering its curative potential. Comparing spiritual and medicalised meditation is complex; maybe it’s easiest to consider them similar but definitely not the same.

We know from individual research studies that there is a wide range of potential health benefits in meditation. But we don’t always understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms, and when seen collectively, the results from individual studies are not always reliable. There are thousands of different meditation methods, and even with medicalised forms such as mindfulness, recommending a practice can be problematic. Typically medicalised mindfulness is run over a relatively short period, typically eight or ten weeks.  It usually is designed to tackle a specific health problem, such as depression, but rarely addresses the root causes.  Spiritual based forms of mindfulness are used as holistic practices to enable progress along a path. Spiritual progression appears to be linked to wide-ranging health and wellbeing improvements, but these are not the practice’s primary goals.  For people approaching mindfulness meditation for the first time, understanding your own needs and identifying the appropriate method is essential.  Make sure your meditation teacher/therapist is appropriately experienced or qualified, and ask them to explain how their form of meditation works and what evidence there is for its effectiveness before you begin

Can meditation get rid of my stress?

Can meditation reduce feelings of stress and anxiety? It depends if you are looking for a short term treatment or a permanent solution.

Who best undersdtands your stress?

This is quite a common question asked of meditation teachers; it reveals that we have uncertainty about our ability to improve our own mental health. Stress is a complex and often bewildering area of psychology. Even today, definitions of stress, underlying cognitive mechanisms and the effects of stress are still not fully understood. So I will begin this short discussion by making a few general points. The traditional view from psychology is that stress is neutral (not necessarily negative), meaning that it is nonspecific and universal (we can all suffer from it).  But each of us might react to stress in different ways. Psychology defines stress as the result of demands on the mind, body or emotions. How each of us deals with the causes of stress (stressors) is related to a wide range of factors based on our own personality, life experience and social conditions. In worst-case scenarios, stress can lead to severe physical and psychological problems. Stress can be located in four categories: i) major catastrophes, ii) significant life events, iii) micro stressors or daily challenges and iv)  background stress. While we don’t react to different categories of stress in the same way, major stress causes are more likely to have serious health consequences. And minor or ambient stress is a less common cause of severe health problems. A final clarification before we start to talk about stress and meditation; our perception of stressors plays a key role in how we cope with life. In general, the less in control we feel about things that happen to us, the more likely we are to be harmed by stress. Traditional meditation places the meditator at the centre of their activity; it gives back responsibility (control) for actions and consequences to the meditator.

Based on these definitions, we can consider the role of meditation in stress management in two ways; the treatment and the cure. Meditation and mindfulness provide some support for reducing the effects of stress. However, the evidence is mixed. Scientific studies that consider the potential of meditation to cure the causes of stress are few and far between; psychology tends to consider symptoms of stress rather than root causes. Conversely, traditional forms of meditation typically create cognitive reorganisations that alter our perspective on life. Rather than merely changing the way we react to stress, these methods allow us to reconsider our relationships with society more generally; leading (potentially) to permanent solutions. Leaving aside major catastrophic events over which we have little control, how we live and think about our lives is linked to how much stress we experience.  Changing how we think and how we feel is a complex and long term project, some people don’t want to challenge underlying causes of stress, they just want to be free of the health problems that stress brings. I’ve been in this position myself; it’s one of the reasons why I started to meditate. But once we gain more control over our mental health, looking for cures rather than treatments becomes natural. Finding a quick fix through medicalised forms of meditation is sometimes necessary, but a permanent or quasi-permanent cessation of health problems linked to stress requires a comprehensive understanding of the human condition.

It is an oversimplification to say that medicalised forms of meditation offer only treatment and not cure. But any health intervention that doesn’t consider the root causes of a problem is unlikely to deliver a long term solution. However, the reductionist model of human consciousness favoured by the psychological sciences is dualistic, its worldview (ontology) separates humans from their environment. By contrast, traditional meditation tends to follow a nondual holistic worldview that sees human mental states in relation to other phenomena. These opposed insights reflect a fundamental difference and one which psychology is only just beginning to consider. Traditional meditation methods aren’t for everybody, but their potential may be vital to understanding the mind and mental health. Therefore if you are thinking about using meditation to help you cope with stress, you might want to consider if you are looking for a cure or a treatment at the outset.

How does meditation improve mental health?

Does the effect of saunas and showers on mental health tell us anything new about meditation and mindfulness?

So what has cold water swimming got do with meditation?

I’ve recently come into contact with some exciting research linked to depression and dementia. Several academic papers suggest changes to blood circulation may positively affect mental health. A scientific study of middle-age men who practised sauna bathing in Finland indicated they were less likely to experience dementia than their peers who didn’t take saunas. A degree of support in this general direction comes from other evidence that cold showers may have a beneficial effect on depression. Over the last decade, we have also started to see claims linking open water swimming (cold water swimming) with improved mental health.

Saunas, cold showers and cold water swimming affect us in different ways, but they all share the ability to alter the body’s temperature. A rapid increase in body temperature leads to a widening (dilation) of the blood vessels, increasing the blood flow.  The reverse is true when we get cold, the blood vessels become narrower, constricting the flow. We are uncertain of exactly how rapid temperature changes alter blood flow in the brain, but we can be sure it does have an impact.

So what have showers, sauna and swimming got to do with meditation?  What may surprise many people is meditation can also change our heart rate and blood pressure. Since the beginnings of the scientific investigation of meditation, both physiological and psychological effects have been visible. If we go back to the 1930s, the first studies of meditators using electroencephalographic (EEG) technology observed changes to alpha waves in the brain. However, by the 1950s, scientists looked at a much more comprehensive range of changes in meditators, such as the lowering of heart rate, blood pressure and increases in skin conductivity. So from its earliest origins, contemplative science has recognised that practising meditation can lead to physical changes correlated with our mental states.

There is no question that meditation acts differently compared to physical activities in warm or cold environments. But we may find, coincidentally, that cold water swimming, saunas and meditation can all lead to fluctuations in blood flow to the brain.

The term meditation is imprecise; there are, of course, thousands of different meditation and mindfulness methods. Each distinct method is likely to have a particular effect on your mind and body. Rather like physical exercise, mind training will make most of us ‘fitter’ but not in the same way and at the same rate. So when we think about physical and mental changes from meditation, we should always be mindful of not overgeneralising. But even with the limited evidence available there is a case to argue that circulatory changes during meditation may be linked to improved mental health. And that other activities like open water swimming may possess a similar potential to mediate mental states and traits through changes to blood flow.