Meditation — the practice of focusing on thoughts to achieve calmness or relaxation — is more popular than ever.
Celebrities and athletes often point to their ability to engage with mindfulness meditation as a reason for success.
Meditating was identified as the fastest-growing health trend among U.S. adults in a 2018 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2016, more than 9.3 million Americans said they meditate, primarily for mental health issues, according to PubMed.
The prevalence of stress and anxiety in North America, along with the popularity of meditation apps, has contributed to meditation becoming a multi-billion dollar industry, said Tamara Levitt, head of content for the meditation app Calm. The real health benefits of meditation are being realized en mass.
“People are turning to apps because we’re more stressed and anxious than we’ve ever been before,” said Levitt. “People are overworked, they’re needing to find peace in their lives.
“There’s a lot more openness and people are speaking to other people who are seeing the results of meditation and are turning to the practice too.”
What is mindfulness meditation— and does it actually have health benefits?
Meditation is not a Western concept; it stems from Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.
But instead of wanting to achieve a religious form of enlightenment, people are using it to help better understand their emotions, said Zindel Segal, a psychology and mood professor at the University of Toronto.
“It’s existed … for thousands of years,” said Segal. “But I would say in the West, in the last 30 years … mindfulness has really grown.”
More people now understand that meditation can be used as a way to take care of yourself, he explained, especially when mindfulness is implemented alongside it.
“Mindfulness meditation is a type of meditation when you’re trying to develop an awareness of your experience from moment to moment,” he said. It can be very helpful in understanding your own behaviour and be more in tune with your emotions, which can help guide you through life’s challenges, he said.
Take a stressful scenario like being cut off in traffic. Mindfulness gives you a window into your own behaviour and may help you stop and think before you chase down the driver and honk at them, said Segal.
It allows you to inject more choice and agency into your decisions in a way that benefits you, he explained.
Neuroscientists have studied how mindfulness physically impacts the brain, and found grey matter was more dense in areas associated with focus, memory, emotion and empathy, said Gunes Sevinc, a neuroscientist at Harvard University.
The practice reduces activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) area of the brain, which activates when the mind is passively resting. Intrusive thoughts during those rest periods can increase anxiety and aggravate the DMN, said Segal
Why millions use apps to engage with meditation
There are thousands of meditation apps available on smartphones.
The most popular ones include Headspace, which has over 60 million subscribers since its launch in 2010. The app provides users with animated meditation lessons and mindfulness options for exercise and sleep, said Megan Jones Bell, the chief science officer at the company.
Along with the health benefits of meditation, Headspace’s users are finding new ways to talk about mental health by using mindfulness as a way to be more self-aware and preemptive about mental health, before it becomes an issue, she said.
“It almost gives them permission to talk about mental health in language and in terms that feel more comfortable with them.”
The accessibility of using an app, as opposed to signing up for a meditation class, allows users to be more flexible with their schedule, said Levitt.
“It’s really difficult to find the time to make it a daily practice, and it does need to be a real regular practice in order to see the progress,” she said. But having meditation work for you won’t happen overnight — it takes practice and consistent time investment, she said.
“People need to understand that it’s a slow process, but that it actually can be incredibly impactful,” she said.
— With files from Global News reporter Aalia Adam.