Science Proves That Meditation Can Help Manage Emotions

Science Proves That Meditation Can Help Manage Emotions



Aside from the physical and spiritual aspects of meditation, there is very much an emotional component to the practice. That might at first strike one as obvious, but now there is scientific research to support the idea — and show us how it can be beneficial in managing emotions as well.

Indeed, it might seem that emotional health is the ultimate goal of meditating. If a person is angry or fearful, what better way to rid him- or herself of such things in a healthy way than to take charge of those emotions and somehow exorcise them through a mental process of some kind? It seems a much better approach than using violence or abusing alcohol. But to the skeptic meditation at best always seems to be a matter of mind over matter, wishful or positive thinking, and perhaps something people either are or are not “wired” to do.

The exciting thing is we may be able to alter that wiring. Research at the University of California at Los Angeles seems to have uncovered a mechanism for how meditation can beneficially affect emotions through the physical structure of the brain. Behavioral researcher David Creswell, with the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, found that people who engage in “mindfulness,” another term for meditation, give consciousness to their emotions and in so doing activate the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain overrides the amygdala, which more typically is reactive in moments of high emotion.

Creswell’s research suggests that the development of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, through meditation, effectively equips us with a physical ability to better manage our emotions.

Managing anger through meditation

All of this indicates that meditators simply have better control over their negative emotions, anger, in particular. But that’s not to say incidents don’t happen to someone who meditates that could still move that person (or anyone else) to anger. For example, when you are driving in your car and the guy in front of you does something dangerously stupid, you might be able to manage your anger better than the average person. But you still experience angry instincts toward the other driver and that individual’s disregard for others.

I spoke with Ed and Deb Shapiro, authors of more than a dozen books on meditation, personal development and social action, regarding the emotional benefits of mindfulness. In their book Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World (Sterling Ethos, 2009), they write about a colleague, Maura Sills, cofounder of the UK-based Karuna Institute, which offers courses in core process psychotherapy and craniosacral biodynamics, all largely based on mindfulness practice. Sills notes that a person cannot simply repress anger in such moments as the traffic scenario. Nor does it always make sense to express anger when it simply escalates a situation (such as road rage incidents, where it becomes a matter of one-upmanship, or working with an annoying colleague who repeats a selfish behavior). When situations that hold the potential to anger us rise up with regularity “until it erupts at a later time when it usually causes even more harm,” she says that we need to find “a midpoint between expressing anger and repressing it. This is a point at which our feelings can be voiced, but with awareness and acceptance.”

In other words, stay calm in the moment but express dissatisfaction in a measured, perhaps even constructive way. If your ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is able to override your amygdala — the result of practicing meditation — that seems to be something you likely would be able to do.

Meditation falls on a continuum

Is there a state at which meditative mindfulness is not accessible or advisable? “Yes,” says Deb Shapiro. “Don’t begin meditation while traumatized,” such as when a loved one has unexpectedly died. “You need to have stability in your life before you meditate. During trauma, it might instead make sense to do physical things, such as walking or running or doing housework.” In other words, do not consciously meditate, but it might help to allow yourself to process events naturally as you go about a physical activity.

Which is something that one notices about those who practice and teach meditation. There are no absolute claims of efficacy. They seem to know that meditation falls on a continuum — there are times and places where it can be effective, other times not, but never does it hurt to have a mastery of the discipline.

You never know when being able to override your amygdala will come in handy.

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