In a recent study, researchers collected MRI images both before and after subjects took an 8-week stress reduction course. The course consisted of a weekly 2.5-hour session of meditation, yoga, and stress management, plus home meditation exercises every day for two weeks. Then the scientists compared the scans to brain images of people who didn’t take the class.
The result: The researchers discovered that the program actually changed the structure of the subjects’ brains. “We found an increased concentration of gray matter in the brain, especially in the regions involved emotion regulation,” explains Britta Hozel, Ph.D., research fellow of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School.
“Gray matter is a layer of the brain where processing takes place,” explains Hozel. So if you have more gray matter, you’re more likely to think clearly and strategically in stressful situations.
The findings help explain how meditation doesn’t just reduce stress in the moment. For example, in a University of Calgary study, cancer patients who practiced meditation and yoga for two months experienced decreased stress symptoms for up to a year later. And not just that—they experienced a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate, too.
In the study, subjects practiced mindful meditation—defined as a focus on the present. To try it yourself, just sit quietly and try to concentrate only on your breathing.