People have practiced meditation for thousands of years, and yet it's still gaining popularity. According to a National Center for Health Statistics survey, the percentage of Americans who meditate increased from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017. Many people meditate for a greater sense of calm, while others do so to cope with a serious illness. But can meditation really help treat mental and physical health problems? Here's a look at the science behind this ancient relaxation technique.

What is meditation?

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Meditation can be defined as a calming practice that helps you achieve greater mental clarity. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health describes meditation as a "mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being."

Meditation can take countless forms, and there's no right or wrong way to do it. Most practices share four characteristics: a calming, distraction-free setting; a relaxed posture; something to focus on; and an open-minded attitude that allows a flow of judgment-free thoughts. The practice is sometimes combined with mindfulness, a type of meditation in which you're completely focused on your feelings in the present so you can redirect your thoughts from the past or future. Other kinds of meditative practice include tai chi, yoga, qi gong, and Transcendental Meditation.

What meditation does to your brain

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Some studies have shown that long-term meditation may change the shape and function of the brain. A 2012 study scanned the brains of 100 people, half of whom meditated regularly over a long period of time. The scans revealed that the people who meditated had more folds in the outer layers of their brains, which may indicate an increased ability to process information.

In another 2012 study, 36 participants were divided into three equal groups and told to practice one of two kinds of meditation or to take part in a health discussion. After eight weeks, all underwent MRI scans of their amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions) while being shown positive or negative imagery. Participants who had meditated showed less of a response to the images compared to the control group. That suggests that practicing meditation might temper your emotional reactions to stressful events even when you're not meditating.

Meditation can help people cope with stress

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Researchers are beginning to look closely at how meditation might have a positive effect on mental health issues. One promising area is in managing anxiety, the most common mental health concern in the U.S. A 2014 analysis of 47 studies found that meditation programs led to "moderate evidence of improved anxiety," depression, and pain, and a small effect on improving stress and overall quality of life.

Meditation can also help people cope with physical health problems. Integrative therapies like yoga and meditation can relieve stress, depression, and sleep disorders in people undergoing cancer treatments, according to the Society for Integrative Oncology. Research has also shown meditation might reduce high blood pressure and some symptoms of menopause when combined with standard medications and therapies.

Meditation may relieve chronic conditions

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Based on the the technique's reputation for reducing stress, scientists are looking at how meditation can alleviate chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even assist people who want to quit smoking. The current research into meditation's effects on these conditions has mixed results, however: small studies have shown minor improvements in symptoms, but the findings are not conclusive.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, is supporting research into the relationship between meditation and even more conditions. Ongoing projects are focused on teens with chronic pain, people with multiple sclerosis, and adults with post-traumatic stress disorder, high blood pressure, and headaches.

Mental health breaks are a chance to refocus

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Meditation is safe for almost everyone (but you should always speak with your doctor before starting or changing a health care regimen). Taking a mental health break to practice meditation, or even allowing yourself a full day off from the daily grind, is good for you. Doing so can relieve feelings of burnout like irritability, anxiety, and lack of motivation.

Try an online guided meditation or download a meditation app like Headspace or Calm to your smartphone to get started. At the moment, Headspace is offering free guided meditations called "weathering the storm," which are meant to help those (healthcare workers, educators, those working from home) who are stressed or anxious due to COVID-19. UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center also offers webinars and podcasts that focus on relieving the stress of the pandemic, and the center's free app includes various meditations in both English and Spanish, as well as wellness meditations intended specifically for anyone suffering from chronic or onerous health conditions.

But regardless of extenuating circumstances, a few minutes of meditation during a busy day can help you gain a new perspective on something that's bothering you, improve your ability to focus on tackling your to-do list, and increase your patience, self-awareness, and propensity for kindness.