Kavya Nambiar, a working professional with gestational diabetes, had trouble regulating her fasting blood sugar levels. Diet and walking helped regulate her post-meal blood sugar levels, but she had no way to control her fasting levels. After trying everything, she chanced upon meditation.
A week after she started meditation, her fasting blood sugar levels dropped. Meditation has helped her regulate her fasting blood sugar levels and “relieve my anxieties and stress about my pregnancy.”
While Nambiar’s meditation practice was in a community-based setup for pregnant women, meditation has also been adapted by many as a psychotherapeutic technique.
For instance, Yudhajit Roychowdhury, a counselling psychologist from Kolkata who identifies himself as neurodivergent, says, “When I went for my personal therapy, I turned inward and my therapist guided a body scan, which is basically taking stock of the body.”
Meditation helps one observe bodily sensations that one is often detached from, and this may feel uneasy, says Roychowdhury. Given the discomfort involved meditation may not be for everyone’s first choice. He adds that it helps to know that “these processes are always happening,” and meditation helps us tune into our bodies, such that our bodily sensations do not feel alien but natural.
Often explained as a technique that integrates and enhances the mind-body connection, meditation is rooted in the concept of “being present” and facilitates focus and attention. Lately, meditation has been divided into focused or concentrative meditation and open or mindfulness meditation, depending on the process and/or object of attention.
Concentrative meditation focuses on repeating sounds, mental images, or breathing. This is characteristic of yoga practices that use breathwork.
Mindfulness meditation is attending to thoughts, behaviour or even things in a non-judgemental manner. Many therapists use mindfulness meditation to facilitate their practice.
The way around with meditation
Tanusree Mustafi, another Kolkata-based rehabilitation psychologist and trauma therapist, explains that meditation involves emotional regulation. When the therapist explores clients’ emotions along with them (co-regulation), it feels manageable, and slowly, clients learn to explore their emotions without the therapist (self-regulation).
Mustafi adds that people misunderstand meditation as coming in with an empty mind and focusing one’s attention on an isolated point. However, our brain is designed differently, “Our attention network, by design, cannot stay with a single stimulus for a long time, but we are bound to make it happen because our urban life demands this concentration from us. But through meditation, we allow that oscillation to happen.” Meditation helps us to develop a connection with our mind and body; it allows us to be curious rather than scared.
She emphasises that meditation is one of the tools that help us focus on a single stimulus to invite rest and calm our nervous system when our lives feel overwhelming. Mustafi gives the example of one’s daily life, “In our urban life, say in our workplace, there are a lot of stimuli. A small meditative practice could be looking for one stimulus, say the colour red, and focusing on it for ten seconds and ignoring all other stimuli.”
How does meditation impact us
In 2014, researchers found a connection between regulating stress and emotions and improving our attention span and our working memory. The study, published in Frontier in Human Neuroscience, explains that meditations that allow for mind wandering activate brain areas related to emotional regulation.
A 2018 study published in the journal Neural Plasticity studied the long-term effects of meditation and found that it regulates the brain areas associated with memory and may help prevent conditions like Alzheimer’s. Meditation affects our brain’s plasticity, as it learns new ways of functioning when exposed to further information or phenomenon.
Shreya Singh (23), Delhi, has been meditating for around four months and says, “For the most part, I have noticed that I am calmer on the days that I do start my day with yoga and specifically meditation compared to the days I don’t.” It has helped her be more at peace, and her attention and concentration span has expanded, she adds.
For Singh, who has taken a drop year, meditation has meant learning to feel calmer and relaxed even during uncertainty.
Is it a one-size fits all?
Despite the many benefits of meditation, is it a practice that fits all and should everyone jump on the bandwagon? The concept of neurodiversity suggests that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ practice. People’s brains can work uniquely and cognitive processes like thinking, learning, and processing information can have diversity instead of one unified way of being that is often considered to be socially acceptable.
If meditation does not work for one person, it could be because the practice is not curated to cater to all.
Research on the adverse effects of meditation is limited, yet, studies suggest some may exist. A 2017 meta-analysis of studies on meditation to understand the unwanted effects of meditation in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica explains that it can make one feel anxious in certain conditions. For people with depression and anxiety, meditation increases mindfulness, thus, leading to rumination (intrusive thoughts that focus on past negative experiences) and worry. However, it can also trigger a recurrence of symptoms that had been dormant.
A similar study found that duration and setting may be key factors when considering if meditation is suitable. For instance, practising alone for more than 20 minutes can lead to anxiety.
However, the 2017 study echoes the Dharmatrata Meditation scriptures of the 5th century CE, implying that discomfort is a normal part of the practice, which must be done rightly. Meditation should be made accessible and inclusive to meet the unique needs of people.
Meditation for a neurodivergent brain
For many neurodivergent people, meditation is a tool to tune into one’s body and navigate a world that may not have the provisions to cater to it yet. For example, many neurodivergent people have differences in attending to tasks; some people can sustain attention for a specific task but may find it challenging to sustain attention for a task that is uninteresting. In such a case, the eight-hour day shift, which includes multiple stimuli and usually has just one break, may not suit them.
Roychowdhury shares his experiences, “Meditation has enabled me to manage the discomfort of not making eye contact and to refrain from interrupting people mid-conversation. It has helped me become more attuned and connected.”
Mustafi adds, “Practitioners who teach should be skilled enough to know which type of meditation is suitable for another by knowing their state. It may not be that different, but the creativity in choosing the medium and how meditation will be done matters.”
She incorporates the following in her practice:
- Working with someone living with ADHD, choose something fast-paced and movement-based and probably introduce various methods.
- Working with someone on the autism spectrum, stick with one and finish that.
- Keeping in mind the individual difference of the person in front of me and catering to the individual’s need: Finding the right fit rather than the ‘right’ thing to do.
- If meditation seems difficult, start with stabilisation, i.e., bringing the person to a sense of safety and the present moment using the person’s five senses.
- Develop a non-judgemental attitude so clients learn to feel safe in their body and mind.
She explains that trauma-informed meditation helps clients gain self-worth. A safe space enables them to explore and gain clarity, boosting their confidence and improving decision-making.
Meditation for beginners
As a beginner, it is best to access meditation with no expectations. Nambiar says, “I’ve dabbled with yoga in the past, and meditation is always tricky. It is best to come with an open mind.” Singh suggests starting small (duration-wise) and not being too harsh on oneself if distracted. “Just stay consistent. You’ll see benefits in the long term.”
- Meditation: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK180092/#introduction.s1
- Brain changes – https://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2018/5340717/
Great read. Very comforting and informative