The last Greater Good post discussed how years of meditation practice can physically alter the brain in ways that help us manage our emotions and boost our skills of attention. But if you haven't already been meditating for years, don't give up hope! Other research suggests that you can see meditation's effects on your social and emotional skills after just 20 minutes of practice a day for five days.
In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, neuroscientist Yi-Yun Tang and his colleagues reported that people who meditate for as little as 20 minutes a day for five days showed fewer signs of stress immediately after their practice, including lower heart rate and respiratory rate—levels even lower than those of a control group that practiced muscle-relaxation.
What's more, the meditators demonstrated a stronger ability to regulate their behavior and emotions. Specifically, they had higher "heart rate variability," which is an index of how well one can swing into action when startled or stimulated, and calm down when there is no immediate danger. Most interestingly, mediators also showed increased activation in the area of the brain that coordinates the physiological functions, such as heart-rate, that activate in response to threats, suggesting that their physiological reactions under stress are more controlled and adaptive.
Previous research, including a 2007 study on which Tang was the lead author, has also found that just five days of meditation training can boost participants' concentration skills and reduce their reactions to stress. But this study took the previous findings a step further and pinpointed the specific brain and physiological mechanisms that help reduce reactivity to stress after meditation.