Between the stresses of school and family life, changing hormones, and the continuing development of brain areas associated with self-control, it’s no wonder that teens feel emotions so intensely.  For many teens, using drugs is a way to distract themselves or alter their emotions.  However, there is a simpler, drug-free route to emotional control and a natural high: meditation.  Study after study shows that meditation improves emotional well-being and can actually induce brain changes in the same regions impacted by drugs.

Approaches to Meditation

There are many forms of meditation, and different types work better for different people. The core feature of all types of meditation is a focus on turning inward to attend to the present moment.  Meditation can be religious or non-religious, from Eastern or Western traditions, and part of a formal practice or something you do on your own.  What is important is learning to retrain your mind and center your emotions.

Scientific Research about the Effects of Meditation on the Brain

Richard Davidson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is at the forefront of research on meditation.  With the help of the Dalai Lama, he began recruiting Tibetan Buddhist monks to come to his research laboratory to have their brains scanned.  Dr. Davidson wanted to see if people’s brains actually change when they perform meditation.

The findings suggest that during meditation, a range of brain areas involved in attention and emotion monitoring are engaged.  Additionally, those who are experts at meditation — such as Buddhist monks who have been practicing meditation for decades — can slip into this altered brain state within moments.  People who meditate also do better at ignoring distracting information and regulating their emotions compared to non-meditators.

However, it is not just experts at meditation who can harness its benefits.  Researchers have also investigated how regular people’s brains may change after learning how to meditate.  Their results suggest that after just 8 weeks of practice, people show brain changes associated with more positive emotions and better emotional control.  

Many of these changes occur in the limbic system, which is the brain’s reward processing area.  This is also the area that is activated following drug use, suggesting that meditation and substance use may be tapping into the same underlying processes.  In fact, meditation may cause changes to the brain’s levels of dopamine, the same brain chemical involved in drug addiction.

Try It Yourself: A Simple Meditation Exercise

Many people are surprised when they first begin to meditate by how powerful it can be.  After a bit of practice, meditation results in feelings of calm, relaxation, and even euphoria.  This “natural high” allows you to better regulate your emotions and overcome distressing situations.

When first trying meditation, find a quiet place to be by yourself.  Sit in a comfortable position, either cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.  Note your breathing coming slowly, in and out.  Notice how your body moves when you breathe, with your rib cage and belly expanding.  Maintain your focus on your breath, coming in and out, in and out.  If you find your mind wandering, just gently return your focus to your breath.  

To start, try attending to your breath for 2 or 3 minutes.  As you get more practice, you can increase the amount of time you spend meditating or experiment with different forms of meditation.

Davidson, R. & Lutz, A. (2008). Buddha’s brain: neuroplasticity and meditation. IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, 25(1): 174-176. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/

Davidson, R., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4): 564-570.