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Sep 30, 2021
5 min read

Metta meditation: what is it, benefits, and techniques

Metta meditation is a practice that involves sending love and kindness to others, including yourself. Like other forms of mindfulness, metta meditation has benefits like stress reduction and more positive emotions.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Also called loving-kindness meditation, metta meditation focuses on fostering a mindset of unconditional kindness to all people––including yourself.

At its most basic level, the practice of meditation is rooted in using awareness of breath to help you pay attention to your mind-body connection, practice concentration, or learn the basics of awareness. You can then use these skills in stressful situations and to bring you daily calm (Hoffmann, 2011). 

Like other types of mindfulness practices, metta meditation has a multitude of benefits like reducing stress, easing chronic pain, and may even curb biological aging. It is also a healthy way to find peace and promote mental wellness.

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What is metta meditation?

Different types of meditation can yield similar results. Unlike other forms of mindfulness meditation where you focus on the present moment to calm racing thoughts, metta meditation focuses on love.

This can come in many forms, but the principal is sending love, kindness, and forgiveness to others whether it’s to loved ones or someone who upset you (Frewen, 2015). It also includes self-love.

Benefits of metta meditation

While some people pass it off as a fad, meditation is an ancient Buddhist practice that has recently become the focus of medical research. 

Scientists are still trying to untangle exactly how meditation affects the brain, and there’s already a deep archive of research linking meditation and mindfulness to positive mental health. This is especially beneficial for those who have anxiety, depression, or other conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (Frewen, 2015; Chen, 2018). 

Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits associated with metta meditation.

Curbs the biological effects of aging

Studies have found changing your thought patterns to focus on love can actually influence genetic expression. 

Researchers designed a randomized controlled trial to determine the effect loving-kindness meditation had on the biological signs of aging. It gets a little complicated, but basically, meditation has been found to prevent the shortening of what are called telomeres. Telomeres are protective caps on the end of chromosomes that deteriorate with age. This limits the number of times a cell can divide and regenerate (Le Nguyen, 2020). 

During the trial, researchers compared the people who practiced mindfulness meditation with those who did loving-kindness meditation. After six weeks of practice, those in the metta meditation group had less telomere shortening than people in the mindfulness group (Le Nguyen, 2020).

Eases chronic pain

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 American adults suffer from chronic pain, which is associated with a higher risk of opioid dependence and poor mental health (CDC, 2019). 

Several studies have shown metta meditation can dull the effects of chronic pain. One meta-analysis assessing compassion-based interventions (like loving-kindness meditation) were effective in treating chronic pain.

More studies need to be done to better understand if metta meditation can work as a stand-alone treatment for chronic pain, but there is evidence so far that it can be very effective when incorporated into a broader treatment plan (Graser, 2018).

Makes people feel more socially connected

Feeling socially connected isn’t just imperative for mental health––it can actually impact your body’s physiology. 

One study examined how positive emotions impact physical health. It found that perceived social connections (sending feelings of love to others during your meditation) actually elevated psychological and physical well-being (Kok, 2013). 

Researchers measured the activity of what’s called the vagus nerve in the brain. The vagus nerve is heavily involved in the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates things like alertness, blood pressure, and heart rate. The study found those who practiced metta meditation experienced an increase in vagal tone, which is linked to increased positive emotions and improved heart health (Kok, 2013).

Changes how the brain handles anxiety

Mounting research has linked regular meditation to decreased anxiety. It’s important to note that the practice alone isn’t a substitute for your regular therapy routine, although it can definitely help. 

One study examined how meditation might work on the brain to decrease anxiety. Researchers looked specifically at the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions and registers fear. Brain images of people who practiced meditation showed regular, long-term meditation may impact how the amygdala reacts, which would help reduce anxiety (Chen, 2018). 

How to practice metta meditation

You don’t have to be perfect when you meditate––you just have to do it. Consistency is key, especially for those new to meditation.

Here are a few steps to get you started on metta meditation (UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, 2021):

  • To start, move to somewhere quiet if possible. 
  • Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths.
  • Once you sink into a relaxed state, think about someone who loves you very much (it could even be yourself). 
  • In the first part of the meditation, focus on the feeling of being loved. Then pivot to focus on sending love. You can dedicate the whole practice to one or the other.

One study found people who meditated every day reported feeling more positive feelings, although it didn’t have as strong of an effect alleviating negative emotions.

While meditation is a  fantastic therapeutic tool, understanding that it’s not a magical cure-all can ease expectations and lead to a more productive practice (Fredrickson, 2017; Hoffmann, 2011).

There isn’t one right way to practice metta meditation, so it’s a good idea to try different types and see what you like best. You can also take what you like from specific meditations to create your own tailor-made practice. 

The UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center has an archive of guided meditations, including a metta meditation recording that takes around 15 minutes. In general, all metta meditations require some general guidance.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2019). Chronic Pain and High-impact Chronic Pain Among U.S. Adults, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db390.htm
  2. Chen, C., Chen, Y. C., Chen, K. L., & Cheng, Y. (2018). Atypical Anxiety-Related Amygdala Reactivity and Functional Connectivity in Sant Mat Meditation. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12, 298. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00298. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6288484/
  3. Fredrickson, B. L., Boulton, A. J., Firestine, A. M. (2017). Positive Emotion Correlates of Meditation Practice: A Comparison of Mindfulness Meditation and Loving-kindness Meditation. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1623-1633. doi: 10.1007/s12671-017-0735-9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5704778/
  4. Frewen, P., Rogers, N., Flodrowski, L., & Lanius, R. (2015). Mindfulness and Metta-based Trauma Therapy (MMTT): Initial Development and Proof-of-Concept of an Internet Resource. Mindfulness, 6(6), 1322-1334. doi: 10.1007/s12671-015-0402-y. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4646922/
  5. Graser, J. & Stangier, U. (2018). Compassion and Loving-Kindness Meditation: An Overview and Prospects for the Application in Clinical Samples. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 26(4), 201-215. doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000192. PMID: 29975338. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29975338/
  6. Hofmann, S.G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. E. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(7), 1126-1132. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.07.003. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3176989/
  7. Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., & Cohn, M. A. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123-1132. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23649562/
  8. Le Nguyen, K. D., Lin, J., & Algoe, S. B. (2019). Loving-kindness meditation slows biological aging in novices: Evidence from a 12-week randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 108, 20-27. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31185369/
  9. University of California, Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. (2021). Loving-Kindness Meditation. Retrieved from https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/loving_kindness_meditation