|Health Benefits and Research|
|Scientific studies overwhelmingly support both meditation and imagery as practices to reduce stress, reduce or prevent certain diseases, and improve overall health (see below). The studies also document increased sleep quality, self-awareness and self-control, as well as reduction of anxiety and depressive symptoms. Meditation and imagery, frequently in combination with more standard medical treatment, are used to help treat a variety of physical illnesses – such as hypertension, heart disease, headaches, insomnia, arthritis, diabetes, digestive disorders, chronic fatigue, and various types of cancer.
An increasing number of physicians and health care professionals recommend meditation as a way to prevent, slow down, or control pain and chronic diseases.
Many meditation participants in numerous surveys have reported feeling more joy, more connection with others, greater inner strength, and a greater sense of self-control in dealing with life’s challenges.
The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts has conducted much research in the use of mindfulness in effectively treating a wide range of medical diagnoses and health issues (See research statistics from, the University of Massachusetts Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program (MBSRP). This program incorporates many aspects from the highly successful Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, founded by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The University of Massachusetts program was featured on the documentary, Healing and the Mind, with Bill Moyers, and on NBC Dateline. More than 13, 000 people have completed the Massachusetts program.
Several scientific studies show that daily meditation can help boost the immune system function, helping the body to ward off sickness and disease and lower blood pressure. (See Dean Ornish’s work with heart disease and Herbert Benson regarding stress and the relaxation response). Meditation can also boost such mental functions as memory, learning and concentration (see below). There is now more scientific evidence that chronic stress causes premature aging (Time Magazine, Health Section, The Ravages of Stress, Chronic Emotional Burdens Can Make Your Cells Age Prematurely, December 13, 2004). Higher numbers of accidents and injuries at work and home are reported when people are feeling chronically stressed (employee surveys and stats from various companies). Health care expenses are about 50 percent more for workers who say they have high levels of stress (Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine). Other research studies indicate that people who practice some form of meditation outlive those people who do not practice meditation (Time Magazine, The Science of Meditation, August 4, 2003.)
Numerous research studies substantiate the role of chronic stress in the breakdown of our emotional and physical well being (see below).
It is critical that stress and its effects be regarded seriously. Steps need to be taken to deal with it effectively, before it can worsen into more dangerous conditions for the individual.
It is impossible to avoid all potential stressors; but we should also note that not all stressors are necessary harmful. Whatever kind of stress we are feeling, the crucial factor is how we choose to deal with the stress in our lives.
It is our mind that interprets changes in the external environment, and also in our own body. The mind will determine when to switch on the “fight or flight” mechanism, which is a biological emergency response within each of us. It is programmed into us as a means of surviving immediate danger. This biological survival mechanism automatically turns on when we perceive something as being dangerous, or potentially life-threatening to us. When we feel threatened physically or emotionally – Our thoughts tell the brain to send warning signals to the nervous system, then our body begins to prepare itself for survival by sending a rush of biochemicals, including cortisol, throughout the entire body. When this mechanism is activated, we experience elevated blood pressure, faster heart rate, rapid breathing, and increased metabolism. Our muscles tighten, and hands and feet get colder—as blood flows away from the extremities, and toward major muscle groups needed in fighting or fleeing the perceived danger. The “fight or flight” mechanism is our innate survival response. However, if left on when not needed . . .it leaves us feeling anxious, exhausted, and wreaks havoc on our entire nervous system, as well as all major organs and systems within the body.
When the emergency mechanism “fight or flight” is left on, these biochemicals (cortisol and other stress hormones), are released within the body, slowing down or halting tissue repair, reproduction, growth and the effectiveness of the immune system. A decrease in digestive functions of the stomach, intestines and pancreas also occurs.
Anxious feelings initially appear as our entire being prepares to physically either flee or fight . . .but if these anxious feelings are left on, they can worsen and may eventually turn into anxiety and or depressive related conditions. If these stress hormones continue to be released and are not turned off, they most likely will cause adverse physical symptoms, as well, which can lead to chronic physical and emotional distress. Because our stress and social situations have evolved so we cannot “Flee or Fight,” we find ourselves in a state where we “Freeze.” In this state we continue to produce the stress hormones, and often find ourselves not knowing how to respond for fear of losing a job, upsetting a spouse etc., or we may “overreact” with a behavior that does not have much thought to it, often compounding work-related/family or social problems or interactions.
Some of the early research in the field of “Fight or Flight” response include the work of Walter Bradford Cannon, former professor of physiology at Harvard, and Han’s Selye’s work regarding the definition of stress. Around 1960 through the 1970s, due to the various research endeavors by George Solomon at Stanford, Robert Ader at the University of Rochester, and Candace Pert at John Hopkins, lead to the belief in the high probability that mental attitudes and emotional responses could indeed affect physical functioning and create illness. In 1960, studies on immune system regulation suggested that part of the brain called the hypothalamus, was the “main control mechanism” for the immune system. This work revealed even further that the thoughts of the mind were taken in by the hypothalamus, affecting immune activity. Research data suggested that brain cells do communicate to the immune system via peptides. This research laid much of the foundation for the field of Psychoneuroimmunology, which as the name suggests, stresses the interconnections among mind, brain, and immune system. As this work continued a broader picture of the connections among social/environmental stress, thoughts, emotions and physical performance began to materialize.
Herbert Benson, a Harvard cardiologist, conducted research that showed a variety of different types of meditation produced what he called the “relaxation response”. The use of meditation was shown to restore balance within the nervous system, when the “fight or flight” response was no longer required. When we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system, becomes accelerated to deal with the perceived threat. When under stress, physiological changes occur within the body, such as rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, rapid breathing etc. On the other hand, when we feel at ease, our parasympathetic nervous system, which is also part of the autonomic nervous system, is effectively working when we are feeling relaxed or calm. When we are calm, the brain sends this message to the nervous system and out heart rate automatically slows down, breathing becomes slower and more regulated and blood pressure declines. Tight muscles loosen when we are calm, feeling centered, steady or relaxed and all major systems and organs of the body can function normally. Dr. Benson also discovered that daily relaxation practice also could significantly decrease the levels of cortisol and other stress hormones within the body. Dr. Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, documented the benefits of supportive groups utilizing relaxation techniques, including self-,hypnosis, in treating women with metastatic breast cancer. In 1976, randomly controlled studies were conducted, where traditional medical treatment was given certain patients and traditional medical treatment along with the supportive/relaxation technique groups to the other patients. The individuals in this research program were followed-up ten years after the study. Dr. Spiegel discovered that those individuals who had been in the support groups had lived twice as long as those who were not in support groups. These results were published in 1989. For further stress research history and studies please view the work of James Gordon, MD, who has devoted over 30 years to the exploration and practice of mind-body medicine. (James Gordon is Founder and Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine and former Chair of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy).
More recently, Dean Ornish’s work at the Preventative Medicine Research Institute showed that a comprehensive group program consisting of regular meditation (quiet and dynamic), cardiovascular exercise, and a low-fat diet could actually reverse certain heart conditions. “The various tests performed, including scans, showed that more blood flow was going to patients’ hearts, and coronary arteries that were severely closed were now open enough to permit close to normal functioning.”` Dr. Ornish’s findings also indicate that the reduction of stress hormones does help improve the immune system functioning, decrease chronic pain and improve mood/emotional well-being.
The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society (see website) shows research findings on mindfulness-based stress reduction. The University of Massachusetts Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program has been involved in various research endeavors over the past twenty years. These studies have shown consistent and solid examples of clinically appropriate reductions in physical and psychological symptoms throughout a diverse range of medical and psychiatric diagnosis. These findings include different emotional and physical chronic pain conditions (Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth and Burney, 1985; Waldrop, 1988); and other medical diagnosis (Kabat-Zinn and Chapman-Waldrop, 1988); medical patients with a secondary diagnosis of anxiety and/or panic (Kabat-Zinn et al, 1992: Miller et al, 1995). The research was based on the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program experience, and demonstrated a continuance of these changes in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
Please refer to the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society Website for additional research endeavors and results.
As we continue to observe the positive impact that mindfulness has within ourselves and in interacting with others, we see its’ usefulness in the realm of psychotherapy. Throughout this website we have been talking about the innate healing capacity of the mind and body, as well as the interconnection of the mind and body for optimal healing. According to Christopher K. Germer, Ronald D. Siegel and Paul R. Fulton in their book Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, (2005 Guilford Press) there has been an emergence of literature on mindfulness and acceptance-based cognitive-behavioral treatment (Baer, 2003; Campos, 2002;Hayes et al., 2004; Roemer & Orsillo, 2002). “Mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments create a relaxed, non-adversarial relationship to symptoms, in which disturbing feelings, thoughts or sensations are recognized and allowed to come and go. “
In my own clinical work I have found that mindfulness-based psychotherapy and stress reduction, allows the individual to observe, and experience the thought, feeling or physical experience without judging it. In mindfulness we are not fighting, judging or changing our thoughts, feelings or physical symptoms in the moment that we are observing them. We attempt to hold them in compassion -whatever the feeling, thought or physical sensation we are experiencing in that moment, while observing them. Recognizing and labeling the symptom(s) compassionately as a “wanting” thought, or an “angry” feeling, or a “headache,” helps to keep the symptom as just that -- a symptom. We are not judging the symptom, whether it is a thought, feeling or body sensation as either “good” or “bad.” We are not judging or interpreting if the thoughts or feelings are rational or irrational in each moment that we are observing them. We learn to observe the symptom(s) with compassion and without judgment. I have found in my own work that symptoms often intensify when we judge them as “bad” or attempt to “rage” against them in battle with the goal of obliteration. We find that our unsuccessful attempts of obliteration often create more fear and anxiety regarding the next time the thought, feeling or physical symptom appears. I have found by learning to observe and at a certain point in therapy/life accepting the symptoms in without fear or judgment (at first, just a small amount at a time- this is very individual and client specific) in each moment that they arise - letting them flow in and out with the breath, actually helps to diffuse the intensity of the symptom. By experiencing this process, we begin to learn not to fear the symptoms and then automatically and anxiously react to them. By holding symptoms in compassionate awareness, they seem to become less emotionally charged. Many stress reduction participants report that the distressing symptoms that initially brought them into the program do not seem as powerful as they once did. People report a sense of having more control over symptoms that they once viewed as helplessly out of control. Mindfulness allows us to observe the symptom without judgment, focusing in on the present experience with compassion. We do not feel pressure or forced to change anything in that moment of observation. This experience in itself is very freeing. We are simply learning what goes on in our mind and body in each moment that we allow ourselves to. In this acceptance of what we are experiencing in each mindful moment- accepting us for who we are- we begin to see a broader perspective of the symptom or the situation that we are dealing with. This process will naturally lead us to a new perspective – a new way of looking consciously at what we are experiencing. We begin to see the difference between reacting from an automatic pilot and that of mindfully responding to a symptom or situation.
In the book, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, the authors state, Cognitive psychology is undergoing a “second cognitive revolution”: a new understanding of much of what we think, feel and do is the consequence of unconscious, implicit” processes (Westen, 2000a). The task of therapy, then, is to access implicit, automatic, dysfunctional thought patterns (Friedman & Whisman, 2004; Palfai & Wagner, 2004) Mindfulness practice will probably grow in importance over the coming years as a “technology of access.”
Ellen J. Langer, professor of Psychology at Harvard University and social researcher, has authored numerous publications and books on the results of scientific studies on mindfulness, she and colleagues have conducted. Her research has been conducted within diverse populations and settings. The benefits of a more mindful approach to teaching and learning in our school system, is of particular interest to me. As written in her book, “Mindfulness”: To understand the more complex relationship between automatic information processing and mindlessness, compare E. Langer, “Minding Matters,” in L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (New York: Academic Press) and W. Schneider and R. M. Schiffrin, “Controlled and Automatic Human Information Processing: I. Detection, Search, and Attention,” Psychological Review 84 (1977): 1-66.
More and more scientific data continues to emerge regarding the health benefits of meditation and mindfulness.
Not only is meditation an antidote to stress and capable of improving our emotional and physical well being, the following research study indicates it can improve our memory, learning and concentration.
According to The Week Health and Science Section (1/21/05), researchers at the University of Wisconsin have conducted studies on accomplished meditators (eight monks), finding that meditation can actually change the way the mind works. Higher levels of “gamma” brain waves were seen in the meditative monk’s brains. Gamma waves are associated with happiness, heightened awareness and organized thinking. This research indicates that meditation actually appears to rewire the brain’s circuitry—in effect training the brain the way physical workouts train the body. One of the researchers state, “The trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one”. Researcher Richard Davidson says the monks appear capable of controlling their thinking and emotions to a degree Westerners can scarcely imagine, and that further studies will “increase the likelihood that meditation will be taken more seriously.”
More recently in the New York Daily News and The Week Health & Science, they report that researchers at Yale used MRIs to scan the brains of 20 people who meditate for 40 minutes a day, comparing their brains to a group of people who did not meditate. The scans showed that the meditators had thicker gray matter in the cerebral cortex and in an area of the right brain linked to emotions and attention. By focusing inward, the meditators even develop the ability to control such unconscious processes as breathing and heartbeat. “The study participants were people with jobs and families,” says researcher Jeremy Gray. “Meditation can change anyone’s gray matter. You do not have to be a monk. Daily meditation actually creates physical changes in the brain, growing new cells in regions responsible for concentration and making sense of the world.” Meditation, the study suggests, could be especially helpful for elderly people who want to keep their minds fit and alert.
In conclusion, it is now scientific fact that the mind and body are closely interrelated and can work in concert to improve health, or work against each other to slow down or even stop the healing process.
All of these studies highlight the dramatic implications of what we as medical consumers can initiate within us to empower ourselves, in our own medical treatment and overall well being.