How Meditation can help restore your inner peace and enhance your overall health and well-being.
What do you think of when you hear the word “meditation”? For some people, the word evokes and image of a long-haired yogi sitting cross-legged and chanting “Ommmm”. While chanting is one way of meditating – called mantra meditation – other meditation techniques have become more mainstream over the past several years.
People who regularly meditate say it provides mental, spiritual and physical benefits, including stress reduction and a sense of well-being. What’s more, many doctors recommend mediation as an adjunct therapy to treat ailments like chronic pain and high blood pressure, based on a growing number of studies that support its health benefits.
The two most widely researched meditation techniques are mindfulness meditation – particularly, mindfulness-based stress reduction – and Transcendental Meditation (TM). Both are associated with various mental and physical health-boosting effects.
The Mind-Body Link
Scientific evidence has shown that the mind and body are inherently connected, so much so that psychological and emotional factors can influence psychological function. While this connection often manifests in physical symptoms – such as stress leading to an upset stomach – meditation aims to tap into the mind’s connection to the body to relieve symptoms and support well-being. It’s also believed to boos concentration and focus, improve the ability to cope better with an illness and reduce stress.
Eric J. Lenze, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Healthy Mind Lab (healthymind.wustl.edu) at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, started recommending meditation to his patients for researching the intervention for studies he was conducting on anxiety disorders and depression in older adults. He noted that meditation is associated with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol – and reducing cortisol levels seems to improve memory and cognitive function in older adults.
“We found that many older adults with anxiety disorders and depression have day-to-day cortisol levels that are substantially elevated,” says Dr. Lenze, a geriatric psychiatrist. “That led us into doing meditation research because one thing other researchers have found is that when people meditate, their cortisol levels go down. Such a stress-reducing intervention actually seems to turn down our biological stress response – which we think is on overdrive in anxious and depressed older adults, leading to cognitive problems.”
“We are examining whether mindfulness training, largely through teaching the practice of meditation, could help older adults not only with their anxiety and depressive symptoms but with their cognitive function. Preliminarily, it appears that, yes, mindfulness training does seem to improve memory in older adults.”
Dr. Lenze is currently investigating whether meditation and other strategies like exercise and health education can help older adults prevent or reverse typical age-related cognitive decline. “If you had told me just five years ago that I would not only be conducting meditation research but routinely recommending it, I would have laughed,” he says, “I’ve not only seen its benefits in my research but in reports from my patients who notice the benefits of meditation. I want to see more larger definitive studies, but in the meantime I’m impressed enough with what we have seen so far that I am recommending it.”
Mind Over Matter
Although meditating may seem like a new-age practice, people have been meditating for thousands of years to increase spirituality, boost well-being or promote inner calm and relaxation. For people who turn to meditation to help improve existing health conditions, it’s generally categorized as a form of complementary medicine; that is, it enhances – but doesn’t replace – traditional treatments. Meditation also shouldn’t be used to replace other key components of a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise and a balanced diet.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says that meditation is a safe practice for healthy people. However, people with physical limitations may have difficulty performing meditation that involves movement.
An interdisciplinary team from Johns Hopkins Medicine, representing the departments of medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and health policy and management, analyzed 47 clinical trials involving different forms of medication. Their 2014 analysis found that mindfulness meditation has a small to moderate beneficial effect on psychological stress, including anxiety, pain and depression. The effects of practicing mindfulness meditation on depression were similar to the effects of taking an anti-depressant.
How meditation works is not fully understood, although some research suggests that meditation induces a relaxed state, resulting from its calming effects on the nervous system, which regulates organs and muscles that control functions such as breathing, heartbeat and sweating. It’s been shown to alter aspects of the immune and endocrine systems, as well, and produce changes in areas of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotion.
Meditation may help its practitioners develop the capacity for “metacognitive awareness”, the ability to be aware of one’s own thought processes. As a result, metacognition can help people actively control – and modify – their reflexive response to stress.
What Can Meditation Do For You?
A growing body of evidence indicates that some forms of meditation may help improve physical complaints in addition to mental stress and anxiety. According to the NCCIH, research suggests that meditation may:
- Help people with cancer relieve stress, anxiety and fatigue and improve mood and sleep.
Citing clinical evidence of meditation’s benefits, the Society for Integrative Oncology recommends the practice to help manage chronic pain, anxiety and mood and improve quality of life.
- Lower Blood Pressure
Basing its recommendation on several studies, the American Heart Association says that TM can be used with standard therapies to treat hypertension.
- Improve Anxiety Symptoms
A 2014 literature review associated mindfulness meditation with improved symptoms of depression and pain relief.
- Ease the Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
A 2014 analysis found a small improvement in quality of life and pain was associated with mindfulness training.
- Reduce Hot Flashes and Other Menopausal Symptoms
A mindfulness meditation program combined with yoga can help improve mood, sleep, muscle and joint pain and stress and reduce the frequency of hot flashes according to a 2010 review in Meritas.
Other research has suggested that practicing meditation may reduce insomnia and the incidence, duration and severity of acute respiratory illnesses such as influenza.
A recent study in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that meditation may also have brain-protective effects. Researchers compared long-time meditators to non-meditators. both groups showed age-related decreases in gray matter – the part of the brain involved in processing sensory information like memory, decision making and emotions – on MRI brain scans, but the loss was less pronounced in the meditators. Of course, it could also be that people who practice meditation may have healthier habits overall, which can have positive effects on the brain.
Putting it Into Practice
Alejandro Chaoul, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of palliative, rehabilitation and integrative medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, works with people who have cancer and their loved ones. Dr. Chaoul – who calls meditation “the medicine of the mind” – teaches them min-body practices, including meditation and Tibetan yoga and researches these practices as well as yoga, tai chi and qigong, as a way to reduce distress and anxiety and improve quality of life.
One of his studies, in collaboration with Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., and Tibetan teacher Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (Psycho-Oncology, 2013), used a Tibetan sound meditation as an intervention for women with breast cancer who were suffering from cognitive impairment as a result of chemotherapy treatments. “We found better objective and perceived short-term memory and executive function,” says Dr. Chaoul.
Mindfulness refers to the state of focusing your attention wholly on the present moment. In mindfulness meditation, you practice being aware of the present by observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations without making judgements or allowing yourself to think about the past or worry about the future.
Mindfulness is based on principles of Buddhist meditation. Several therapies have been developed around mindfulness meditation, including mindfulness-based stress reduction, the origins of which go back to the 1970s, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which was originally developed to help people avoid depression relapses. Mindfulness meditation is often combined with yoga or stretching and incorporated into daily activities like walking and eating.
Edward M. Phillips, M.D., assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard School of Medicine, and the director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, Mass., uses a less formal type of mindfulness as a tool to help patients adopt and sustain improved health behaviors.
Being mindful can be particularly effective when trying to curb unhealthy eating behavior, he says. “If you could just add a momentary pause before you took a bite of food, and you mindfully decided, am I hungry – or am I just thirsty and responding because there’s a pile of cookies next to me – you might be able to stop and realize that you’re not really hungry and opt for a glass of water instead. This is mindfulness. You’re doing a quick self-assessment, and it becomes mindless when you start to do it as a habit,” says Dr. Lenze. “Mindfulness training is something that beginners can pick up rather readily…I think many older adults will be surprised at how easily they can learn meditation and how much they actually like it, and find that it really is stress relieving.”
TM is a form of mantra meditation. You silently repeat a personally assigned mantra – a word, a sound, a phrase – with every slow breath. The goal is to help your body settle into a state of reset and relaxation in which the mind achieves a state of peace, without concentration or effort.
TM is derived from Hindu traditions but requires no belief in any religion or lifestyle. Instead of focusing on awareness of ones’ thoughts, TM practitioners close their eyes and use their mantra to help prevent distracting thoughts.
The goal of TM is to achieve ever-quieter levels of thought through 20 minute, twice-daily sessions until you achieve a silent state of transcendental consciousness, a process called “transcending”, from which the practice draws its name. Transcending is defined as the opposite of anxiety, physiologically. While TM’s proponents say the technique is effortless, it does require one-on-one instruction from a certified teacher, which can be costly.
Don’t Overthink It
People shouldn’t get too hung up on the word “meditation” and imagine they have to sit cross-legged for long periods as they try to clear their racing minds, says Dr. Phillips. Instead, he tells his patients to be more mindful of what they are doing at any given moment.
Dr. Phillips also recommends yoga as an easily accessible form of meditation. “In yoga, you’re continually scanning your body, and you’re completely mindful. But there’s also the moving meditation of doing a sport or an activity in which you have to pay more attention.” In other words, he says there’s a mindful separation between the stressors of the day and the activity that you’re doing at the moment.
Dr. Chaoul agrees that you don’t have to put an inordinate amount of effort into meditation to reap its benefits. He suggests starting with a tool that’s always with you – your breath. “One technique that most forms of meditation use is the breath. We use the breath in the way of focusing and anchoring. This mind-body practice is bringing the mind and body into harmony. When we’re nervous or anxious our breath is very shallow and fast. You’re able to bring about that calm by simply changing your breath, breathing a little deeper and with more attention.”
While we have guidelines for exercise and nutrition, there are no such guidelines for meditation, says Dr. Chaoul. “In general, most of us say around 20 minutes of meditation each day is great. But it’s much better to do 11 minutes a day and actually do it rather than thinking you have to do 20 minutes a day but it only do it a few times a week because you don’t have enough time for 20 minutes. I tell patients to do 5 minutes a day and that’s fine.”
“At the end of the day, find something that you can do – and that you will do. That’s the best method for you now. Everyone can meditate. Everyone has the possibility of taking a moment to be grounded and connected to oneself. From there, expand it day by day. Slowly get familiar with it. As you become familiar, it’s like meeting a new friend. It’s meeting yourself in a deeper way.”
Courtesy of “Health After 50” Vol. 27 Issue 9