For much of the western world, meditation brings to mind images of Buddhist monks or hippies chanting strange mantras in an attempt to achieve transcendence. Such associations with spirituality and religion can certainly be traced back thousands of years. While this imagery might be well-founded historically, a newer view of the practice is emerging due to recent studies regarding its positive effects on various aspects of mental and physical health. From the relief from chronic pain to the treatment of depression and even Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), therapists around the world are increasingly supplementing their treatment programs with what is clearly one of the oldest and most natural forms of alternative medicine in the world today.
When it comes right down to it, stress is one of the greatest contributors to just about every form of sickness or disease. Thus, it makes a great deal of sense to supplement any type of conventional treatment program with something that can restore a patient’s sense of calm within just a few minutes. Since stress itself is basically the body’s way of responding to the demands placed upon it, the point in meditation is to interrupt that reaction by focusing the mind upon one thing. Often the person’s attention is turned to his own breathing. When this is accomplished on a regular basis, levels of panic and anxiety have been known to drop considerably over a period of a few short weeks.
Recent studies in the medical field seem to indicate that meditation can be a powerful tool for managing physical pain. One such study conducted by the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center suggests that the brain activity responsible for pain can be significantly reduced through regular meditation sessions, as short as 20 minutes each. The results appeared to show a reduction in pain intensity that varied from 11 to around 93 percent. Several areas of the brain that are responsible for shaping the pain experience were monitored throughout the process. All appear to have been activated in some way during the meditation experience. Similar research conducted at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that increased modulation in a type of brain wave called an “alpha rhythm” might be responsible for this pain reduction.
Another area where meditation has shown great promise is in improving focus and concentration. Many people can relate to having difficulty concentrating when performing common, mundane tasks in daily life. Studies conducted on Buddhist monks dating back to the 1970s appear to show superior performance on tests designed to evaluate their concentration skills. Since meditation itself involves focusing and sustaining attention, it may very well be that this type of practice actually hones one’s powers of concentration and ability to process visual and other stimuli through sustained repetition. A study involving students at the University of North Carolina even showed a ten-fold improvement on attention tests after only four days of 20-minute meditation training.
Treatment of Depression
Recent studies have also shown that meditation can be of great benefit to people suffering from depression. One study involved participants that had been treated first with antidepressants, to put their symptoms into remission (Archives of General Psychiatry). The group was divided into three parts, with one third continuing to use the drugs, another third receiving a placebo in place of the drugs and a third group that received a new type of therapy involving meditation, rather than the drugs. After a period of 18 months, it was found that the relapse rate of those in the meditation therapy was about equal to those that continued taking the antidepressants. This percentage was roughly in the 30 percent range, compared to a relapse rate of around 70 percent among those taking the placebo. Other research conducted in Australia showed increases in mood-related hormones such as corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), when the effects of meditation were compared with the effects of physical exercise on two similar groups of participants.
Improvements in the body’s immune system response have also been detected, even in patients suffering from HIV. One study at UCLA was conducted over a course of eight weeks and consisted of two groups of HIV patients, one of which was instructed to meditate daily for 30 to 45 minutes. The other group was taught the same form of meditation, but did not meditate during the course of the study. The results showed that the group that did not meditate suffered a significant reduction in CD-4 cells (the type of T-cell destroyed by HIV), whereas the group that kept up the daily meditation sessions were able to maintain their initial CD-4 levels. Similar reports have surfaced regarding the effects of meditation on other viruses as well, such as the common flu.
As more studies are conducted, the previously accepted notion that meditation was merely a means of achieving inner peace has been severely rattled. The research conducted thus far on patients with serious health issues seems to support claims made by various ancient peoples, long ago. From severe mental disorders to viruses and chronic pain, the results appear to show that a mind-body connection really does exist beyond that suggested by experiments involving a placebo. Thus, this ancient practice appears to be making a rather unexpected comeback, while gaining increased acceptance in the world of mainstream medicine.
Susan Kuchinskas, “Meditation Health Benefits and Stress Reduction,” WebMD.com
Bill Moyers, “For Stress Reduction, Meditate!,” Psychology Today
Jody Smith, “Pain Relief Through Meditation Looks Promising,” EmpowHER.com
John Cloud, “Meditation Can Improve Concentration, Studies Say,” Time
Zindel V. Segal, Ph.D., Peter Bieling, Ph.D., Trevor Young, M.D., et al., “Antidepressant Monotherapy vs Sequential Pharmacotherapy and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or Placebo, for Relapse Prophylaxis in Recurrent Depression,” Archives of General Psychiatry
“Exercise, Meditation and Depression,” clinical-depression.co.uk