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You Should Meditate If…The Latest Meditation Research

October 1, 2008

Over the last three decades, meditation has been proven to help with everything from high blood pressure to pain management to immune function and more. Meditation is now taught in hospitals, at company retreats, in churches, at school, and of course in yoga and martial arts studios everywhere.

Just in case you haven’t yet been convinced to give it a try, below I’ve compiled some info on the latest meditation research. All of the studies below have been published within just the last year. The links are to study abstracts on PubMed, the online research database of the National Institutes of Health. In most cases, you will need to pay a fee to access the full article. In many of these abstracts, meditation is referred to as MBSR – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Although this term covers a variety of meditation techniques, the most common are deep  breathing and the repetition of a soothing word or phrase.

So, without further ado, you should meditate, IF:

You Need Help Managing Your Stress – Meditation has repeatedly been proven to elicit the ‘relaxation response‘ – the physiological opposite of the ‘stress response’. In a recent research review conducted by John Hopkins Medical Center to develop a guide for Nurse Practitioners, meditation was found to be effective for reducing stress in virtually every patient population. Futhermore, another study by the University of New Mexico suggestes that meditation is better than other cognitive-based approaches to stress management on several counts.

You Suffer From Chronic Lower Back Pain – Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh conducted a study on older adults suffering from chronic lower back pain and found that meditation helped reduce their pain, improve their sleep, and increase their quality of life.

You’d Like Your Mind to Be More Controlled and Efficient – If you suffer from excessive ‘spontaneous mentation’ (medical-speak for ‘a busy mind’), meditation is for you. Researchers at Emory University found that practitioners of Zen meditation were able to perform certain tasks with less neural activity, and better able to regulate their mental response to stimuli.

You’d Like to Improve Your Immune FunctionResearchers at Loyola University taught meditation to women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer – obviously a source of great stress. They found that compared to a control group, the meditator’s immune functions stabilized and rebounded much faster after surgery.

You Suffer From Headaches, Particularly Migraines – In a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts, researchers taught four different types of meditation to migraine sufferers. As has been demonstrated in prior studies, all four groups experienced a decrease in their headache frequency and severity. An interesting aspect of this study is that it was designed to compare spiritual vs. secular meditation, and the spiritual meditation was more effective – a finding I will probably cover in more detail in a future post.

You Are HIV Positive – A study conducted on HIV+ patients at UCLA suggests that meditation helps buffer the decline of the lymphocytes most associated with HIV progression.

You’d Like to Feel a Greater Sense of Well-Being – Separate studies at Santa Clara University and the University of Massachusetts found that meditation cultivates mindfulness, which in turn produces a greater overall self-reported sense of well-being.

You Suffer From Anxiety – A research review conducted at the Psychology Research Laboratory in Verbania, Italy looked at 10 years worth of research on the effectiveness of meditation for dealing with chronic anxiety, and found that it was statistically effective.

You Have Trouble Sleeping – A study at Stanford University combined meditation with cognitive approaches for the treatment of insomnia, and found the overall program effective.

You Are ADHD – A feasability study at UCLA on adults and adolescents with ADHD found that meditation increased their attention and cognitive abilities, and decreased feelings of anxiety and depression.

You Suffer From Bipolar Disorder – A preliminary study at the University of Oxford found that meditation helped reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms in bipolar patients.

You’d Like to Increase Your Compassion For Others – A study at the University of Wisconsin found that individuals engaged in regular ‘compassion meditation’ experienced long-term changes in their neural functions making them more responsive to others emotions, and more empathetic overall.

You Have High Blood Pressure – Many studies have linked meditation to reduced blood pressure. One of the latest at the University of Kentucky found that one type of meditation, Transcendental Meditation, helps reduce both systolic and diabolic pressure. Another study using other meditation and relaxation techniques produced similar results.

You Have Diabetes – A study in Thailand suggests meditation helps manage both glycemic levels and blood pressure in Type-2 Diabetes patients.

And finally, you should meditate if:

You Enjoy It! I don’t have a study for this, but many people experience profound peace and great joy when meditating. Not all the time, perhaps, but enough to make it a regular part of their lives. And of course, meditation has been and is part of virtually every spiritual tradition humankind has ever concocted. What you experience when you quiet your mind can’t always be measured or explained, even by the best team of researchers.

To find a meditation style that is right for you, go to the Types of Meditation post. If you are interested in how meditation is practiced within different world religions, try Meditation within ALL the World’s Religions. Or, try the meditation page for more posts on this topic.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2008 1:54 pm

    Interesting I found this article today–I just finished putting a quote from “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” by Sharon Begley on my blog — http://asquarepegbreaksfree.blogspot.com . Her book discusses, among other things, meditation and how it can literally, physically change your brain.

  2. mommymystic permalink*
    October 2, 2008 5:22 pm

    Amy, yes I love that book, and have it on one of my meditation booklists. Thanks for your comment….love your cloud fixation on your blog:-)

  3. October 7, 2008 1:22 am

    I have found that Meditation has helped me incredibly with my stress levels. It gives you such peace of mind and also the health benefits are immense.

  4. a j marr permalink
    October 14, 2008 11:51 pm

    Permit this one comment on meditation practice. A primary emphasis in meditation is on the reduction of rumination, but non-conscious distractive events are also implicitly reduced but have never been separately controlled in the literature of meditation. If they were, it would engender a new procedure that would could produce many of the benefits of meditation without the control of rumination.

    The following argument and procedure is derived from an article in the International Journal of Stress Management in 2006.

    The Cinderella Effect

    In our workaday lives, to literally get to where we consciously or non consciously want to go, the striated musculature is employed. Yet, the striated musculature is divided into two main types that are different physiologically and are activated separately and not necessarily simultaneously. The question is whether they are different psychologically. Type 2 or fast twitch muscular fibers are phasically activated when we physically manipulate our world and as operant behavior are modulated by their consequences. However, another class of muscular fiber, or type 1, slow twitch, or ‘Cinderella’ fibers are tonically activated during conditions of choice, and this sustained activation often causes pain and exhaustion. Type 2 fibers are commonly thought to embody voluntary, operant or R-S mechanisms, whereas the activation of type 1 fibers is commonly attributed to be directly or indirectly elicited by involuntary, reflexive or S-R mechanisms as a component of a ‘flight or fight’ response. But is this indeed the case?

    The problem for an analysis of the activity of type 1 musculature as a learned or operant behavior is that tension is a core component of emotional responses such as anxiety, fear or anger that are difficult to precisely define, and it is hard to tease apart the S-R from the R-S components that are purported to control the neuro-muscular aspect of emotionality. Perhaps the easiest way to analyze the discriminative stimuli that activate Type 1 musculature from the perspective of learning theory is to examine this behavior under conditions that minimize the presence of real or imputed reflexive S-R mechanisms. This is the case when we become tense as we make day to day choices between alternative contingencies wherein the choice of one marks a small opportunity loss of the other, or ‘distractive’ choices. Because the initiating cause for this tension is a simple discrimination between two alternative contingencies or choices, and not complex linguistic (rumination) information or the sudden perception of threatening physical stimuli (e.g. an oncoming train or a spider underfoot), tension may be examined as a function of simple cognitive and not reflexive mechanisms. This also implies that tension can be easily manipulated through the regulation of elemental aspects of decision making rather than the complex manipulation of rumination or the avoidance of Pavlovian like stimuli or stressors. In other words, tension is an attribute of an simple and easily managed information rather than an artifact of or complex cognitive or ruminative processes or a reflexive ‘flight or fight’ response.

    Most importantly, this simple hypothesis imputes an equally simple procedure that may be easily tested, hence a method that I call Cinderella.

    ____________

    Rest in Peace (and Quiet)

    In the literature of stress, stress is commonly attributed to a monolithic ‘flight or fight’ reaction that accounts for all attributes of the stress response, from fear and anxiety to the tension that is elicited in a distractive day. Yet for minor or small scale choices or distractions, this ‘stress’ response begins with merely the slight yet sustained activation of low threshold or Type 1 muscular fibers. These muscles are activated easily and rapidly, deactivate slowly, and when sustained quickly fail and cause pain and exhaustion. (This is why at the end of a distraction filled working day we commonly report not fear or anxiety, but merely a state of exhaustion) This activation pattern does not entail fear or anger and is generally not reported as anxiety. Because of the neuro-muscular characteristics of this type of muscular activity, reducing the salience or frequency of distractive events is not enough to disengage this sustained or tonic tension. Distractions instead must be totally eliminated for a sustained period of time, and this is what is implicitly done in meditative practices. The question, yet unanswered, is what is the relative role of rumination and distraction in the maintenance of these low level stressors.

    The Cinderella Effect
    A common truism is that distractions not only cause us to get tense and remain tense during the day, but that tension ‘builds’ until we are sore and exhausted. However, the neuro-muscular processes behind this event are not widely known. Named after the fairy tale character who was first to awake and last to sleep, this ‘Cinderella Effect’ represents the fact that slight but continuous distractions (e.g. the continuous choice opportunities of surfing the internet or accessing email instead of working) elicit the continuous activation of low threshold units (also called Type 1, slow twitch, or Cinderella fibers) of the striated musculature, which unabated will lead to their failure and the successive recruitment of other muscular groups to take up the slack. The result is pain, exhaustion, and often a literal pain in the neck. (To elicit a similar result, try lightly clenching your fist for a minute or so.) In addition, as the name Cinderella underscores, this muscular activity does not immediately cease when distractions cease, and is sustained even when we take a break or rest.

    Thus, even slight or intermittent distractions will elicit sustained or ‘tonic’ muscular tension, and usually to harmful and painful effect. It follows logically that only a radical and sustained reduction in distraction can result in a totally relaxed state. Thus, to be relaxed, a reduction in distractive choices is not enough, distraction must instead be totally eliminated or deferred, and that is what meditative practices implicitly do but ironically never explicitly concede. The problem is that meditation also entails a radical reduction in rumination as well as distraction, and the emphasis in meditative disciplines on the control of rumination obscures the distinctive influence of distraction in maintaining tense or anxious states. (Indeed, the respective roles of rumination and distraction have never been separately studied in the scientific literature on meditation.) However, if distraction and only distraction can be monitored and avoided in the many environments that are stressful primarily because of distraction, then one can achieve the means to be relaxed, even if the level of rumination is not altered. Thus one can learn to become relaxed even in workaday environments.

    The Cinderella Method

    The procedure:

    First: Take a mental or physical inventory of all the minor unessential judgments in a working day that would entail minor avoidable gain/loss. These ‘distractions’ included doing one’s work vs. reading the newspaper, watching TV, chatting on the phone, internet surfing, or other diversions. This provides a comparative or base rate to which to compare future behavior, and trains you to notice or attend to distractive choices.

    Secondly: Set aside fixed times during the day (e.g. 8-9 am, 1-2pm) when you will completely avoid these choices. Then simply perform your rationally considered behavior (i.e., your work), or if not, just sit.

    That’s it.

    By continuously eliminating these distractive choices from major portions of the day, you can still anticipate and be aware of them, but you cannot be stressed by choosing between them. By deferring irreconcilable choices, tension falls, relaxation occurs, and you can go about your day more relaxed, more alert, more productive, and without the painful regret that occurs from a day misspent. Finally, by providing a feedback function to train attention and to compare behavior across days, you can compare corresponding emotional behavior (i.e., tension) across behavior or ‘trials’, demonstrate the efficacy of the procedure, and be reinforced for the overall effort by that feedback.

    What the Cinderella Method Does

    The Cinderella Method is essentially a method of exercising a control over tension in its often initial form as a subliminal behavior that escapes conscious awareness. This method allows one to sustain a natural or homeostatic resting state that otherwise is disrupted in even a slightly distractive environment. Since for small distractions the proprioceptive stimuli which alert one to tension only indicate the presence of tension after tension has been sustained for some time, the isolation and control of the discriminative stimuli that are correlated with the initiation of slight or minor tension allow for tension to be avoided before its sustained occurrence taxes the musculature and autonomic nervous system. Conversely, the method also trains one to mentally recreate or ‘learn’ the proprioceptive stimuli associated with relaxation, and thus be able to ‘voluntarily’ induce relaxation. Since relaxation as a voluntary response (actually, what is learned is the inhibition of tension, since relaxation is not a response but is technically the non-activity of the musculature) is incompatible with tension, it will also mitigate tension caused by distraction and rumination even when both are not avoided.

    Finally, the Cinderella Method sharply contrasts with prevalent stress control procedures, which emphasize the modification and control through psychotherapy and other means large scale or molar distractions or problems, such as domestic or other workaday difficulties and the rumination they entail. The Cinderella method is based on the premise that stress is predominantly caused by small scale or molecular problems or distractions that in contrast to rumination are far more frequent yet are more easily controlled. Because control is easy, time consuming therapeutic intervention is not required.

    Marr, A. J. (2006) Relaxation and Muscular Tension: A Bio-behavioristic Explanation, International Journal of Stress Management, 13(2), 131-153

    (A PDF copy of this paper is available free upon request: stassiagalenkova at yahoo.com)

  5. mommymystic permalink*
    October 15, 2008 3:24 am

    a j – your info on the cinderella method is fascinating, and to me points to the fact that we need to make changes in our everyday environments, particularly workplace environments….however, the problem is that not all environments can be controlled in this way, and meditation, with time, can help individuals deal with even the most distracting of environments…I think the ability to filter and detach is like a muscle that can be built up, although the research hasn’t quite caught up to that yet…

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  1. Meditation zeitgeist, Oct 6, 2008 | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

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