You may have heard it before, but it bears repeating. Meditation is one of the simplest and effective ways to treat pain, and the stress, depression, and anxiety that comes with it. And, meditation works. Here’s what the research says about the benefits of meditation.
Easing pain and stress with mindfulness meditation
Meditation. This word often conjures images of a solitary figure on a mountain top. Sometimes there are robes involved. There is always a smile on the face and a peaceful air of calm about the person meditating. Throughout the history of the world, sages have taught that simply sitting and clearing the mind is the way to calm, peace, and well-being. The western world tends to be more skeptical. Lately, though, science is obliging our need for proof. Meditation is effective when it comes to stress, creativity, focus, and even healing the physical body.
When I have time, I meditate for ten minutes. When I don’t have time, I meditate for an hour. ~Zen proverb~
Slow the breath. Focus, with intention, on each inhalation. Give equal focus to each exhalation and direct your gaze to a point between your eyes, or in the middle of your chest, to your heart center. Count each inhalation, pausing at the top of each breath, then exhale slowly for slightly longer than your inhalation. Stay in the moment of the breath, even if your mind wanders. Bring it back to focus on the breath, without judgment.
This is mindfulness meditation, and there is increasing evidence that it can ease many medical conditions. Daily mindfulness meditation can decrease stress, change the way the brain responds to pain, lower depression in adults and teens, help with weight loss, and even help teens who are battling cancer.
Mindfulness meditation doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is. ~Sylvia Boorstein~
What is mindful meditation?
Not just any meditation has these dramatic effects. There are different types of meditation, with only certain types proven effective in valid research studies. Mindful meditation is one of the most effective. It is the practice of raising your own awareness of a situation and remaining non-judgmental. It focuses on acceptance and problem-solving when conditions are less than ideal. The practice itself is very simple: stop and pay very close attention to your breath. Slow down, and feel your breath moving in and out of your body. Your mind will race, and that is okay. Try to keep bringing your attention back to the breath. If thoughts arise, let them come and go, and keep returning to the space between each thought.
The practice of mindfulness meditation is not complex, but the execution is difficult. Daily life and worries interfere constantly with the quest for a quiet mind. It can be hard to stop for even ten minutes a day to just sit and breath.
What does science say about meditation?
There are five different types of meditation recognized by scientific researchers: mindfulness meditation, yoga, T’ai chi, Qigong, and mantra meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the type that is studied most often, but an analysis of studies done on each type reveals significant flaws in research methodology, which are problematic.
Of the over 3,000 studies located in a research database, only 4% of them had randomized control trials (RCTs) which helped eliminate the placebo effect. This means that any positive effects in those studies may have simply been psychological. The participants may have imagined them.
Still, there are studies that had RCTs, and the results of those and other studies into the benefits of meditation are promising.
Mindful meditation has been linked to a measurable decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. This is the hormone that activates the “fight or flight” response. Consistent high cortisol levels have been linked with everything from heart disease to depression and anxiety.
Researchers at UC Davis sent 57 study participants on a meditation retreat for three months. Cortisol levels were tested before the study began, and participants evaluated their level of mindfulness. At the end of the study period, cortisol levels had dropped in direct relation to increased mindfulness. That is, participants with higher mindfulness had lower cortisol levels.
Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and first author of the paper describing the work, had this to say about the results:
“The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol.”
In addition to lower overall stress, lower cortisol levels help decrease the perception of pain, making pain easier to cope with. Chronic pain patients who are able to meditate to manage stress tend to report lower levels of pain than those patients who do not have a plan for stress management. For pain patients, this is one of the greatest benefits of meditation.
Provides pain relief
Mindful meditation can have profound effects for those who suffer from chronic pain. This simple practice seems to be able to change a patient’s perception of pain, making it less intense. In a study in 2009, researchers at the University of North Carolina found that after just three 20-minute sessions of mindful meditation, study participants’ reported less pain. These meditation sessions occurred over a three-day period.
These findings were supported by a Brown University review of studies on mindfulness meditation. Study reviewers found that consistent meditation helped patients locate and turn down the “volume knob” on sensations. Often pain sufferers are unable to focus on anything but their pain, which increases their perception of it. This is especially important for chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and musculoskeletal pain.
Mindfulness meditation can break that cycle by helping patients learn to see the pain, accept it, and move forward. Being able to do this is a skill that can actually change neurological patterns in the brain, making the practice more automatic.
Helps with depression and anxiety
This section is important, and provides some of the biggest clues into how meditation can help pain patients. Depression and anxiety are themselves closely linked to a patient’s level of chronic pain.
Those patients who have a chronic pain condition and suffer depression tend to fixate on the hopeless quality of their pain. This fixation causes the reported level of pain to rise. The perceived increase in pain can cause deeper depression. This is a vicious cycle that may be broken by mindfulness meditation. We discuss several different studies that approach different aspects of depression and anxiety.
In 2013, researchers at the University of Leuven conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of mindfulness meditation with school children ages 13-20. This type of RCT study validates the research because the results are measured against a population that is not making any change.
Twelve classes implemented a mindfulness meditation practice, and twelve classes in a control group did nothing. Each class completed Depression Anxiety Stress scales at the same times during the six-month period of the study. In six months, the classes that practiced mindfulness meditation showed statistically significant changes in their levels of depression and anxiety. This study suggests that mindfulness meditation can be an effective early intervention for depression and anxiety in children.
Reduces post-partum depression risk
Similarly, mindfulness when combined with yoga has been proven to reduce depression during and after pregnancy, especially for women who are at high risk for depression. A study from the University of Michigan showed reduction in depression when high-risk mothers-to-be participated in a ten-week course of mindful yoga, combining traditional yoga postures with mindfulness meditation.