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.
For pregnant women who are at risk for depression but reluctant to take medication, this study offers a promising alternative.
Meditation instead of medication
An analysis of existing research also showed that just 30 minutes of meditation a day could ameliorate the effects of depression and anxiety just as well as prescription medications for these two disorders.
This research review covered over 45 trials with a total of 3,515 patients. They experienced an improvement in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even pain after undergoing an eight-week mindfulness meditation training and practicing for 30 to 40 minutes a day.
Benefits of meditation for anxiety
There may be some significant biology behind the decrease in anxiety and depression. In a 2013 study, scientists identified the parts of the brain that are activated during meditation: the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the worrying part of the brain, while the anterior cingulated cortex deals with thinking and emotion. During mindfulness meditation, activity in both parts is increased, and anxiety decreases.
“Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. “Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.”
Measurements of brain activity in these two areas revealed as much as a 39% decrease in anxiety levels. It is results like these that prompt researchers to continue studying the benefits of meditation.
Supports weight loss
In a survey conducted by Consumer Reports and the American Psychological Association seven out of ten psychologists rated mindfulness meditation as an “excellent” or “good” strategy for weight loss. Mindfulness meditation helped people losing weight to overcome negative thoughts and images and to focus on the positive. Combining mindfulness meditation with cognitive therapy and solutions to overcome barriers to weight loss is a triple threat for dropping pounds.
Helps teens with cancer
Finally, a 2014 study led by researchers at the University of Montreal and its affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital found that mindfulness meditation helped adolescents diagnosed with cancer. This style of meditation helped them cope with not only their diagnosis, but also with the anticipation of pain and emotional stress they thought they might experience.
Eight adolescents began a program of mindfulness meditation, while a control group made no changes. The mindfulness group reported less anxiety surrounding their treatment, lower depression scores, and improved sleep. While the study size is too small to be of any real statistical significance, the results are promising.
Improved health for breast cancer survivors
In a breast cancer study out of Alberta Health Services Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary Department of Oncology, researchers found that practicing mindfulness meditation had a physical effect on a cellular level. Breast cancer survivors who practiced mindfulness meditation had longer telomeres – the protein complex found at the end of chromosomes – while those who did not had shorter ones. Shorter telomeres are associated with several diseases, including breast cancer, as well as increased rate of aging.
Dr. Linda E. Carlson, PhD, principal investigator and director of research in the Psychosocial Resources Department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre had this to say about the results:
“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology.”
Participants in the study were breast cancer survivors who had completed treatment as long as two years prior but were still experiencing significant emotional stress. They attended a weekly class that offered instruction in mindfulness meditation along with hatha yoga. Participants also practiced mediation and yoga at home for 45 minutes daily. A control group attended just one, six-hour stress management seminar. Another group focused on discussing daily challenges and concerns. The objective in this group was to build a supportive network. The meditation group focused on becoming non-judgmental and aware of each moment. The telomeres and blood of all three groups were analyzed and measured prior to beginning. By the end of the experiment, the only group that had shortened telomeres was the group that attended the six-hour stress management seminar.
The benefit to finally being able to connect neuroscience with the claimed benefit of meditation is, ironically, immeasurable. Those who don’t have access to pricey medications or specialists would then be able to reap powerful healing from simply sitting down and meditating mindfully on a daily basis. Meditation may not be able to heal every ailment, but evidence of its power to combat certain diseases is mounting.
Getting started with mindfulness meditation is as simple as:
- Sitting down for ten minutes
- Attempting to clear your mind
- Focusing on your breath
The work is harder than it sounds, even just committing to clearing ten minutes a day. However, the benefits of meditation can be immense. If all you do is stop multi-tasking and begin to put your full attention on one thing at a time then you are on your way.
What have you found to be the benefits of meditation for you?