People who meditate regularly say it provides mental, spiritual and physical benefits, including stress reduction and a sense of well- being. Even some mainstream doctors recommend meditation to help treat chronic pain, anxiety, high blood pressure and other ailments. How it works is not fully understood, though research is accumulating—and encouraging.
Meditation helps you draw attention inward and calm the mind. It comes in many forms, which typically involve combinations of postures, breathing, sound, visualizations and/or movement.
Transcendental Meditation from India, for example, focuses on a mantra, which can be a word, phrase or sound that is repeated with every slow breath. Zen Buddhist meditation involves sitting in special positions as you direct your awareness to your posture and breathing.
Another popular form is mindfulness meditation, which also comes out of the Buddhist tradition. You practice being aware of the present by observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations, without making judgments or allowing yourself to think about the past or worry about the future. Mindfulness practice has largely been pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., at the University of Massachusetts, who founded its Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. It is often combined with yoga or stretching and incorporated into daily activities, such as walking and eating.
Tough to test
Subjecting meditation to scientific testing is a challenge. States of mind are hard to measure. And other forms of relaxation training—for instance, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback and stress management—may be just as useful.
Still, research over the past 30 years suggests that mindfulness meditation may help in conditions such as insomnia, chronic pain, psoriasis, fibromyalgia and some psychiatric disorders. It has been shown to alter aspects of the immune, nervous and endocrine system and produce changes in areas of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotion.
According to a 2010 commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association, mindfulness practice may be particularly useful in helping people adhere to medical treatment and cope with pain, as well as reduce anxiety and depression associated with illness.
Some recent findings
Depression: In a 2010 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry ,involving people who had been successfully treated for depression, mindfulness-based therapy was as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapses.
Hot flashes: In a 2011 study in Menopause of 110 women going through menopause, those who participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program coped better with their hot flashes. Though the program didn’t significantly reduce the intensity of hot flashes, the women reported improved quality of life, better sleep and less anxiety and stress.
Pain: Long-term practitioners of mindfulness meditation handle pain better, a 2010 study published in the journal Pain found. Anticipating more pain makes current pain worse; being attentive to the present helps prevent this. In an earlier study in the same journal, mindfulness meditation reduced pain and increased physical function in older people with chronic lower back pain.
Immunity: In a 2009 study from UCLA in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, mindfulness training countered the adverse effects of stress on certain key immune cells in people with HIV.
Cognitive function: Mindfulness training helped people improve their performance on several tests requiring sustained attention and other mental skills, in a 2010 study in Consciousness and Cognition.
To get the most from mindfulness meditation, you should practice it regularly. You can learn the basics at programs offered at many medical clinics and community centers. You can also purchase books, audiotapes, videotapes and DVDs; or check out YouTube videos of Dr. Kabat-Zinn.