Meditation is used to foster the connection between an individual and the world outside of his of her mind, whether you're reflecting on a hilltop in Tibet or trying to stay cool in traffic.
Its anecdotal benefits are well known, from helping with depression to preparing a monk to walk across a bed of hot coals. Now, thanks to new research on the subject, scientists can firmly attest to meditation's therapeutic potential.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison claim that mindful meditation techniques can help ease the symptoms of many conditions caused by chronic inflammation. Inflammation is responsible for numerous ills, including rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and psoriasis.
The key, researchers say, is that psychological stress plays a major role in exacerbating disease symptoms, and meditation can help alleviate symptoms through stress reduction.
“The mindfulness-based approach to stress reduction may offer a lower-cost alternative or complement to standard treatment, and it can be practiced easily by patients in their own homes, whenever they need,” Melissa Rosenkranz, lead study author and assistant scientist at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, said.
Finding the Best Way to Reduce Stress
The researchers compared two methods of reducing stress. The first was based on mindfulness meditation. The second focused on other aspects of treatment shown to reduce stress and inflammatory symptoms: nutrition, exercise, and music therapy.
The two programs were designed to match each other but for the meditation aspect. Participants were given the same amount of training, the instructors had the same levels of expertise, and the same amount of home practice was required for all participants.
Research subjects were tested for stress and inflammation before and after beginning the two programs. Both methods reduced patient stress, but the mindfulness approach was more effective at reducing stress-induced inflammation.
Overall, the findings suggest two things:
- behavioral interventions designed to reduce emotional reactivity are beneficial for people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions
- mindfulness techniques may be more effective at relieving inflammatory symptoms than other activities that promote well-being
“This is not a cure-all, but our study does show that there are specific ways that mindfulness can be beneficial, and that there are specific people who may be more likely to benefit from this approach than other interventions,” Rosenkranz said.
This doesn’t mean you should throw your medication in the trash. It does, however, mean that meditation could help ease your symptoms, alongside your current therapy. It’s been proven to help!
What Is Mindfulness and How Can I Achieve It?
You could retreat to Tibet, don a robe, and meditate calmly until you reach enlightenment, but there’s certainly a middle ground.
The act of meditation is all about focus. There are many ways to create intense focus, including:
- counting your breaths
- repeating a word or phrase (known as a mantra)
- focusing on an object
- focusing the mind through a guided imagery sequence
- focusing on specific parts of the body in order to induce relaxation
If you’re interested in learning more, there’s the book Mindfulness in Plain English by the Ven. Henepola Gunaratana, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka. True to its title, the book explains the practice of mindfulness in a simple form that’s practical to follow. It’s also available for free.
Meditation for Mental Health
Meditation is often used as a complimentary therapy to treat depression, but recent research has shown that meditating could have twice the benefits for people with depression.
Last month, researchers in Denmark found that levels of a certain protein released during inflammation were higher in people with depression, prompting researchers to speculate that inflammation could be a contributing factor for depression. An earlier study found a different byproduct of inflammation to be linked to depression.
In essence, meditation can help control your depression symptoms, but is it because it reduces the inflammation or because it controls your stress? While both areas require further research, the latest findings continue to offer clues about how the body and mind can work in tandem to keep you healthy.