Will It Really Make Me Feel Better?

The research on mindfulness and medicine

by Jane Slatery

About 20 years ago I hit the wall. A number of health issues grabbed my attention—headaches, generalized joint pain and achiness, weight gain, chronic fatigue, low energy, crying spells, and sleep difficulties. I will never forget one day walking down the hall to greet a patient and she said to me, “Jane, are you okay?” It stopped me in my tracks. I was definitely not okay.

But I had no answers. My doctor could not balance my hormones. My therapist could not settle me down. Exercise, a healthy diet, Sunday church, and meaningful relationships had always helped me manage my stress. But nothing was working. Pray as I might for answers, I was not getting any. I found myself in a place that Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr calls “liminality.” It is a place where one is “betwixt and between, having left one stage of life but not yet entered the next” It is typically a realm of discomfort, darkness, and doubt. It is a time of thinking and acting in new ways, a place of new beginnings.

About ten hours of mindfulness over a two-week period strengthened attention and working memory.

So I began intentionally searching for something genuinely new. The first change started with my prayer life. I began attending Centering Prayer Saturdays at Holy Communion Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee. The next big step was my first week-long meditation retreat. Dan Brown, a meditation teacher with over 40 years experience, introduced me to a “formal” sitting practice. I’ve learned that even five minutes of conscious breathing can rearrange my attitude, outlook, and behavior. For me, meditation has not only been transformative but life-saving.

What Does the Research Say?

In recent years, studies testifying to the health efficacy of mindfulness and meditation have inundated the public arena. According to Dr. Daniel Goleman and Dr. Richard Davidson in their book Altered Traits: How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body (2017), there are over 6,800 scientific articles on the topic of mindfulness and meditation. However, not all studies are created equal! In order to make sense of this large body of research the authors chose to focus on studies that favored the strictest experimental standards. Sixty studies met their criteria, and they found significant conclusions that relate to how we think about mindfulness and medicine.

Concentration. Studies support a marked improvement in the ability to concentrate with the practice of mindfulness. Attention sharpens, and keeping on task despite distractions improves. We also become more aware of when our minds are wandering.

We all know the signs of moving through the day trying to accomplish as much as we can, even if we don’t recognize it takes a toll on our health and well-being. Exploding technology, with apps, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on, is both a blessing and a curse, able to unite us or separate us. The experience of a scattered mind steals our focus. Studies show that heavy multitaskers do more things less well. When we jump from one task to another, the brain pays what Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, calls a “switch cost,” the time it takes the mind to return to where it was at the point of distraction. This results in more shallow thinking, rather than the deep concentration that produces answers and insights.

Goleman and Davidson have good news! Even five to ten minutes of daily mindfulness practice will begin to reap the benefits: improved attention, concentration, focus, and awareness. They found that just 10 minutes of mindfulness overcame the damage to concentration from multitasking—at least in the short term. About ten hours of mindfulness over a two-week period strengthened attention and working memory.

Stress and inflammation. Stress is a normal part of life, a condition we encounter on a daily basis: an unexpected meeting at work; preparing for exams; looming deadlines; children fighting; hearing of a loved one’s scary diagnosis. Fortunately our bodies are well equipped to handle and respond to daily stressors. However, long-term stresses take a larger toll on us: caretaking of a chronically ill spouse or child; working three jobs to make ends meet; grandparents raising the grandchildren.

When we have either a real or perceived threat, the body reacts and goes into “fight-flight-or freeze” mode. Every system in the body responds; for instance, the heart pounds faster so the heart rate goes up, blood pressure rises, the breath quickens, the gastrointestinal system shuts down, and the nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release a flood of hormones. Cortisol is of particular importance in this response. Scientists have known for years that chronic levels of cortisol cause inflammation that can affect the whole body, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and strokes, diabetes, cancers, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and digestive problems.

Once again, there is good news. Studies show that individuals who engage in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) for 35 minutes daily for three days decrease levels of molecules responsible for inflammation, and longer practice of mindfulness brings lower levels. In one study, even unemployed job seekers, typically a highly stressed group, showed a reduction in these molecules after a three-day intensive mindfulness training program. In another study, volunteers who had never meditated before practiced mindfulness for 20 minutes a day for a week. When they were shown disturbing images while practicing mindfulness during a functional MRI scan, their responses were significantly lower than non-meditators.

Chronic illness and pain. Lifting a pencil. Getting out of the car. Opening a window. Vacuuming. Getting out of the tub. Climbing stairs. These are all ordinary things we do every day without thinking about it—at least for most of us. For those suffering with chronic pain, seemingly routine movements prove challenging.

Chronic pain comes in many forms: chronic migraine disease; persistent low back pain from a work-related injury or car wreck; an athletic injury that results in disability; soldiers returning from war zones; cancer and necessary treatment. Regardless of the source of the pain, the chronic nature of it and stressors can change the quality of life in every regard, from financial stress to social isolation and depression.

Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have led the field with research on mindfulness practices and chronic illness and pain. MBSR is one of the fastest growing kinds of practices offered in hospitals, medical centers, large corporate institutions, and schools, colleges, and universities and is the approach with the strongest empirical evidence of benefits.

What are some of the findings? Studies show a dramatic reduction in the average level of pain during the eight weeks of MBSR as measured by a pain questionnaire; there is an improvement in patients’ ability to engage in normal activities of daily living—driving, cooking, sleeping; negative mood states improve—less anxiety, depression, hostility. Participants report taking less medication, being more active, and feeling better in general. Most encouraging is the finding that with continued mindfulness practice, the improvements last. However, it is important to note that mindfulness and meditation do not remove the biological cause of pain. Meditation acts on a part of the brain in a way that helps change the perception and experiences of your pain, making quality of life better. Research on MBSR shows that 30 minutes every day can make a significant difference.

Addiction. Science tells us that meditation and mindfulness have a positive affect on all kinds of addictions. An accomplished pioneer in this field, Dr. Judson Brewer, is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who has found that meditation of any kind or duration has a calming effect on the part of the brain that affects distraction, a wandering mind, self-centeredness, and craving. His 2017 book The Craving Mind catalogs this research and explains the link between mindfulness and addictions.

Present to People and the World

Meditation has led me to be more present with my patients, my colleagues, and with those I love. I find myself more present to the cashier in the grocery store, to the mailman I meet at the mailbox, to my participants in my classes, and to God. It has helped me manage my anxiety when I wake up in the morning feeling really anxious and the day has not even started! With 20 minutes of focused breathing, my anxiety greatly diminishes. I can think more clearly, prioritize my day, and make decisions. Day-to-day it improves my concentration and focus to whatever task I am doing.

When I find myself stressed, I find my breath. When old habits and cravings creep in, I meditate and they ease. I have more patience. Everything for me in nature is brighter, sharper. I am more attuned to the sounds or the quiet, the light and the shadows. The seagulls diving for breakfast. The sand between my toes. Maddie Paddie, my chiu-tzu, digging in the sand for crabs. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says to beautifully, “The little things and little moments, they are not little. They are life.”

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