The idea of mindful awareness originated in early Buddhist theory and practice, and has made its way to the West. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, has been taken up in popular culture for all kinds of purposes.
These meditative practices assume many forms, ranging from simple stress management techniques to life-changing, transformative experiences.
As yoga studios and meditation classes pop up seemingly everywhere, scientists search for a link between meditation and its effect on our health.
“The mind and body form a bidirectional system. The mind influences the body and vice versa,” says Wendy Hasenkamp, PhD, and Senior Scientific Officer at The Mind & Life Institute. “Part of what contemplative science is trying to understand is how, and to what extent, our mental experience can influence our physiological systems.”
Here are a few ways meditation has shown promise in promoting health.
Meditation can be used to cope with normal but often significant stresses of daily life. An analysis published by the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that MBSR was able to reduce stress and worrisome thinking, and foster empathy and self-compassion.
“Meditation is a powerful way to combat stress,” says Kathleen Gettelfinger, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Gettelfinger Therapy, LLC, in Chicago, Ill. “But it does take time, which is hard for people who want to see an immediate benefit.”
If you want to keep your worrying in check, brace for boot camp for your brain. Effective meditation requires building stamina. The brain is like a muscle, and you can build up capacities slowly to enjoy a new level of focus and clarity.
“What’s interesting is that the brain, which we thought was hard-wired, is actually plastic and can be changed,” says Gettelfinger. “Meditation is just one way to modify your mind in a positive way.”
It’s too soon to say that meditation is the next fountain of youth. But some studies correlate mindfulness with preserving parts of our chromosomes that deteriorate as we age.
Mindfulness is associated with maintaining telomeres, which are sections of our DNA that cap chromosomes and help prevent chromosomal decay. Studies have shown that longer telomeres are associated with healthy aging and longevity. Conversely, telomere shortening is closely linked with disease and mortality.
“There have been limited studies so far, but there is intriguing early evidence that mindfulness may have a protective effect on cellular aging processes,” says Hasenkamp.
Control blood pressure
A recent study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that meditation was associated with lowered blood pressure to the degree of postponing or preventing drug treatment. Blood pressure reductions were small, but possibly enough to lower the risk of heart attack or stroke.
“In many media reports, there has been an overemphasis on the health benefits of meditation based on current research,” says Hasenkamp. “As the rigor of these studies improve, benefits turn out to be more modest than what was originally reported. This is an example of a well-designed study that shows a modest effect compared to an active control group.”
Additional research is needed to confirm whether these blood-pressure lowering effects can be maintained over time. Meanwhile, MBSR could be prescribed along with lifestyle modification for prehypertension.
Neuroscientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have found that meditation can reduce sensitivity to pain.
In their study, subjects were exposed to a mildly painful heat stimulus twice, and each time they rated the unpleasantness and intensity of the sensation. The second time the heat was administered, the subjects had participated in four 20-minute training sessions on meditation, and were instructed to meditate during the application of the heat. The pain stimulus was the same, but participants reported the pain as being 57 percent less unpleasant and 40 percent less intense.
The research inspires confidence that even beginners can benefit from a mindful, holistic approach to managing pain.
One of the latest and most comprehensive meta-analyses finds modest effects of meditation on anxiety and depression. Among a diverse participant population, results varied for individuals.
Since meditative techniques also vary, patients treating depression with meditation should discuss their meditation program with a doctor or therapist to cultivate better mental health outcomes.
“I’d recommend working with a teacher that has experience,” says Hasenkamp. “An MBSR class is done in-person with certified teachers, so there’s level of fidelity there. But there are also many highly qualified people who teach meditation yet are without formal certification.”
When it comes to the meditation-health link, the picture is complex, and the field is still very young. But scientific methods continue to improve so further conclusions can be drawn over time.
Ready to try it? Learn how to meditate with our handy beginner’s guide.