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The Mysterious 'Medication' of Meditation

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Benson says yoga, tai chi, Lamaze breathing, and repetitive prayer such as the rosary can do the same. "They all share this common physiology," he says. "Repetition is key to creating the response. ? So it could be a mantra; it could be a prayer; it could be a repetitive muscular activity. The other feature is, when other thoughts come to mind when you do a repetition, simply let them go and come back to the repetition."

The bottom line is that any condition that's caused or exacerbated by stress can be alleviated, says Benson. "So with 60% to 90% of visits to physicians being in the mind-body, stress realm, you can see why this has such legion effects. Anxiety, mild and moderate depression, anger and hostility, hypertension, cardiac irregularities -- all forms of pain are made worse by stress. And that's why the relaxation response is useful."

Meditation-type exercises are "virtually curative of tension-related pain like tension headache. It's vitally important in PMS, infertility, hot flashes, insomnia," Benson says.

Regina's doctor, Stan Chapman, PhD, tells WebMD because all relaxation methods involve internal focus and putting distracting thoughts aside, "they can be effective in reducing pain." Chapman is a pain therapy specialist, psychologist, and professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "There's a lot of evidence in the research literature that pain tends to be worse when people are anxious, or when their muscles are tight."

Relaxation methods also help with sleep, a major issue for people with pain. "Many medications people use for sleep have untoward side effects, like carryover drowsiness during the day which affects their ability to function, remember, or drive, which is very critical to people," Chapman tells WebMD.

But in a busy world, if pain relief is not at stake, are people making time to meditate?

Schneider says that because meditation is a very natural activity, people easily adopt it as a routine. He reports that in his blood pressure study, 80% to 90% of people continued doing their daily meditation several months after the study.

"The jury is in on this; it's not even a question that it works," says cardiologist Paul Robinson, MD, of Emory University School of Medicine. But he has met some resistance.

Meditation has helped some of his patients, he says, but "they have to be agreeable to the technique and willing to go through what it takes to do meditation properly. That's one of the drawbacks, because in this country, many people don't understand it and don't want to take time to do it."

While meditation will reduce some risk factors, like blood pressure and excessive heart rate, you still have to watch cholesterol, diet, exercise, says Robinson.

Gordon tells WebMD that aside from the health benefits, meditation changes the way you look at the world, the way you live your life, and "that's quite important."

"If you live in the moment and are not preoccupied by the past or worrying about the future, you've made a profound change," he says. "It is true that meditation has important physiologic effects in terms of lowering blood pressure, decreasing heart rate, or decreasing levels of pain, and that's also important. ? Running may have similar effects, but it doesn?t necessarily change your life in profound ways. Meditation has the capacity to do both."

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