Often thought of as a hippy-dippy practice aimed at transcendence,
meditation is coming into its own as a stress-reduction technique for even the
most type-A kind of people.
In 2005, for instance, severe chest pains sent Michael Mitchell to the
emergency room in fear of a heart attack. It turned out to be gastroesophageal
reflux disease, or GERD. Nevertheless, after checking his heart, the doctor
admitted him and chastised him for not coming in sooner. “That really shook me
up. It was a wake-up call to have a look at my type A personality and
workaholic lifestyle,” says the 44-year-old Simi Valley, Calif., statistician
for the Veterans Health Administration.
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Mitchell had shrugged off his high blood pressure, but now he kicked off a
personal makeover. He read books on happiness, started psychotherapy, and got
more exercise. And, despite a skeptical frame of mind, Mitchell turned to
meditation on the recommendation of a trusted co-worker. Within a month, he
felt more relaxed -- and his blood pressure returned to normal.
Health benefits of meditation
Mitchell’s experience is borne out by studies showing that meditation not
only lowers blood pressure but also can amp up your immune system -- although
the mechanism isn’t clear -- while improving your ability to concentrate.
Those who meditate can choose among a wide range of practices, both
religious and secular. What they have in common are a narrowing of focus that
shuts out the external world and usually a stilling of the body, says Charles
L. Raison, MD, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University
School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Raison participated in a study that indicated that meditation improved both
physical and emotional responses to stress. In the study, people who meditated
regularly for six weeks showed less activation of their immune systems and less
emotional distress when they were put in a stressful situation.
Meditation and stress reduction
Stress reduction could be the key to meditation’s beneficial effect on
health. “We know stress is a contributor to all the major modern killers,”
Raison points out. More studies have shown improvement for fibromyalgia and
even psoriasis in patients who meditate. “It’s hard to think of an illness in
which stress and mood don’t figure,” Raison says.
Science hasn’t yet connected the dots between what happens in the meditating
brain and the immune system. But a University of Wisconsin study saw increased
electrical activity in regions of the left frontal lobe, an area that tends to
be more active in optimistic people, after eight weeks of training in
How to learn to meditate
If you think that meditation might help you unwind a bit, there are dozens
of techniques and disciplines available, from saying a mantra to staring at a
candle flame to counting breaths. Keep trying until something feels right. And
check out community centers, local colleges, and HMOs for classes; they’re
often affordable at such places.
Mitchell himself now meditates almost every morning, sitting on a special
bench in his living room. He’s better at coping with life’s vicissitudes, he
says, adding that if he slacks off “little things get under my skin in a way
they normally wouldn’t. When I get back into the rhythm, I wonder why I let
myself get away from meditating regularly.”
Sources: Charles L. Raison, MD, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program
at Emory University's School of Medicine, Atlanta, Ga. Dusek, JA, et al.,
The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2008, 14 (2):
129-138. Davidson RJ, Psychosomatic Medicine 2003, Vol. 65,
564-570. Amishi, JP, Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral
Neuroscience, Vol. 7, No. 2, 109-119(11). Thaddeus, WW,
Psychoneuroendocrinology 2008, 34(1): 87-98. Sephton, SE,
Arthritis and Rheumatism, 2007,Vol. 57, 77—85.
Kabat-Zinn, J, Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 60(5)
625-632. Davidson, RJ, Psychosomatic Medicine, 2003, Vol. 65,