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.
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 meditation.
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.”