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I See, You'll Say Calmly

Meditation focusing on mind/body feelings improves health, study says

TUESDAY, July 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If today's high-stress lifestyle has you tied up in knots, a stress-reduction form of meditation might be just what the doctor ordered, a new study says.

There are two types of meditation, explains Kimberly A. Williams, director of the integrative medicine program at West Virginia University and lead author of the study.

There's transcendental meditation, in which you focus on one sound -- a mantra -- and coordinate it with your breathing, says Williams. And there's mindfulness stress reduction, which teaches you to "notice what's most prominent in your awareness; the thought, the sound, the body sensation. . .Your mind attends to whatever is arising. It notices the rising and falling of senses."

Mindfulness meditation is "geared to insight as well as calmness of mind," Williams says. "Once you learn what things to pay attention to -- your normal expressions, thoughts, feelings, breathing sensations -- you have a better understanding of yourself."

But learning mindfulness is not a one-time, go-to-a seminar-and-chant event, Williams adds. In-depth mindfulness training teaches about stress, how people react to stress, and how to use the method to respond more consciously. "It's a very applied approach."

To explore whether mindfulness training could reduce stress and increase a feeling of well-being in people who were highly stressed but not at a level that constitutes a psychiatric disorder, the research team recruited 62 adults who proclaimed themselves stressed-out.

Each filled out questionnaires on their physical and emotional health. Then 27 people were placed in a control group to use community resources to manage their stress. The other 35 were enrolled in a 28-hour, eight-week long, wellness-based mindfulness stress reduction program The training included a 2½ hour class per week, and an eight-hour retreat.

Those who completed the training had an average 54 percent reduction in psychological distress, and a 46 percent drop in medical symptoms over a three-month follow-up, researchers say. The control group didn't improve after the same three months.

Williams believes once people try the meditation training, they'll like it and stick with the program. "My experience is, we've had a quite a large group of people refer themselves, mostly those having difficulty dealing with stress in their lives or with chronic illness."

Carol Green, a licensed acupuncturist and educator who leads mindfulness stress reduction workshops at the Merino Center for Progressive Health in Cambridge, says she's seen similar positive results in her classes.

"Emotions are directly linked to physical ailments. We've shown in Western medicine that cardiac, headache, muscle tension are all directly related to stress. Our lifestyles are very busy, we're sitting most of the day and our minds are scattered -- we're focused on many different demands," says Green.

"Mindfulness helps bring the body back to its natural harmonious rhythm," she adds. Even slight changes can "have instrumental changes in our lives. The two minutes we spend brushing our teeth in the morning produces better health. It's the same thing with incorporating meditation, even for a few minutes."

When you've mastered mindfulness, says Williams, you will have "insight into what to do" in moments of stress. "Maybe you just need to slow down or to breathe. There's no prescription, except to be fully present to feeling in a non-judgmental way and to consciously respond."

"So much of what we do is to react," Williams adds. "Mindfulness gives you access to deeper consciousness. If you know how to do it, you'll not only experience less stress, but you'll end up tapping into your reservoir of well being."

Williams says the next step is to understand the mechanisms at work and to study the physiology. But she adds, the study suggests that mindfulness stress reduction should be part of wellness programs that help people before stress takes its toll on their bodies and minds

The study appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

What To Do

Learn more about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and transcendental meditation. Or locate a mindfulness training center at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

SOURCES: Interviews with Kimberly A. Williams, Ph.D., research assistant professor, department of community medicine, program director, program for integrative medicine, West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia, lead author; Carol Green, licensed acupuncturist and educator, The Merino Center for Progressive Health, Cambridge, Mass.
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