By Paul Salmon, Ph.D., M.S.
It’s common knowledge that stress is linked to chronic disease risk and that long-term stress is almost certain to have negative effects on health. It’s also well established that there are a number of effective antidotes to stress, including relaxation training, meditation and exercise. Mindfulness meditation, the cultivation of moment-by-moment attention, is something that I’ve written about many times as an especially effective intervention for chronic stress.
Convincing evidence has accumulated over the years from a variety of clinical research studies that regular meditation practice has measurable and positive effects on psychological distress associated with a wide range of stressful events. One example of this is a study we conducted at U of L involving the impact of mindfulness meditation on fibromyalgia. An eight-week program combining meditation, yoga and related stress-management practices was found to be effective in helping manage distress symptoms in women with this disabling condition. Depressive symptoms in particular appeared to lessen, which may reflect an increased capacity to manage stress effectively. In addition, program participants showed a measurable increase in a trait-like characteristic termed ‘sense of coherence,’ reflecting the ability to maintain a sense of personal integrity in the face of chronic stress.
Similar studies have been conducted in recent years with a wide range of medical conditions, including chronic pain, psoriasis and cancer. In general, such studies attest to the positive impact of mediation-based stress management practice on reducing the distress associated with health challenges and promoting positive psychological adaptation. Most of the research in this area has been conducted using either Mindfulness Meditation techniques, developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, or the Relaxation Response (based in Transcendental Meditation) linked to Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard University.
A preliminary study recently reported at an American Heart Association meeting was particularly interesting in terms of the methods used to measure the impact of meditation and yoga on cardiovascular activity. This study, conducted by Dr Satish Sivasankaran at the Yale University School of Medicine, employed a range of assessment measures including Body Mass Index (BMI, a ratio derived from weight and height), blood pressure and heart rate. In addition, these researchers measured arterial endothelial function, which is related to the capacity of arterial blood vessels to dilate and contract in response to changes in blood flow. Study subjects participated in three yoga and meditation sessions per week, each 1.5 hours in length, and were also instructed to practice at home during the course of the six-week program.
Results of the study were very interesting; in addition to reported significant declines in resting pulse, blood pressure and BMI, there was a trend in the direction of improved arterial endothelial function. This finding was especially pronounced in the 30 percent or so of study participants with heart disease. In other words, the greatest positive change appeared to occur in participants with the most challenging health status. Dr. Sivasankaran cautioned that these results are only preliminary, and that more research is needed to replicate them in the context of a control/comparison condition. Nevertheless, this study is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it reflects the use of increasingly sophisticated research techniques in stress-management studies. Second, it reported findings that are consistent with others; prior research suggesting that mediation-based clinical interventions have positive effects on stress reactivity; and it points to one factor arterial endothelial activity that may help account for such effects in terms of underlying physiological mechanisms.
The take-home message this month? Make meditation, or a related form of contemplative practice, a regular part of your daily health routine. Solid scientific evidence suggests that this will help you develop an effective means of combating the negative effects of stress.
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Paul Salmon, Ph.D., M.S., is an associate professor of psychology at U of L. He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.