Stress Test is a series about the science behind our busy lives and how stress affects our bodies. The biweekly column uncovers the latest research and explains how to put it to use in a practical way. Look for the science behind epigenetic markers of stress, mindfulness, meditation and deep brain stimulation.
The basic research on stress and meditation is clear: It helps. What researchers are trying to understand now is how it helps and how much is needed (often touted as the “minimum viable dose”) to help people. Scientists are now testing meditation scenarios in different groups with different issues and for different lengths of time. In fact, the research has become so common that scientists have coined the term — mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR.
They’re looking at MBSR for specific scenarios such as chronic low-back pain, body image distress, insomnia, migraines, traumatic brain injury, obsessive compulsive disorder, multiple sclerosis, kidney transplants, Parkinson’s disease, lung cancer and breast cancer. They’re finding that mindfulness-based practices often help to some extent, especially when paired with other healthy practices such as diet, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy (in some studies, combined with meditation, it’s called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy). Some scientists are even grouping this new research into a new field, called mindful neuropsychology, which focuses on the way the brain can heal the body’s stress.
Researchers are also testing the ways we receive meditation and whether that makes a difference. So far, some studies say in-person therapy can do more for us than telephone-based mindfulness programs (called tMBSR). Others say Internet and app-based programs are just as effective, and in some cases, may be better for those who are adapted to phone use, especially young users.
Another point remains clear, though: This research is still new. Although our inboxes and advertisements may be flooded with meditation-based programs that seem to be passing out of fashion, scientists are still deciding how exactly meditation helps and what we can do to get the most out of it.
Keep these meditation facts in mind when embarking on your next practice:
1. Mindfulness meditation can help those with stress, anxiety and depression.
It may also reduce their health care costs, says a new study from April. It can decrease work days missed and the number of mental health professional visits for those with anxiety, said researchers from the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders in Washington D.C. and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. For many people with psychological or neurological concerns, the focus on the “now” and present moment helps to reduce biases or beliefs built up in the mind, especially for those who have disorders such as OCD, according to a French study from November.
2. It’s easy enough to do at home.
Mindfulness-based practices abound today, available in books, podcasts, apps and website listicles. The basics include setting aside time to sit quietly with your thoughts to clear your mind. When distracting mental images, thoughts and pains arise, acknowledge them but don’t react to them. Start with 5 minutes per day and increase to 30 minutes per day, if desired. Dozens of studies show that even the smallest amount of practice can help.
3. At the same time, it depends on you.
Some home-based practices fail because people give up quickly or don’t learn how to properly clear their minds, so they think about the things that stress them. In fact, that’s why some studies are hazy about the exact benefits of meditation — these studies are based on self-reported information about what the participants did.
At the same time, that makes sense — In scientific studies, it’s often unclear how participants complete procedures on their own and what happens in their minds as they do it. Many studies are also based on small groups of people (fewer than 100), so scientists are just now getting enough data from analyzing these studies altogether (in systematic reviews) to understand what the significant differences might be.
4. New research may soon tell us what’s happening in the brain.
Researchers are testing technology to understand what the brain does during meditation, including electroencephalogram (EEG) and electrocardiogram (ECG) data that measure brain and heart changes. Scientists in Hong Kong used this wavelet entropy to test an eight-week MBSR course and consistently found that the brain EEG decreased during the meditation state as compared to a closed-eye resting state, according to the study published in May 2017. Also, a lower ECG was found during MBSR.
Another study from April 2017 looked at amygdala activity in the brain during meditation and found that negative emotions decreased significantly and lowered anxiety. Those who practiced compassion more often in their daily lives also had a healthier bounce-back response in their amygdala when negative emotions did occur. They generally didn’t jump to gut reactions or distress mode. Essentially, meditative practice can bleed over into non-meditative times to help anger and stress management.
5. Public health experts want mindfulness to go mainstream.
As the benefits of meditation continue to pop up in popular culture, researchers who look at the big picture of health are trying to implement the practice into our everyday lives at home and in workplaces. Researchers will need to draw the lines between religious and nonreligious mindful practices, recent commentaries say, as well as particular frameworks that appeal to people in different life situations and socioeconomic statuses.
Researchers also want to determine the best ways to train teachers how to train others. In fact, a study from February 2017 tested the ways health care providers can use mindfulness to reduce their own bias against patients, particularly racial and ethnic biases that may contribute to health care disparities in the country. Other studies tested mindfulness training in Veteran Affairs health care workers and surgical ICU workers as well. If doctors, surgeons and nurses can embrace the practice, then maybe we can, too.
Image: Hape Gera via Flicker, CC-BY
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.