Meditation long considered by many the province of Buddhists and New Age gurus is gaining new respect among neurologists, psychiatrists and others who study the brain. An increasing volume of scientific study is not only showing that meditation helps reduce stress, but is offering some physiological clues about why it might be beneficial to the body and brain.
Meditation has been studied for 20 years, but in the past five to 10 years the focus of that research has gone beyond the idea that meditation makes a person feel better to scientific measurement of physiological changes, says Susan Bauer-Wu, RN, PhD, FAAN, a cancer researcher and associate professor of nursing at Emory University in Atlanta.
Recent studies of mindfulness meditation have shown evidence it may bolster the immune system and slow the progression of disease in patients with HIV/AIDS, improve blood pressure and reduce psychological distress in young adults, improve the emotional well-being and mental health of breast cancer patients, and be as effective as medications in treating insomnia.
Bauer-Wu sees a future where nurses receive mindfulness training just as they now learn to assess pain or insert an IV, and have it in their arsenal to help themselves and their patients. Medications dont change your life, Bauer-Wu says. Meditation doesnt change your life, either. But mindfulness meditation can change your responses to everyday challenges. It gives you a skill that you can use in all aspects of your life.
The most recent and for some researchers the most exciting studies have shown how meditation affects the brain itself, acting on regions to help suppress fear or anxiety, or stimulating those that involve compassion. Researchers are especially interested in neuroplasticity, the idea that the entire brain changes and develops over time, creating new neural pathways in response to outside stimulation rather than remaining fixed in certain regions since early childhood, as previously thought.
Recent work by Richard J. Davidson, PhD, neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has examined the brain activity of Tibetan monks who practice compassion meditation. His studies found they produced more powerful and more organized movement of gamma waves some of the highest frequency brain waves than inexperienced volunteers who also meditated. The intense gamma waves are associated with connecting different brain circuits, producing higher mental activity and heightened awareness. Davidson also found the monks brain activity was especially high in the region of the prefrontal associated with empathy, and positive thoughts and emotions.
Other studies have shown activity in specific areas of the brain in practitioners of mindfulness-based stress reduction, a program based on Buddhist-style practices notably touted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a microbiologist and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
In studies by Matthew D. Lieberman, PhD, a UCLA associate professor of psychology, brain scans have shown that labeling emotions, which is part of mindfulness meditation, seems to produce more activity in an area of the prefrontal cortex that turns down emotional response, and decreased activityin the amygdala, the brains alarm system, which triggersfear, anger and distress.
Mindfulness is a natural, basic science, says Daniel J. Siegel, MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and researcher at the UCLA School of Medicine, and executive director of the Mindsight Institute in Southern California. It does not just reduce stress; it has now been shown to be crucial to your ability to promote the growth of your mind.
An initial three minutes of focused breathing a day works the way a walk around the block might for a couch potato, Siegel says. Eventually practitioners build up their ability to meditate for longer periods of time, and to calm themselves more easily in stressful situations. You actually change the regulatory circuits in the brain, he says.
Bauer-Wu is finishing a large multi-site study of the effects of meditation on stress levels and coping skills of people receiving stem-cell bone marrow transplants in Massachusetts and Georgia. Data for the large study are still being analyzed, Bauer-Wu says. But results from a pilot showed significant benefits for patients who received meditation training, including lowered heart and respiratory rates, lower levels of stress hormones, decreased need for antibiotics and pain medications, shorter length of stay in the hospital, and self-reported decreases in pain, nausea, depression and anxiety.
Other studies are examining the effect of mindfulness meditation on nurses and their practices. At the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., Teri Britt Pipe, RN, PhD, director of nursing research and innovation, conducted a study on nurse leaders who attended four weeks of mindfulness meditation classes and practiced meditation regularly.
We found significant decreases in stress, depression and anxiety, Britt Pipe says, both compared to a control group and in a before-and-after measurement of the study group. Cortisol, a hormone involved in stress, returned to normal in some people whose levels had indicated chronic stress before the meditation sessions, she says.
In a similar study of staff nurses at Brigham and Womens Hospital in Massachusetts, those who took classes and practiced meditation reported statistically significant levels of reduced stress, both in their professional and personal lives, than a control group, says Carolyn Hayes, RN, PhD, NEA-BC, director of oncology nursing and clinical services.
Mary Jane Ott, MN, MA, APRN, BC, RYT, is a clinical nurse specialist in integrative therapies at Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies, part of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Massachusetts. For years she has practiced meditation in her personal and professional life, and observed how it relieves pain.
Most of us immediately tense up when we experience pain, Ott says. People try to escape the sensation, they recall past pain or they fear the pain will not go away. Mindfulness meditation has them focus on the pain, searching for where it is in the body, without relating it to what has happened or what might happen.
Part of the beauty of mindfulness meditation is it can be used from a secular approach, across the cultural, religious and spiritual spectrum.
Cathryn Domrose is a staff writer for Nurse.com.