Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital March 20, 2013
Mindfulness meditation is a state of awareness in which one remains non-judgmental and non-reactive towards one’s own thoughts and emotions from moment to moment. Research indicates it may lead to changes in the brain that provide health benefits, particularly for people suffering from fibromyalgia (chronic pain syndrome). These patients live with musculoskeletal pain and fatigue on a daily basis. As a result, they often avoid pain-related threats and dwell on thoughts of pain, making it harder to cope with their illness.
In a study of female fibromyalgia patients who practiced mindfulness meditation, Dr. David Vago, a cognitive neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), found that after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training, patients were less likely to avoid pain-related words and were less distracted by such words when performing attention-demanding tasks. In other words, they were more likely to engage with their pain and had fewer tendencies to dwell on such thoughts after completion of the study. While fibromyalgia patients who meditated still sensed their pain, they were able to manage their emotional responses more effectively.
There are a number of theories about how mindfulness meditation may improve your physical and mental health. In a theoretical model recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Dr. Vago and co-author Dr. David Silbersweig, Chairman, BWH Department of Psychiatry, suggest that mindful meditation produces a reduction in sustained activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls most of the body’s readiness for ‘fight or flight’. This benefit can lead to a more rapid return of resting heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and muscle relaxation after a physical or emotional stressor. (A number of other mechanisms are also suggested in the paper by Drs. Vago and Silbersweig.)
Some other health benefits of mindfulness meditation include:
- Improved immune system response – results of a study that followed people in Wisconsin throughout an entire winter cold and flu season showed that those who participated in a daily regime of mindfulness meditation had fewer respiratory illnesses and missed fewer days of work than those in the group who were not meditating or exercising more than once a week. The study results also suggested that when individuals who meditated did get sick, they felt sick for a shorter amount of time, and their symptoms were milder.
- Enhanced emotional well-being – Another study used imaging to study the impact of mindful meditation on the brain. The researchers found physical changes in the brain that suggest meditation can improve self-control, mood, and stress response.
To realize health benefits from meditation, experts suggest you should try to meditate every day for 20 to 30 minutes. If fitting an additional 20 to 30 minutes of meditation into your schedule seems difficult, consider trying a form of exercise that combines fitness with meditation. Yoga, for instance, focuses on breathing, movement, and posture to help you relax and control stress. Tai chi is a form of meditation that combines slow, gentle movements and deep breathing. Some people meditate while walking; with this method, you slow down your walk so that you can focus on your steps and the movement of your legs and feet.
- Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory – Cognitive, Affective, and Contemplative Neurosciences
- Osher Clinical Center For Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies
- Research, Meditation and the Dalai Lama
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