My mother started meditating decades ago, long before the mind-calming practice had entered the wider public consciousness. She liked to quote quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk known for his practice of mindful meditation, or “present-centered awareness.”
Although meditation is still not exactly mainstream, many people practice it, hoping to prevent stress and stress-related health problems. Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has become more popular in recent years. The practice of mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and then directing your mind’s attention to the present without worrying about the past or the future. (Or, as my mother would say, “Don’t rehearse tragedies. Don’t borrow problems.”)
But, as is true with a number of other alternative therapies, much of the evidence supporting meditation’s effectiveness in promoting mental or physical health is not entirely sound. Why? First, many studies do not include a proper control treatment to compare to mindful meditation. Second, the people most likely to volunteer for a meditation study are often already convinced of the benefits of meditation and are thus more likely to report positive effects.
But when researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD searched nearly 19,000 meditation studies, they found 47 studies that addressed these issues and met their criteria for well-designed studies. Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicinesuggest that mindfulness meditation may help relieve psychological stress such as anxiety, depression and pain.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.”
“If you have unproductive worries,” says Dr. Hoge, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts very differently. “You might think, ‘I’m late, I could lose my job if I don’t get there on time, and that’s going to be a disaster!’ Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, “Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that — a thought, and not part of my core self,” says Dr. Hoge.
One of her studies (which was included in the JAMA Internal Medicine review) found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped suppress anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition characterized by difficult-to-control worry, poor sleep, and irritability. People in the control group — who also improved, but not as much as those in the meditation group — learned common stress management techniques. All participants received similar amounts of time, attention, and group interaction.
To get a sense of mindfulness meditation, try one of Dr. Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. They are available for free at www.mindfulness-solution.com.
Some people find that learning mindfulness meditation techniques and practicing them with a group is particularly helpful, Dr. Hoge says. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA, is now widely available in cities across the United States.
Thich Nhat Hahn offers this short mindful meditation in his book Be peace: “Breathing in, I calm my body. I exhale and smile. Staying in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.