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Meditation: the healing force of a quiet mind
Research is showing the ancient spiritual practice of meditation can help manage and prevent a range of mental and physical health problems.
Mention meditation and many of us think of Buddhist monks, orange robes and incense. But meditation is increasingly being recognised outside of the spiritual realm as a powerful health improvement tool.
Research shows meditation can improve the wellbeing of people with a range of conditions including depression, anxiety, chronic pain and cancer.
It’s also becoming a popular treatment option among medical professionals, with as many as one in six Australian doctors teaching secular forms of meditation to their patients and more than 80 per cent referring them to others to learn it, says GP and Monash University lecturer, Dr Craig Hassed.
Hassed, who has studied meditation extensively, believes its potential benefits are so great, it warrants attracting a Medicare rebate.
“I think we’ll see perhaps in the not too distant future, accredited forms of meditation recognised [as part of the Medicare Benefits Schedule]. The evidence is just getting better and better.”
Restless minds cause “wear and tear”
Meditation involves retraining the way our mind pays attention so that it learns to “rest in the stillness underneath the thinking mind,” says Hassed. (For more information about the basics of meditation, see “Meditation: what’s it all about?” and “Meditation: how to do it”).
Meditation is well known as a way to help you shut out unhelpful thoughts and relax, but when practised regularly (Hassed recommends daily) it seems meditation can also help boost your health in the longer term.
Hassed argues too often our thoughts slip into a “default mode” – which involves replaying the past, worrying about the future and experiencing other negative thoughts – leading to “over-activation” of the body’s stress response.
This stress response is designed to help you deal with dangers or threats. But when it is too frequently over-activated by threats existing only in your mind, it can cause “wear and tear” on your body over time.
Hassed says research shows this ‘wear and tear’ can increase your risk of illnesses, such as heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and diabetes.
He also cites studies showing prolonged stress can kill cells in our brains and damage DNA in ways that predict illnesses associated with ageing, including cancer.
Learning to switch off, through meditation, can reverse these effects, he argues, with research showing significant benefits for people already suffering from health conditions.
Many of the studies have looked at mindfulness meditation, a form which emphasises focusing on the present moment, while observing but not judging or responding to thoughts and emotions.
Sydney clinical psychologist, Dr Sarah Edelman, who uses mindfulness to help her patients with mental health issues, says it is based on the idea that resistance to unpleasant emotions or sensations creates secondary pain that amplifies an initial source of distress.
“If you can learn to just watch with curiosity but without judgement, you don’t get the secondary distress.”
Hassed says research has shown this can:
- more than halve the relapse rate for depression sufferers
- help people manage symptoms of anxiety and panic
- help people with cancer cope with their treatment
- reduce “urges” for those fighting addictions or quitting smoking
- decrease sensations of pain (one study showed 80 per cent of people with chronic pain reported significant improvement in their severity of pain)
- improve sleep levels for those with insomnia
- improved attentiveness in children with ADHD
Meditation and mental health
For many people with mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, meditation can help break the cycle of focusing on negative thoughts that trigger worries or a lower mood, which in turn triggers yet more negative thoughts.
It has been shown to “quieten” a part of the brain known as the amygdala that makes us over-reactive to key emotions central to these disorders.
Regularly meditating has also been shown to cause changes in the structure and function of the brain, in ways that seem to boost learning and emotional intelligence.
Since people whose lives have involved little mental engagement seemed to be at increased risk of dementia, Hassed says, there’s even the possibility meditation could help ward off a decline in mental function as we age but further research is needed to test this idea.
Fighting pain and cancer
Exactly how a quiet mind can improve wellbeing for people with conditions as significant as cancer or severe chronic pain isn’t fully understood.
“There may be a few different mechanisms,” Hassed says.
“One of the things that happens with chronic pain, we know there’s a hypervigilance for pain and a strong emotional reaction to pain when it’s noticed.” This leads to pain circuits in the brain firing off more messages with the same level of pain, increasing the person’s suffering. “Mindfulness is probably helping undo that.”
Studies to test if meditation could prolong cancer survival have not yet been done and would likely be controversial, but Hassed says “there’s some promising suggestive data.”
For instance, studies show it appears to increase production of substances that boost immunity, while reducing so-called “pro-inflammatory” chemicals that help cancer cells replicate and form their own blood supply.
People undergoing cancer treatment are also encouraged to use meditation as a way of coping with the fatigue, pain, stress and emotional challenges they face. Organisations such as the Cancer Council – and its state branches – and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre offer such programs for this purpose.
How much evidence?
Yet while many doctors are comfortable with encouraging their patients to use meditation as a means of managing their health conditions, others argue there isn’t a big enough body of solid research to show its benefits.
Dr Vicki Kotsirilos, a GP and past founding president of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, acknowledges reviews of existing evidence often find mixed results with a large number of poor quality studies.
“Unfortunately it [meditation] doesn’t attract the funding to do enough really high powered studies.”
But she stresses high quality evidence does exist, citing 20 recent studies – some involving randomised controlled trials, a feature that increases the reliability of findings.
“The research is evolving and more and more doctors are becoming interested in it.”
Indeed Monash University includes a six week course in mindfulness as part of its core curriculum for first year medical students and other universities are piloting the idea.
“So long as it’s not tied up with any kind of cult, meditation is actually safe,” Kotsirilos says.
“The risk of harm is minimal so it’s a great therapeutic tool to use in conjunction with anything else we’re doing in a holistic approach to treating patients.”
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