Evidence Mounts for Benefits of Meditation

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When Felicia Snyder voluntarily left her job at a high-tech start-up company, she found her life in transition and upheaval. On a friend's recommendation, she went on a spiritual retreat to a secluded retreat called an ashram and spent three hours a day in meditation and prayer. Her life, she says, changed for the better.

"There was this deep sense of peace, like a protective bubble around me that I had never experienced before," Snyder said.

Snyder, 27, was then inspired to found Meditation for Women, a Boston-area center devoted to giving women a comfortable haven for practicing meditation and finding balance in their lives.

Snyder is one of countless people seeking stillness amid all the commotion. Meditation can be good for the mind and soul, experts say, and it is becoming a more common way to treat health conditions. While it is not fully understood what changes in the body during meditation, the practice has been shown in various studies to relieve stress and improve the physical side effects of anxiety.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refer to meditation as a group of techniques that may be practiced for many reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, improve psychological balance, cope with illness, or enhance overall wellness.

How to meditate

Particularly for a beginner, the person preparing to meditate should seek a quiet location without distractions. Specific comfortable postures, a focus of attention and an open attitude are general elements of the practice.

Two common forms are mindfulness meditation and Transcendental Meditation. Mindfulness meditation is based on Buddhist teachings that involve focusing one's mind on the present. A person should sit alone quietly, be aware of her breathing and be mindful of the thoughts that come and go.

Transcendental Meditation is a different technique. TM is based on mantra meditation, in which the person chants a mantra or other sounds and sits comfortably for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day.

Most kinds of meditation should be practiced daily, preferably at the same time of day. Meditation should be done before a meal rather than after, and a quiet spot should be set aside for no other use than meditating.

The benefits

Two recent studies presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine showed Transcendental Meditation may reduce symptoms of depression in older adults at high risk for cardiovascular disease. The studies were conducted at Charles Drew University and University of Hawaii. Participants in both studies who practiced the meditation techniques showed significant reduction in depressive symptoms compared with those who did not meditate.

"Any technique [like meditation] not involving extra medication in this population is a welcome addition," said Dr. Gary P. Kaplan, associate professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine. Further research should be done on the use of TM in the prevention of depression , and in elderly people who have had strokes or have chronic diseases, Kaplan said.

Another study, published in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science, showed that daily meditation helps to increase people's attention span. Thirty study participants went on a three-month meditation retreat, and their attention spans were tested on a computer program throughout the trip. Attention improved as people meditated more and more.

"Because this task is so boring and yet is also very neutral, it's kind of a perfect index of meditation training," said Katharine MacLean, a graduate student at University of California-Davis who worked on the study.

Meditation is also becoming more common in treating pain and arthritis. In a study published in the June issue of the journal Pain, researchers found that people who meditated regularly, when presented with the possibility of a painful laser treatment, anticipated the pain less than those who did not meditate.

"Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse," said Dr. Christopher Brown, a study researcher from the University of Manchester School of Translational Medicine in England.

Agreeing with Brown, Snyder put it into simple terms. "The brain takes in information and the mind makes sense of it all. If people are able to stop worries and judgments, the mind is quieted, and the brain can get back to work."

MyHealthNewsDaily Contributor