Meditation as Medicine

I recently read a case study by Kathryn Bouskill from The Encultured Brain, by Greg Downey and Daniel Lende, which analyzed the use of humor as a coping mechanism for breast cancer patients. The ethnography was incredibly moving, as it described the holistic benefits of a simple act of pleasure for a life-threatening illness. I decided to dig deeper into the field of holistic medicine, and a topic that continued to show up was meditation. This was interesting to me, as I usually encounter meditation in the context of spirituality or religion, but after reading several studies, I found that meditation has a long history in medicine (Zoysa, 2011).

In order to get a firm grasp on meditation and its physiological effects, I read a study analyzing the interactions between the brain and autonomic nervous system (Lee, Y., Shiah, Y., Chen, S. C., Wang, S., Young, M., & Lin, C., 2015). The study compared the physiological differences between novice and experienced meditators using electroencephalography (EEG) and electrocardiogram (ECG). There were 20 subjects in total – ten with 10-30 years of experience with Tibetan Nyingmapa meditation and ten with 1-5 years. Baseline EEG and ECG measurements were taken to assess heart rate variability and autonomic nervous system activity, and then measurements were taken again after meditation sessions, as well as during meditation sessions while presented with various visual stimuli (snakes, animals, people, mutilations, erotica, and scenery). Before going into the results, I’ll provide some background information – theta and alpha waves are low frequency components, while beta and gamma waves are high frequency. Increased low frequency activity is correlated with parasympathetic activity and increased high frequency activity is correlated with sympathetic nervous system activity.

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The EEG results showed that both experiment groups had increases in low frequency components in the frontal and central regions of the brain and decreases in high frequency components when measured between baseline and no-stimuli meditation. However, the groups differed when presented with the visual stimuli – the experienced group maintained the same levels from the previous meditation phase, while the novice group had decreased activity of alpha, beta, and gamma waves; in other words, the novice group experienced reduced parasympathetic activity, which is correlated with higher stress, and decreased gamma activity is correlated with higher emotional arousal. This means that experienced meditators had less physiological arousal to stimuli than did novice meditators. This study indicates that meditation helps with emotional stability and managing stress because it helps maintain calm and stable mental states even when presented with potentially distracting stimuli.

The findings of the Lee et al. (2015) study are important because it provides support for the medical application of meditation. Already, more and more medical professional in the cancer field believe that complementary and alternative medicines (e.g. meditation, relaxation, spiritual care, music and art therapy, etc.) help reduce symptom burden and enhance coping (Conrad et al., 2013). Knowing that meditation practice has calming effects even during other happenings and occurrences may be useful for ill individuals, who are inevitably faced with many medical stimuli. I’ll be honest in saying that not everyone has the time and diligence to commit 10 to 30 years of their lives to Tibetan meditation in order to enhance coping skills, however. So are there more practical routes of meditative healing?

One case study analyzed the beneficial impact that Buddhist mindfulness meditation had for a Sri Lankan male with major depressive disorder (Zoysa, 2011). Although case studies do not exemplify the robust nature of studies with large sample sizes, the following study still provides evidence that further pursuit for medicinal meditation is worthwhile. Both Buddhist mindfulness used in psychotherapy and spiritual Buddhist mindfulness involve attempting to alleviate negative emotion. Although the end goal of psychotherapy is to get rid of negative emotion, this goal is only a channel of Buddhist practice to reach the primary goal of enlightenment. Enlightenment is the result of the culmination of wisdom and the ability to extract all thought (whether positive or negative), which is granted through meditation. The ability to discourage all thinking allows the individual to be in the present moment, thereby truly understanding reality, which is characterized by impermanence, suffering, and non-self (Zoysa, 2011).

As for the case study, a 21-year old Sri Lankan male diagnosed with depression decided to have mindfulness training in order to treat his illness rather than receive pharmacological therapy. He received six training sessions for fifty minutes once a week, and learned the following mindfulness techniques: awareness of body and thoughts when performing daily activities; challenging negative automatic thoughts; and awareness of breathe, which he practiced once a day for 30-45 minutes. He reflected on his practice with his trainer in order to gain insight from the mindfulness techniques. At the end of the training, he demonstrated reduced depressive rumination and low mood, greater contentment, more structure in life, more stability in relationships, and less emotional reactivity. These results are incredible especially because he did not take medications or undergo any other psychotherapeutic treatment. As a result of purely practicing meditation and mindfulness (for 6 weeks rather than for 30 years!), the individual suffering from depression felt treated from his illness. These findings give me a reason to schedule daily half-hour meditation sessions in my bedroom.

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All in all, there seems to exist a great deal of evidence behind the application of meditation as medicine (or at least as a supplementary tool). The practice may be used in our daily lives, as well as across many disciplines outside or within the medical field… The topics described above are only a small portion of its potential benefits!

References:

Conrad, C., Muenstedt, K., Micke, O., Prott, F., Gronau, T., Muecke, R., Stoll, C., Buentzel, J., & Huebner, J. (2013). Survey of members of the German society for palliative medicine regarding their attitudes toward complementary and alternative medicine for cancer patients. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 16(8), 822-824. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2013.0084

Guatama Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) [Electronic image]. http://www.viewzone.com/state-of-mind/15.html

Lee, Y., Shiah, Y., Chen, S. C., Wang, S., Young, M., & Lin, C. (2015). Improved emotional stability in experienced meditators with concentrative meditation based on electroencephalography and heart rate variability. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(1), 31-39. doi: 10.1089/acm.2013.0465

Zoysa, P. (2011). The use of Buddhist mindfulness meditation in psychotherapy: A case report from Sri Lanka. Transcultural Psychiatry, 48(5), 675-683. doi: 10.1177/1363461511418394

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2 thoughts on “Meditation as Medicine

  1. We were just reading, for a Health Psych class, about how effective meditation is for some types of disabilities. Most recently, we discussed how meditation and mindfulness training can be as effective as other, more standard medical treatments for infertility. These techniques also lent themselves to an overall higher quality of life. Very interesting stuff, and could be broadened to apply to a much wider range of disabilities and medical difficulties. http://www.smartfertilitychoices.com/mindfulness-for-infertility/

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  2. This is really cool! As I was reading, I began to think about the interconnectivity of the mind and body, and I wonder about relative the success/influence of other practices with similar focus on calming the mind and being rooted in the present. The first that comes to mind is yoga, which often accompanies meditation and vice-versa. I wonder how the physical aspects of yoga might influence these results, as well as how the many variations of yoga might differ in their applications, alongside the use of meditation, as a potential for treatment.

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