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Published on: January 29, 2014
by Melanie Greenberg, PhD for Psychology Today:
When it comes to managing stress, the Eastern traditions may be especially effective. The Western health model is based on diagnosing the underlying cause of a problem and then finding an active medical or behavioral intervention to remove it. People with chronic illness are often urged to “stay strong,” or to have “a fighting spirit.”
Eastern medicine has a more holistic view of disease as indicating a lack of balance or an energy blockage. The solution is to bring the body and mind back into balance using gentle, noninvasive techniques such as herbs, manipulative techniques, movement, or meditation.
How the Brain Processes Emotion
Our lower brain centers, such as the amygdala or hypothalamus, were made to detect and respond to threats, such as a tiger about to eat us. They generate an immediate “fight ot flight” response to increase the odds of survival, but they can become hypersensitive, interfering with our ability to experience the present moment in an open and relaxed way. Daily meditation practice can help to correct this imbalance and allow us to retrain our minds so we are less likely to overreact with intense anger or fear to psychological threats, such as rejection. Being less chronically stressed can also help our immune systems function more efficiently to fight off disease.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR) is a meditation program developed by John Kabat-Zinn and researchers at Harvard Medical School to help people living with chronic pain. Central to this form of meditation is a focus on the breath to bring the mind back to the present moment when it wanders off. Over time, this leads to greater conscious control over attentional focus, such that more primitive alarm responses are less able to control our thoughts and behaviors.The final goal of the meditation training is to integrate present-moment awareness into every aspect of daily life.
Research over the past 10 years or so has begun to show how meditation may change the brain and improve mental and physical wellbeing.
Improved Immune Response
A 2003 study by Richard Davidson and colleagues, with healthy employees, showed that 8 weeks of meditation practice changed the pattern of electrical activity in the brain. There was greater activation in the left hemisphere among meditators than people assessed at the same time who did not have meditation training (control group). The researchers also looked at immune response to an influenza vaccine and found that the meditator group had more antibody titers to the vaccine than the control group, indicating better immune functioning. These benefits lasted for months after the intervention.
Changes in the Brain’s Grey Matter
A more recent controlled study showed that meditation was associated with increased grey matter in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, and decreased grey matter in the amygdala, which is the initiator of the brain’s pre-cortical alarm system. These physiological changes parallel the theory that meditation increases conscious control over emotional, behavioral, and attentional response to threat.
Reduced Pain Sensitivity
Researchers are also beginning to show that meditation can change the way we experience pain. Chris Brown and colleagues at the University of Manchester showed that a Mindfulness Meditation course led to less unusual activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex when subjects expected to receive a painful stimulus (such as a small elecric shock or contact with a hot object). Those who meditated reported finding the pain less unpleasant as well.
Shift From Negative to Positive Affect
Patients in another mindfulness study demonstrated significantly greater changes in brain electrical activity from activation in the right to the left cortical hemisphere, from before to immediately following meditation and several months later, compared to a control group. This pattern of brain activity is associated with a shift away from negative and towards more positive emotional experience. In other words, mindfulness meditation regimen appeared to help people to experience more positive emotions such as love, compassion, or contentment.
Does a Briefer Intervention Work?
One reason why people resist meditating is the time it takes. The original protocol involved eight weeks of mindfulness training sessions plus 45 minutes a day of at-home practice. At the beginning, many people find it difficult to sustain attention on the breath for that length of time. Logistical and time considerations make patients more hesitant to sign up or result in dropout. A briefer intervention that could be used more widely in hospital, employee wellness, and outpatient mental health settings might be more cost-effective and palatable to patients.
A very recent study published in the journal Psychological Science shows that a briefer meditation protocol can produce similar changes in cortical activity. Researcher Christopher Moyer and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Stout assigned subjects at random to either a 5-week Mindfulness Meditation group or to a group put on a waiting list for services. Data showed people in the meditation group practiced at home a couple of times a week for about 25 minutes each time, on average. These meditation subjects showed the same changes in cortical activity as those who got the full intervention in earlier studies; that is, a significant increase in left hemisphere cortical activation. The waiting list group did not demonstrate these changes. This is an exciting finding, since it suggests even shorter meditation periods can significantly increase positive emotional experience in the brain.
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