Meditation and Medicine

NYT: Why Self-Compassion Beats Self-Confidence

“Be more confident,” a friend once told me as we made the rounds at a swanky networking event where I felt terribly out of place. Faking confidence is easy: I pulled my shoulders back and spoke louder and with more assertiveness.

Like many soft-spoken, mild-mannered people, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to present myself this way. As it turns out, confidence may be overrated.

“We like confidence because it feels good and gives us a sense of control. The alternative would be constant anxiety,” said Eric Barker, author of “Barking Up the Wrong Tree.”

We live in a culture that reveres self-confidence and self-assuredness, but as it turns out, there may be a better approach to success and personal development: self-compassion. While self-confidence makes you feel better about your abilities, it can also lead you to vastly overestimate those abilities.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, encourages you to acknowledge your flaws and limitations, allowing you to look at yourself from a more objective and realistic point of view. Both have merits, but many experts believe that self-compassion includes the advantages of self-confidence without the drawbacks.

In his book, Mr. Barker asserts that productivity culture often promotes faking confidence without considering these drawbacks. Namely, when you fake it, you may start to believe your own lie, which can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Because confidence feels good “we often don’t notice when it creeps across the line to overconfidence,” Mr. Barker said. This is better known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: a cognitive bias in which you overestimate your ability in something.

For example, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked people to describe themselves while being recorded on video. Those subjects were then told they would be rated on how likable, friendly and intelligent they seemed in the video. Subjects who had high levels of self-compassion had generally the same emotional reaction no matter how they were rated. By contrast, people with high levels of self-esteem had negative emotional reactions if the feedback was simply neutral and not exceptional. They were also more likely to blame unexceptional ratings on outside factors.

“In general, these studies suggest that self-compassion attenuates people’s reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem,” the researchers concluded.

Without the pressure to be superhuman, it’s easier to accept feedback and criticism. It’s much harder to learn and improve when you believe you already know everything.

Dr. Neff said resilience may be the most remarkable benefit of self-compassion. In one study, she and her colleagues worked with veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The subjects worked with clinical psychologists who determined that nearly half of the group (42 percent) experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Using a 26-item self-report questionnaire that included statements like, “I’m tolerant of my own flaws and inadequacies,” Dr. Neff and her colleagues rated subjects’ level of self-compassion. The study concluded that the more self-compassionate veterans were, the less severe their PTSD symptoms were.

Dr. Neff added that self-compassionate people also tend to ruminate less because they can “break the cycle of negativity” by accepting their own imperfections.

Still, of course, there are many benefits to being confident, even if it’s a put-on. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that simply appearing more confident makes people believe you deserve more respect and admiration, possibly helping you reach higher social status. Another study published in Plos One found that when people are overconfident, others overrate them as smarter and more skilled. In other words, there’s something to the “fake it until you make it” phenomenon.

But self-compassion and acceptance can offer a whole suite of other benefits: It’s easier for self-compassionate people to improve on those mistakes, failures or shortcomings because they view them more objectively. Research shows self-compassion is an effective motivator in this way.

Self-compassionate people are better at owning up to their mistakes. Juliana Breines and Serena Chen of the University of California at Berkeley conducted a series of experiments to measure the effect of self-compassion on personal growth. In one study, they asked people to think about something they’ve done that made them feel guilty (lying to a partner, for example). From there, subjects were assigned to a group: self-compassion, self-esteem control or positive distraction control. The self-compassion group had to write to themselves “from a compassionate and understanding perspective.”

The self-esteem group was instructed to write about their own positive qualities, and the positive distraction group was asked to write about a hobby they enjoyed. According to the study, those who practiced self-compassion were more motivated to admit and apologize for their mistake than people in the self-esteem group or positive distraction group. The self-compassion group was also more committed to not repeating their mistakes.

But this isn’t to say you have to go around feeling inadequate. Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, suggests a solution to the problem of overconfidence: self-compassion.

“Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness, care and concern you show a loved one,” Dr. Neff said. “We need to frame it in terms of humanity. That’s what makes self-compassion so different: ‘I’m an imperfect human being living an imperfect life.’”

By that definition, self-compassion is the opposite of overconfidence. Admitting we have flaws just like anyone else keeps us connected to others, Dr. Neff said, and also keeps us from exaggerating our flaws or strengths. Unlike overconfidence, which attempts to hide self-doubt and other pessimistic shortcomings, self-compassion accepts them. Self-compassion, Mr. Barker writes, includes the benefits of confidence without the downside of delusion.

“A lot of people think self-compassion is weak, but it’s just the opposite,” Dr. Neff said. “When you’re in the trenches, do you want an enemy or an ally?” Whereas confidence is aimed at feeling adequate and powerful despite how adequate and powerful you actually are, self-compassion encourages you to accept a more objective reality.

What’s more, self-compassion has been shown to help people better empathize with others. Dr. Neff and her colleague, Tasha Beretvas at the University of Texas at Austin, have found that people rate self-compassionate partners as more caring and supportive than self-critical ones. So if your partner points out a flaw, you’ll do better to accept it and forgive yourself than beat yourself up and dwell on it.

Pulling your shoulders back is easy. Learning to be kind to yourself takes considerably more effort. In his book, Mr. Barker suggests a few ways to embrace self-compassion: Accept that you’re human, recognize your failures and frustrations, and avoid dwelling on mistakes.

“The first and most important thing to do is to notice that voice in your head – that running commentary we all have as we go about our lives,” Mr. Barker said. “Often that voice is way too critical. You beat yourself up for every perceived mistake. To be more self-compassionate, you need to notice that voice and correct it.”

That doesn’t mean lying to yourself, Mr. Barker says, but rather changing the way you talk to yourself. It may help to imagine the way a loved one would talk to you about your mistakes, then switch that voice out for a more supportive one. Keep in mind, however, that the harsh critic in your head is not your enemy. This is a common misconception that can make things worse, Dr. Neff said, because that voice is a survival mechanism that’s intended to keep you safe.

“Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up,” she said. “We just need to learn to make friends with our inner critic.”

Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and the author of “Get Money.”

Article Link: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/smarter-living/why-self-compassion-beats-self-confidence.html?referer=https://www.google.com/

Less Stress, Better Work, And 6 Other Ways Meditation Can Transform Your Life

Posted: 07/13/2014 11:48 am EDT Updated: 07/13/2014 11:59 am EDT

Research method integrates meditation, science: the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

[Brown University] —

Mindfulness is always personal and often spiritual, but the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

Advances in methodology are allowing researchers to integrate mindfulness experiences with brain imaging and neural signal data to form testable hypotheses about the science — and the reported mental health benefits — of the practice.

A team of Brown University researchers, led by junior Juan Santoyo, will present their research approach at 2:45 p.m on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the 12th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Their methodology employs a structured coding of the reports meditators provide about their mental experiences. That can be rigorously correlated with quantitative neurophysiological measurements.

“In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out,” said co-presenter Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses – clinically relevant and experience-relevant hypotheses.”

Now researchers are gaining the tools to trace experiences described by meditators to specific activity in the brain.

“We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.”

Structuring the spiritual

At the conference, the team will frame these broad implications with what might seem like a small distinction: whether meditators focus on their sensations of breathing in their nose or in their belly. The two meditation techniques hail from different East Asian traditions. Carefully coded experience data gathered by Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, show that the two techniques produced significantly different mental states in student meditators.

“We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”

The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences came not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also by employing two independent coders to perform standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating.

This kind of structured coding of self-reported personal experience is called “grounded theory methodology.” Santoyo’s application of it to meditation allows for the formation of hypotheses.

For example, Kerr said, “Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of mindfulness experience offered by the belly-focused group, we would expect there to be more ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity in this group across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called ‘gut feelings’.”

Unifying experience and the brain

The next step is to correlate the coded experiences data with data from the brain itself. A team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison at Yale University, including Santoyo and Kerr, did just that in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August 2013. The team worked with deeply experienced meditators to correlate the mental states they described during mindfulness with simultaneous activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). They measured that with real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging.

They found that when meditators of several different traditions reported feelings of “effortless doing” and “undistracted awareness” during their meditation, their PCC showed little activity, but when they reported that they felt distracted and had to work at mindfulness, their PCC was significantly more active. Given the chance to observe real-time feedback on their PCC activity, some meditators were even able to control the levels of activity there.

“You can observe both of these phenomena together and discover how they are co-determining one another,” Santoyo said. “Within 10 one-minute sessions they were able to develop certain strategies to evoke a certain experience and use it to drive the signal.”

Toward therapies

A theme of the conference, and a key motivator in Santoyo and Kerr’s research, is connecting such research to tangible medical benefits. Meditators have long espoused such benefits, but support from neuroscience and psychiatry has been considerably more recent.

In a February 2013 paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Kerr and colleagues proposed that much like the meditators could control activity in the PCC, mindfulness practitioners may gain enhanced control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms. Those brain waves help regulate how the brain processes and filters sensations, including pain, and memories such as depressive cognitions.

Santoyo, whose family emigrated from Colombia when he was a child, became inspired to investigate the potential of mindfulness to aid mental health beginning in high school. Growing up in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., he observed the psychiatric difficulties of the area’s homeless population. He also encountered them while working in food service at Cambridge hospital.

“In low-income communities you always see a lot of untreated mental health disorders,” said Santoyo, who meditates regularly and helps to lead a mindfulness group at Brown. He is pursuing a degree in neuroscience and contemplative science. “The perspective of contemplative theory is that we learn about the mind by observing experience, not just to tickle our fancy but to learn how to heal the mind.”

It’s a long path, perhaps, but Santoyo and his collaborators are walking it with progress.

More doctors embrace meditation as medicine

As evidence of its effectiveness grows, more doctors are prescribing meditation to help boost the body’s healing powers.

The stress of caring for her ailing parents, then grieving their deaths eventually caught up with Sharyn Resvick.

She suffered from shooting pain in her shoulder from a pinched nerve. Worse, she could feel her heart pounding and battled feelings of panic.

“My body just crashed,” said Resvick, 55, of Plymouth.

Instead of going on medication, she took a different tack: meditation.

Her remedy of choice was endorsed by her doctor, who scanned her heart to rule out other issues, then suggested she use mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) — a popular meditation program — to manage her symptoms.

As with yoga a decade ago, meditation is slowly expanding beyond its fringe following, appealing to a wider audience, even in the data-driven medical world. More doctors are prescribing meditation to help treat anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and manage pain, according to a recent study by the Harvard Medical School. It’s one of several studies showing that meditation can actually alter how the brain works.

“It’s that kind of scientific research that really changes physicians’ minds,” said Dr. Henry Emmons, a Minneapolis psychiatrist and author of “The Chemistry of Joy” and “The Chemistry of Calm.”

The trend has gained a foothold especially among health professionals, some of whom practice meditation themselves to cope with the demands of their stressful occupations. Ever so gradually, they’ve moved from practicing the technique to preaching it.

For a long time, doctors who meditated were quiet about it, said Dr. Selma Sroka, medical director of Hennepin County Medical Center’s Alternative Medicine Clinic.

“It wasn’t professional. It wasn’t medical to talk about it,” she said. “I think things are getting more open.”

The mindful revolution

Sroka is a big believer in meditation’s healing powers.

The body’s stress response, also known as “fight or flight,” is aggravated by emotional or physical stress, she explained. The opposite of that reaction is the body’s relaxation response. Meditation triggers that response.

“Any chronic illness can be benefited from emptying one’s mind and not thinking, and breathing more deeply,” Sroka said. “That’s all part of meditation.”

She often recommends that her patients give their minds a rest for a few minutes each day to help their bodies heal. Getting a patient who has suffered a heart attack, for example, to see the importance of the mind-body connection to their recovery is the first step.

“Then, right there in the exam room, I will teach them a simple deep-breathing technique and have them do it for three to four minutes,” Sroka said. She instructs her patients to aim for meditating for 10 minutes a day. “I’m trying to plant seeds,” she said.

Like Sroka, Dr. Debra Bell, a family medicine doctor, regularly prescribes meditation to her patients.

She works for Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis and recommends several meditation resources to her patients. She suggests classes and books to help them learn different techniques and gives some basic instructions herself.

Researchers integrate meditation and science to develop targeted mental health treatments

Mindfulness is always personal and often spiritual, but the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

Advances in methodology are allowing researchers to integrate mindfulness experiences with brain imaging and neural signal data to form testable hypotheses about the science – and the reported mental health benefits – of the practice.

A team of Brown University researchers, led by junior Juan Santoyo, will present their research approach at 2:45 p.m on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the 12th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Their methodology employs a structured coding of the reports meditators provide about their mental experiences. That can be rigorously correlated with quantitative neurophysiological measurements.

“In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out,” said co-presenter Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses – clinically relevant and experience-relevant hypotheses.”

Now researchers are gaining the tools to trace experiences described by meditators to specific activity in the brain.

“We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.”

Structuring the spiritual

At the conference, the team will frame these broad implications with what might seem like a small distinction: whether meditators focus on their sensations of breathing in their nose or in their belly. The two meditation techniques hail from different East Asian traditions. Carefully coded experience data gathered by Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, show that the two techniques produced significantly different mental states in student meditators.

“We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”

The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences came not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also by employing two independent coders to perform standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating.

This kind of structured coding of self-reported personal experience is called “grounded theory methodology.” Santoyo’s application of it to meditation allows for the formation of hypotheses.

For example, Kerr said, “Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of mindfulness experience offered by the belly-focused group, we would expect there to be more ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity in this group across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called ‘gut feelings’.”

Unifying experience and the brain

The next step is to correlate the coded experiences data with data from the brain itself. A team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison at Yale University, including Santoyo and Kerr, did just that in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August 2013. The team worked with deeply experienced meditators to correlate the mental states they described during mindfulness with simultaneous activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). They measured that with real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Happy Spring! Meditation and Breathing Exercises May Help Allergy Flare Ups, Research Shows

Hay fever and other allergies could be made worse by stress, and some scientists believe meditation and breathing exercises may be the key to relieving flare ups, according to a report by the Daily Mail.

“Stress can cause several negative effects on the body, including causing more symptoms for allergy sufferers,” Dr Amber Patterson, from the Ohio State University Medical Centre said in the report. “Our study also found those with more frequent allergy flares also have a greater negative mood, which may be leading to these flares.”

Researchers looked at 179 patients over 12 weeks and monitored their allergies, and the study was published in the journal “Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology,” revealing the 39 percent who had more than one allergy flare-up had higher stress levels than the rest of the group.

Also, a number of those tested said they had allergy flare-ups that coincided with how stressed they were feeling. Researchers suggested meditation, deep breathing, and avoiding smoking and coffee could help keep stress levels down, and a healthy diet and regular exercise may also reduce symptoms.

“Symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes can cause added stress for allergy sufferers, and may even be the root of stress for some,” said Dr. Patterson. “While alleviating stress won’t cure allergies, it may help decrease episodes of intense symptoms.”

– See more at: http://www.elevatedexistence.com/blog/2014/04/23/meditation-breathing-exercises-may-help-allergy-flare-ups-research-shows/#sthash.nloFNi05.dpuf

NCCAM: Meditation and the Dalai Lama

Meditation and the Dalai Lama

March 17, 2014
Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

Director
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

View Dr. Briggs’ biographical sketch

The NIH community was delighted to welcome His Holiness the Dalai Lama on March 7 to present the annual NIH J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture, in which he discussed “The Role of Science in Human Flourishing.” Not surprisingly, the event—a conversation between the Dalai Lama and NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins—drew a large and engaged audience.

While the Dalai Lama was here, I was privileged to be among a small group to accompany him for a visit with a child enrolled in an NIH Clinical Center study on rehabilitation for childhood cerebral palsy. Researchers at NIH are interested in learning how physical exercise and training in rehabilitation affect the neuroplasticity of the childhood brain. The Dalai Lama’s warmth, infectious laugh, and curiosity about the research completely won over both patients and staff.

NCCAM grantee Richard Davidson, Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison accompanied him during the visit and has worked with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks to examine how the mental exercise of meditation might impact the brain in order to improve health and well-being. Here at NCCAM, we have held a long interest in the research of meditation for health purposes and have supported a number of studies. Past studies have established an association with changes in the electrical function of the brain; more recent studies indicate possible neuroanatomic changes associated with the practice of meditation.

It was fascinating to hear the Dalai Lama’s insights on the connection between science and the human condition—for example, the biological impacts of a mother’s loving touch on her newborn’s development. I am intrigued and look forward to continuing our research on how the brain is changed by varying emotional states and how that affects our physiology.

Original post: http://nccam.nih.gov/research/blog/Dalai-Lama?nav=rss

Dr. Briggs meets with the Dalai Lama, escorted by Dr. Collins.

Mindfulness Meditation Helps With Mild Anxiety And Depression, Finds Review

By News Staff http://www.science20.com/news_articles/mindfulness_meditation_helps_mild_anxiety_and_depression_finds_review-127250

A Johns Hopkins University of research suggests that about 30 minutes of meditation daily may improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, without medication.

The scholars evaluated the degree to which self-reported symptoms changed in people who had a variety of conditions, such as insomnia or fibromyalgia. A minority had been diagnosed with a mental illness.

They were studying so-called “mindfulness meditation”, a form of Buddhist self-awareness designed to focus precise attention on the moment at hand, and say it shows promise in alleviating some pain symptoms as well as stress. The researchers controlled for the possibility of the placebo effect but it should be noted that reviews of self-reported claims makes statistical reliability difficult.

To conduct their review, the investigators focused on 47 trials performed through June 2013 among 3,515 participants that involved meditation and various mental and physical health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, substance use, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and chronic pain. They found moderate evidence of improvement in symptoms of anxiety, depression and pain after participants underwent what was typically an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation. They discovered low evidence of improvement in stress and quality of life. There was not enough information to determine whether other areas could be improved by meditation. In the studies that followed participants for six months, the improvements typically continued.
“A lot of people use meditation, but it’s not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything,” says Madhav Goyal, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and lead author of the paper in JAMA Internal Medicine. “But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.”

These patients did not typically have full-blown anxiety or depression.

“A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” Goyal says. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”

Mindfulness meditation, the type that showed the most promise, is typically practiced for 30 to 40 minutes a day. It emphasizes acceptance of feelings and thoughts without judgment and relaxation of body and mind.

He cautions that the literature reviewed in the study contained potential weaknesses. Further studies are needed to clarify which outcomes are most affected by these meditation programs, as well as whether more meditation practice would have greater effects.

“Meditation programs appear to have an effect above and beyond the placebo,” Goyal says.

 

Published
in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine

London hospital promotes mediation as tension management tool

London hospital promotes mediation as tension management tool

Model helps resolve conflicts between family members and clinicians
December 10, 2013 | By 

A new project by the Medical Mediation Foundation, aimed at breaking down tension between family members and health professionals when there is a disagreement about a child’s course of treatment, is in full swing at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, The Guardian reported.

Noting the importance of communication between caregivers to a child’s recovery, the Evalina Resolution Project offers mediation at the request of parents or staff members, and trains hospital personnel in stress management techniques. It also teaches staff how to recognize triggers for conflict and ways to rebuild trust when a situation deteriorates, the article states.

More than 90 staff nurses have completed training sessions, with doctors set to begin training this month. The sessions help staff think about issues from the parents’ perspective and reflect on how their actions impact them, according to the article.

The program is especially helpful for staff who interact with parents of children in the hospital for long-term care, because they become experts in their children’s condition and “their threshold is lowered for what they’re prepared to tolerate from health professionals,” Medical Mediation Foundation Director Sarah Barclay, who set up the project, told The Guardian.

Mediation isn’t the only approach hospitals take to help personnel manage difficult situations and stress.

Cleveland Clinic in Ohio offers “Code Lavender,” a holistic care rapid response to clinicians in need. Within 30 minutes of hearing the code, a team of holistic nurses arrive to give Reiki, massages, healthy snacks, water and a lavender armband to remind the doctor or nurse to take it easy the rest of the day, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

In addition, an Aetna study found insurers can save money if their members participate in a mind-body stress reduction program, according to FierceHealthcare.

To learn more:
– here’s the article

Related Articles:
Hospitals try holistic approach to treat docs’ stress, burnout
How mind-body programs reduce stress, healthcare costs 
Hospitals offering alternative medicine tripled, based on patient demand
Trend: More physicians offer alternative medicine

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Can Meditation Affect Your Genes?

By Marc Lallanilla, Assistant Editor   |   December 10, 2013 03:32pm ET

There’s a large and growing body of evidence that psychological stress — the kind experienced by war orphans, caretakers of people with dementia, and men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — can cause genetic damage.

But if psychological stress can cause genetic damage, can stress-relieving activities such as meditation and mindfulness training help reduce genetic damage?

Perhaps: A recent study seems to suggest that a period of meditation might alter the expression of genes that are linked to inflammation and promote a faster recovery from a stressful situation.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took blood samples from 40 volunteers — 19 of whom were long-term meditators — before and after an eight-hour session. The group of experienced meditators spent the session in guided and unguided meditation; the other group watched documentaries, read and played computer games.

The role of inflammation

There was no significant difference in genetic markers between the two groups at the start of the eight-hour test period. However, at the end of the day, researchers found reduced expression of certain histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes and of the genes RIPK2 and COX2 — all of which are linked to inflammation.

These findings are important because of the role inflammation plays in the progress and treatment of disease. Recent research has found that chronic inflammation may be at the core of diseases such asrheumatoid arthritis, asthma, heart disease, lupus, cancer, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

“The changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic [pain-relief] drugs,” Perla Kaliman, lead author of the article (published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology) and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain, said in a statement.

Improved stress management

In a stress test, the volunteers were forced into an impromptu public-speaking role involving mental arithmetic performed in front of two judges and a video camera. Levels of cortisol — a hormone associated with high stress levels — were measured before and after the stress test.

Among both groups of volunteers, those participants with the lowest levels of RIPK2 and HDAC-2 genes had the quickest return to normal, pre-stress test levels of cortisol.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” study co-author Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in the statement.

Lifestyle and genetics

This recent study supports other research that seems to indicate there’s real, measurable benefit to lifestyle modifications like stress reduction.

A 2013 study from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), found that men who ate a better diet, exercised moderately and led a less-stressful lifestyle for a few years had an increase in the length of their telomeres — the caps at the ends of chromosomes that protect them from deterioration.

And a study from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that adults with shorter telomeres were at an increased risk of catching thecommon cold compared with people with longer telomeres.

Though some may find the proposed link between meditation and genetics a bit far-fetched, a growing number of experts believe the association is real. “It is well established that chronic stress and acute stress are associated with both greater inflammatory proteins as well as gene expression of inflammatory pathways,” said Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at UCSF.

“Inflammation is thought of as ‘inflam-aging,’ since it is a major factor regulating cellular aging and many chronic diseases,” Epel said. “It’s crucial to find behavioral factors that can prevent the rising tide of inflammation as we age. Meditation and mindfulness training in daily life should be high on the list of promising anti-aging interventions.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison study was funded by grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation and an anonymous donor.

Follow Marc Lallanilla on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience,Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.