Posts made in April, 2013

The present of being present: cortisol and mindfulness meditation

Posted by on Apr 1, 2013 in Meditation/mindfulness therapy, stress | 1 comment

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-buddha-meditation-image13689205It seems that I write about stress a lot on Flashfree. Perhaps that is because like many, my life — namely my work — can be very stressful from time to time. However, according to the American Psychological Association, I’m not alone; most Americans suffer from moderate to high stress and the problem does not appear to be going away. Moreover? Work issues are the primary stressors in 77% of people.

From a midlife perspective, stress and its related hormone, cortisol, can cause a lot of health-related problems. In fact, not only does cortisol┬ápromote a fat dump in the midsection, but experts say that overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones has a cumulative affect, leading to heart disease, sleep issues, digestive issues, obesity, depression and worsening of skin conditions. It’s critical to counter stress’ negative effects before they take their toll and start to do permanent damage. One important strategy to achieve a better balance is meditation.
Fortunately, a team of researchers at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain are devoting time to studying psychological and physiological processes in order to explain the benefits of meditation. The framework for this effort is the Shamatha Project, which is apparently the most comprehensive meditation study ever undertaken. Most importantly, this scientific twist on a centuries old practice may ultimately elevate meditation’s place in Western medicine.

To better understand the effects of meditation on stress, the research team recently took 60 people (between the ages of 22 and 69) who had some prior experience with meditation, measured cortisol and body mass index and their current degree of ‘mindfulness,*’ and then randomly assigned them to a three month meditation retreat or a waiting list. Those on the waiting list participated in the same, three-month retreat at a later date. (*Participants completed a mindfulness questionnaire that measured the degree that these people directed their cognitive resources to sensory experiences and how often they drifted, as well as their ability to let go of distressing thoughts.)

At the retreat, the group met two times a day for one hour, guided sessions and the rest of the time (around 6 hours) practiced solo meditation in 20 to 30 minute increments. Meditation practices were focused on mindful breathing and relaxation and promoted compassion and kindness toward others. Overall, the emphasis was on present awareness rather than meandering into the future of ‘what if’s.’ During the middle of the retreat, all were encouraged to enter into silence for a period of about four weeks. Aside from scheduled meals and group meditations, everyone was on their own to decide sole meditation, exercise and free time.

Did learning how to direct and focus attention away from uncontrolled, ruminating thoughts and worry and toward a chosen target reduce cortisol levels? The researchers say that they found a correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol, both before and after the retreat. The results were greatest for participants who were able to achieve the greatest increases in mindfulness, that is, the more that they reported directing their thoughts to the present/immediate experience, the lower their resting cortisol levels were. Participants also experienced large improvements in overall wellbeing, daily mood and emotional functioning.

While the findings do not prove cause and effect, they do suggest that changing the mind paradigm to focus on the now rather than the future may ultimately help to reduce our tendency to think about the past or worry about the future and in turn, counter excessive cortisol release.

Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher and the study’s lead author, explains that “the idea that we can train our minds in a way that fosters healthy mental habits and that these habits may be reflected in mind-body relations is not news; it’s been around for centuries. But, accumulating evidence might help the idea — that the present is the best present we can give ourselves — be better integrated into Western mentalities and health practices.

Mindful meditation may ultimately prove to be one of our strongest defenses against stress and its companion, cortisol!

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