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Mindfulness Meditation

A way back to health

By MARILYN SOLTIS
The origins of meditation are prehistoric, dating back to 1500 BCE from Hindu tradition. It spread throughout the world and is part of every religion’s spiritual practice. Today, meditation of the secular variety has been scientifically studied and proven to be one of the most important components in healing, both physically and emotionally. Why it works is still unproven, but the fact that it can aid in healing is incontrovertible.
  
Just a few decades ago, meditation was thought to be the exclusive bastion of hippies and new agers. Meditation of any kind was hardly mainstream. Then, in 1979 the Surgeon General came out with a report titled “Healthy People,” calling upon citizens to take more personal responsibility for their health—that unhealthy ways of living and stress had negative consequences that could not be solved with money alone—a message that resonates today.
  
That same year, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who received his PH.D. in molecular biology from MIT in 1971 in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate, Salvador Luria, opened a stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center based on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Kabat-Zinn saw that many people with chronic conditions were falling through the cracks in the healthcare system, a problem that continues to grow today. He felt that the great technological advances in healthcare fell short of putting the patients at the center of their healing and genuine health.
  
MBSR combines meditation and Hatha yoga to teach people moment-to-moment awareness to cope with illness, pain and stress. The program, which lasts eight weeks, has been found to be effective with the following:

Stress—including work, school, family, financial, illness, aging, grief, uncertainty about the future, and feeling “out of control.”

Medical conditions—including chronic illness or pain, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, cancer, heart disease, asthma, GI distress, skin disorders, and many other conditions.

Psychological distress—including anxiety, panic, depression, fatigue, and sleep disturbances.

Prevention and wellness—including health enhancement and wellness focused on prevention and learning the “how” of taking good care of yourself and feeling a greater sense of balance.

Since its inception, The Stress Reduction Clinic has been the model for mindfulness-based clinical intervention programs at over 200 medical centers and clinics, both across the country and abroad.
  
The American Cancer Society says that meditation has been studied in clinical trials for the past twenty years and research shows it can help reduce anxiety, stress, blood pressure, chronic pain, and insomnia. Their website states: “In a controlled study of ninety cancer patients who did mindfulness meditation for
7 weeks, 31 percent had fewer symptoms of stress and 65 percent had fewer episodes of mood disturbance than those who did not meditate. Some studies have also suggested that more meditation improves the chance of a positive outcome.”

The Hidden Victims of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Today there are 15 million Americans providing care to a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. ....The 2012 Alzheimer’s disease Facts and Figures report shows some staggering figures: 70% of caregivers are women; 56% are 55 and older.
  
44% work full or part-time. 65% of those had to go in late, leave early or take time off and 20% had to take a leave of absence. 30% have children under 18 living with them.
  
On average, they provide 22 hours of care a week. They experience caregiving strain regarding financial issues (56%) and family issues (53%).
  
61% report high to very high emotional stress; 43% high to very high physical stress; and 33% report symptoms of depression. 72% experience relief when the person died.
  
Seventy-five percent are concerned about maintaining their health. Caregivers of a spouse with dementia are more likely  than married non-caregivers to have high levels of stress hormones, reduced immune function, slow wound healing, increased hypertension, coronary heart disease, impaired endothelial  function—all associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.  Caregivers of all kinds are clearly at risk for a myriad of health conditions.

In his recent book, A Mindful Nation, Congressman Tim Ryan (D) of Ohio calls for mindfulness training for healthcare professionals who are burning out and the millions of caregivers who are stretched to their breaking point.
 
“What does the ability to stop and be present with ourselves have to do with health care? Everything,” says Ryan.
  
“Paying attention is the source of what makes human beings effective. It’s what makes a good caregiver care. It’s what makes a person see how he needs to care for himself. It’s what makes someone a good patient—a person who can participate fully in her own treatment. It can be the cornerstone of a health care system that works,” he says in the book.
  
Ryan cites a study from the Integrative Medicine group at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, published in Family Medicine, that showed when health care practitioners are empathetic, patients get over the common cold quicker and have increased immune function. “We intuitively know the power of a compassionate caregiver—like our mother or father giving us lots of love and attention when we were sick as children—and we experience that power just beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. Now science may just be confirming our instincts,” he says.
  
He talks to Susan Bauer-Wu, PhD, RN, who is a researcher and lecturer. She was an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and research director at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA where she led research efforts to improve the quality of life and care for cancer patients. Her research focuses on the effects of chronic stress and the benefits of mindfulness and compassion practices in the face of potentially life-limiting illness and methods to relieve caregiver stress. She has also studied the effects of meditation on such things as lab findings and how long it takes for a patient’s white blood cells to recover after a bone marrow transplant.
  
In the book, she speaks of stress as being like a drug—one that can be addictive. People rely on stress to get them through, instead of getting enough rest and cultivating resiliency. The body becomes inflamed. “Some studies seem to be telling us that mindfulness practices can have a ‘cooling’ impact on the inflammatory processes on the body.”

A Growing Movement
MBSR has spread to other mainstream institutions like psychology departments, health care facilites, hospitals, schools, corporations, prisons and professional sports. Kabat-Zinn’s work was featured in Bill Moyer’s PBS special, “Healing and the Mind.”
  
His research has focused on mind/body interactions for health, clinical applications of mindfulness meditation training, the effects of MBSR on the brain, on the immune system, and on healthy emotional expression while under stress. He has conducted studies on healing people with psoriasis; on patients undergoing bone marrow transplantation; with prison inmates and staff; and on stress in corporate settings and work environments. His many books have been translated into over 30 languages.
  
In 2005, Kabat-Zinn’s book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World was published. The publisher sent it to all 535 members of Congress. Congressman Tim Ryan was so impressed by the chapter on politics that he attended a Power of Mindfulness Retreat. He later wrote A Mindful Nation, not to promote a new set of values, but to reinvigorate traditional American values such as self-reliance, perseverance, pragmatism and taking care of each other.
  
He says the evidence he has seen points to mindfulness as being more effective than many other, more costly programs. “If more citizens can reduce stress and increase performance—even if only by a little—they will be healthier and more resilient. They will be better equipped to face the challenges of daily life, and to arrive at creative solutions to the challenges facing our nation,” he says.

Published: June 10, 2012
Issue: Summer 2012 Issue