meditation & health

Mindfulness and meditation need more rigorous study to identify impacts

Dependable scientific evidence has lagged worrisomely behind the rapid and widespread adoption of mindfulness and meditation for pursuing an array of mental and physical wellness goals, wrote a group of 15 experts in a new article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The article offers a “critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda” to help the burgeoning mindfulness industry replace ambiguous hype with rigor in its research and clinical implementations.

Recent years have seen a huge surge not only in media and scientific articles about mindfulness and meditation, the authors wrote, but also in the implementation of medical interventions for everything from depression to addiction, pain and stress. The widespread adoption of therapies has put the field at a critical crossroads, the authors argued, where appropriate checks and balances must be implemented.

“Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled and disappointed,” they wrote.

Co-author Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University said: “We are sometimes overselling the benefits of mindfulness to pretty much any person who has any condition, without much caution, nuance or condition-specific modifications, instructor training criteria, and basic science around mechanism of action. The possibility of unsafe or adverse effects has been largely ignored. This situation is not unique to mindfulness, but because of mindfulness’s widespread use in mental health, schools and apps, it is not ideal from a public health perspective.”

Lead author Nicholas Van Dam, a clinical psychologist and research fellow in psychological sciences at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said that the point of the article is not to disparage mindfulness and meditation practice or research, but to ensure that their applications for enhancing mental and physical health become more reflective of scientific evidence. So far, such applications have largely been unsupported, according to major reviews of available evidence in 2007 and again in 2014.

“The authors think there can be something beneficial about mindfulness and meditation,” Van Dam said. “We think these practices might help people. But the rigor that should go along with developing and applying them just isn’t there yet. Results from the few large-scale studies that have been conducted so far have proven equivocal at best.”

Added co-author David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, “Sometimes, truly promising fields of endeavor get outstripped by efforts to harvest them before they’re really ripe; then workers there must step back, pause to take stock, and get a better plan before moving onward.”

A young, undefined field

Among the biggest problems facing the field is that mindfulness is poorly and inconsistently defined both in popular media and the scientific literature. According to the authors, there “is neither one universally accepted technical definition of ‘mindfulness’ nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers.” As a result, research papers have varied widely in what they actually examine, and often, their focus can be hard to discern.

“Any study that uses the term ‘mindfulness’ must be scrutinized carefully, ascertaining exactly what type of ‘mindfulness’ was involved, what sorts of explicit instruction were actually given to participants for directing practice,” the authors wrote. “When formal meditation was used in a study, one ought to consider whether a specifically defined type of mindfulness or other meditation was the target practice.”

“Without specific, well-defined terms to describe not only practices but also their effects, studies of interventions such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) cannot provide valid and comparable measurements to produce reliable evidence.” As part of its proposed remedy, the new article offers a “non-exhaustive list of defining features for characterizing contemplative and medication practices.”

Greater rigor

Along with specific, precise and standardized definitions, similar improvements in research methodology must also come, the authors wrote.

“Many intervention studies lack or have inactive control groups,” Van Dam said.

The field also has struggled to achieve consistency in what it is being measured and how to measure those things perceived to be of greatest importance to mindfulness.

Van Dam said the situation is akin to earlier psychological research on intelligence. This concept proved to be too broad and too vague to measure directly. Ultimately, however, psychologists have made progress by studying the “particular cognitive capacities that, in combination, may make people functionally more or less intelligent,” he and his co-authors wrote.

Thus, the authors wrote, “We recommend that future research on mindfulness aim to produce a body of work for describing and explaining what biological, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and social, as well as other such mental and physical functions, change with mindfulness training.”

Clinical care

A wide variety of contemplative practices have been studied for an even larger variety of purposes, yet in both basic and clinical studies of mindfulness and meditation, researchers have rarely advanced to the stage where they can confidently conclude whether particular effects or specific benefits resulted directly from the practice. Measured by the National Institutes of Health’s stage model for clinical research, only 30 percent of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have moved past the first stage, and only 9 percent have tested efficacy in a research clinic against an active control.

“Given the absence of scientific rigor in much clinical mindfulness research, evidence for use of MBIs in clinical contexts should be considered preliminary.,” the authors wrote.

The proposed agenda for future research is rigorous and extensive, Van Dam said.

“Replication of earlier studies with appropriately randomized designs and proper active control groups will be absolutely critical,” the authors continued. “In conducting this work, we recommend that researchers provide explicit detail of mindfulness measures, primary outcome measures, mindfulness/meditation practices and intervention protocol.”

Researchers and care providers involved with delivering MBIs have begun to become more vigilant about possible adverse effects, the authors wrote, but more needs to be done. As of 2015, fewer than 25 percent of meditation trials actively monitored for negative or challenging experiences.

Contemplating contemplative neuroscience

Van Dam said recent efforts to assess the neural correlates of mindfulness and meditation with technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography, may perhaps have the potential to bring new rigor to the field. Nonetheless, he and his co-authors also express concern in the article that these technologies so far have not fulfilled this potential.

The authors note that technologies such as MRI depend on subjects remaining physically still while being tested, and image quality can be affected by subjects’ rate of breathing. Experienced meditators may be better suited to maintaining ideal physiological states for MRI studies than are inexperienced individuals or non-meditators. Due to such problematic factors, between-group differences in brain scans might have little to do with the mental state researchers are attempting to measure and much to do with head motion and/or breathing differences.

“Contemplative neuroscience has often led to overly simplistic interpretations of nuanced neurocognitive and affective phenomena,” the authors wrote. “As a result of such oversimplifications, meditative benefits may be exaggerated and undue societal urgency to undertake mindfulness practices may be encouraged.”

Ultimately that’s the authors’ shared concern: Insufficient research may mislead people to think that the vague brands of “mindfulness” and “meditation” are broad-based panaceas when in fact refined interventions may only be helpful for particular people in specific circumstances. More, and much better, scientific studies are needed to clarify these matters. Otherwise people may waste time and money, or worse, suffer needless adverse effects.

“This paper is a coordinated effort among concerned mindfulness researchers and meditation scholars to rectify this gap to maximize benefit and minimize harm from MBIs,” Britton said.

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How meditation and yoga can alter the expression of our genes

Alice G. Walton, Forbes: For those who are still skeptical about whether mind-body practices like meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi actually work, a new study goes further in laying out how they affect us—right down to the level of our genes. The meta-analysis, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, looks back over a number of previous studies on the effects of the different practices on gene expression. It turns out that the practices all seem to have a beneficial effect on the expression of a slew of different genes …

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Mindful eating: ‘Suddenly, you have power over food’

Jacqueline Howard, CNN: Mindful eating is rooted in the idea of mindfulness, an ancient practice that promotes being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and environment instead of living your life on autopilot.

When applied to diet, mindful eating involves focusing on chewing your food, taking your time, being in tune with when your body signals that you are hungry or full, and being aware of how your food appears, smells and tastes.
“Over time, eating can become habitual. … We don’t even check in to see if we’re hungry. It’s, ‘Oh, …

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Meditation and neuroscience: new wave of breakthroughs in research on meditative practices

Koyama Tetsuya, Nippon.com: Zen, mindfulness, and meditation in general are believed to promote psychological and physical well-being. But why? An emerging generation of neuroscientists is fast unveiling the hidden workings of meditation.

Legs in tights, extending from leotards and terminating in pointe shoes, briskly cut through the air. Instructions are called out as the dancers, faces aglow, carry their arms in delicate arcs and place their feet in deliberate motions. Leading the ballet class at a dance studio in Tokyo is a 27-year-old woman whom we will call Murano Kozue. The students would …

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Here’s how to find a minute of mindfulness anywhere

Elisa Boxer, Fast Company: Everyone’s mind wanders.

Mindfulness is paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment. So if you’re aware that your mind is wandering, you’re halfway to a successful mindfulness practice.

The other half of mindfulness is gently returning your attention back to the here and now. But this doesn’t mean you have to yank your misbehaving mind back to reality. Instead, think of it as a compassionate return to consciousness. Picture a feather on the ground, lifted up by a gust of wind and then floating back down to rest …

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Nurses get training to cope with stress

Sylvia Pownall, Irish Mirror: Overworked nurses in danger of burn out are practicing mindfulness to help them cope with the stresses of the job.

Carmel Sheridan’s The Mindful Nurse was published last year and has already been included on nursing training courses in the UK and the US. The Galway-based psychotherapist says she was inspired to write the book when she realized how many people coming to her for help were nurses.

She told the Irish Sunday Mirror: “I’ve been teaching mindfulness around the country and more and more healthcare workers were enrolling …

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What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Erin Cook, Elle Australia: With everyone from Miranda Kerr to Rachael Finch touting mindfulness and meditation as the solution to, well, everything, you can understand why we’re champing at the bit to get on board.

Although, there’s one problem: We’re not 100 per cent sure what mindfulness is. And—while we’re being honest—our understanding of meditation doesn’t extend much further than sitting on the floor, cross-legged and chanting the word ‘om’ until we run out of breath.

According to Kate Kendall, Co-Founder & Director of Yoga at Flow Athletic, mindfulness is a state of …

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When in doubt, breathe out – the power of breathing properly

woman breathing

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women, starts March 1. Click here for details.

Breathing properly is immediately helpful because the first thing most of us do when experiencing stress and pain – be it mental, emotional or physical – is inhibit our breathing. Try this short exercise:

Make a fist with one hand. Notice what’s happened to your breathing. You’ll probably notice you’re holding it. Now imagine breathing into the fist. What does it want to do? You’ll probably find it wants to release a little.

The fist in this exercise is a metaphor for any kind of discomfort or stress. When we are not aware, we automatically tense against the stresses of life with associated breath holding. Then follows a vicious cycle of more tension, more breath holding, more discomfort, more tension etc, perhaps physical symptoms such as headaches and tension in the neck, back and shoulders or gut problems. Many of these can be eased by simply becoming aware of your breathing patterns and consciously directing the breath into the cycle of contraction. Gradually the tension will gradually soften and the stress will ease.

Breath holding manifests in a range of ways and shallow breathing, breath-holding or over-breathing are the most common dysfunctions. At the keyboard, for example, we tend to breathe as if permanently in fight/flight/freeze mode, causing all the hormonal imbalances that come with this. You could think of it as ‘screen apnoea’. Like sleep apnoea, a condition characterised by pauses in breathing while asleep, it alters our breathing; in this case causing shallow breathing from the upper chest or infrequent breathing. Unsurprisingly, this has negative consequences for health.

You may live with a lot of perceived pressure, perhaps in the workplace, or you may just have poor posture and ergonomics; sitting for hour after hour with your shoulders hunched. Or you may just be desperate for a break! Whatever the cause, breathing-pattern disorders can result.

Breathing is the number-one physiological function that humans do, affecting your heart rate, your gut, your blood pressure, your digestion and your musculoskeletal system. Therefore, changing your breath consciously, using mindfulness and awareness, is one of the most powerful things you can do to assist your body’s physiology. It can have a massive impact on your health; reducing headaches and shoulder pain and strengthening your core.

How is your breathing at this moment? Commonly, when we are stressed, we fail to exhale completely. So, try it now:

  • Breathe out fully, and feel the little pause at the end of the exhale.
  • Spend a few moments with the breath, allowing it to flow naturally all the way in and all the way out of the body. Notice what it feels like.

To help you remember to do this throughout the day, stick a green dot somewhere around the house where you’ll see it regularly. Or if you work at a computer you could stick the green dot to the side of the screen. Every time you see the dot, breathe out. Relax your jaw. Breathe in through your nose and then out of your nose. Pause. Allow the next in-breath to gather naturally, like a wave gathering in the sea before it flows up the beach. Breathe in and then breathe out fully. Repeat a few times.

Click here for details of Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’

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The power of setting an intention

Jeena Cho, Above the Law: As we come to the end of 2016, it’s a wonderful time to pause, reflect, and set an intention for 2017. An intention, unlike a goal, isn’t about achieving the next big thing, or moving up the ladder. It’s about how you’re being, in this moment.

My co-author, Karen Gifford, described setting an intention in our book, The Anxious Lawyer:

Setting an intention is a little like setting your compass: it is always there in the background guiding you in a certain direction, even though you …

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Three reasons you can no longer afford to ignore the mindfulness trend

Julia Samton, Inc.: What was once optional has emerged as a unique solution to the demands of the modern workplace.

Everyone from Fortune 500 executives to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are talking about mindfulness. Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when you pay attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment. By using the breath or another sensation as an anchor during meditation, diligent practitioners are able to achieve this mind state in everyday life. Research has shown that we perform optimally and feel at our best when we are focused on the …

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