How to reduce stress and blood pressure. meditation and mindfulness linked to promising results
How to reduce stress and blood pressure
I estimate there have been up to 15,000 peer reviewed studies linked to meditation and mindfulness published over the last 40 years. They have offered all kinds of academic and scientific insight. Many claim to signpost potential health and wellbeing breakthroughs, but few are actually replicated (repeated) sufficiently to be regarded as clinically reliable. However I recently came across a study carried out at the Massachusetts General Hospital that offers some interesting evidence that meditation might be able reduce both stress and blood pressure.
In a randomised trial one half of the participants followed an eight week course of mindfulness meditation, the other half engaged with traditional stress management training, coupled with some lifestyle advice. At the end of the experiment some members of the mindfulness group were found to have lower levels of the adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) stress hormone than the control group (stress hormones can be correlated with high blood pressure). The meditation group also performed better in a mock interview and test scenario specifically designed to raise stress levels. Thereby indicating that mindfulness meditation led to ‘real world’ benefits. In a third finding the meditation group also had a reduced inflammatory reaction to stress, a possible factor linked to Type 2 diabetes.
This investigation offered the first immunological and hormonal data that mindfulness meditation may be able to boost resilience to stress. Some parts of the media hailed this study as a breakthrough. I’m a little more cautious but clearly if we see other experiments achieving the same findings it provides import insights into low cost and effective treatments for stress. However the popularity of mindfulness means that most participants are likely to know something about the reputed effects of meditation ahead of going into a trial, raising concern about the reliability of data derived from these kinds of studies.
Dan Harris suffered a very public panic attack in 2004. Trevor Noah talks to him about meditation mindfulness and how it changed him.
Mindfulness meditation and panic attacks; Dan Harris and Trevor Noah
Among the more interesting meditation book releases from 2018 is “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” written by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren with Carlye Adler. Harris is an ABC news anchor who talks in an interview on The Daily Show about a panic attack he experienced during the Good Morning America broadcast in 2004. Millions saw the attack unfold both live on TV but also as a YouTube clip. Although originally a meditation skeptic, when Harris came into contact with evidence that meditation can lower your blood pressure boost the immune system and lead to functional and structural change in the brain he started to take the idea more seriously.
Harris recounted to fellow TV personality Trevor Noah how the ability to find a secular approach had been important in his meditation journey. But he revealed that mindfulness didn’t solve all of his problems, rather it made him “less of a moron”. He described his own practice as a simple form of breathing meditation accessible to anyone, and that as little as a minute of mindfulness might be worth attempting. In the interview meditation is broadly defined as paying attention to what you are doing, whilst this is not a universally accepted explanation, it does indicate the functional approach the book is trying to promote.
Can meditation make you “less of a moron”?
It’s clear that Dan Harris is a convert to meditation, he speaks in glowing terms about the simplicity of the concept and the ability of mindfulness to deliver real world benefits. His panic attack appears to have been the catalyst to his meditation journey, it may be part of the reason why he talks about meditation in such a down-to-earth and open way. Ending the interview on a lighter note Harris strongly suspects that Donald Trump does not meditate but welcomes enquiries from the President by call or Tweet!
Meditation and mindfulness can offer great benefits but many people fail to engage with the practice, here are some simple rules.
Looking for the three secrets to meaningful meditation?
Traditionally obtaining long lasting results from meditation practice can take years. Famously H.H. the Dalai Lama advised Buddhist meditators to assess their progress over a five year period. This kind of long term investment challenges modern notions of what self transformation might be and how quickly individuals should expect to reach their meditation goals. As such both new and experienced meditators are increasingly looking for help, advice and tips to allow them to maximize the time they spend in meditation. As an experienced meditation practitioner, teacher and now researcher, I have reviewed much of the published evidence to offer you the three secrets of meditation.
The three secrets to successful meditation and mindfulness
Do some research – understand your goals, find a reliable method and teacher.
Start – unless you start you won’t get anywhere.
Keep going – perseverance is probably the most important quality needed in a meditator.
At first sight it might seem that these three ‘secrets’ are generic and not really that helpful, however just pause for a moment to consider them. From my own experience the single biggest mistake people make when they decide that they want to meditate is to not consider fully what they want to achieve and which approach would be most useful. Generally speaking meditation can have a number of short term transient benefits, for example an improvement in self reported well being. But how long do you have to meditate to get the short term benefits and what comes after the initial ‘feel good’ phase? I’m not suggesting for a moment that meditators need to access scientific studies, but you should have some general ideas of what you want to learn and who should be teaching you.
Traditionally the biggest meditation mistake is described as not starting, the benefits of regular meditation practice are so great that not to at least try it is wasted potential. Traditional forms of meditation have been shown to help with everything from smoking cessation to lowering the risks of developing dementia. Once the basic skill of ‘sitting’ has been acquired a whole range of methods become instantly more accessible. Consider that ‘not starting’ doesn’t mean simply never to have tried meditation but also not to have given it a chance. It can take a few sessions to achieve any real benefit, particularly is your mind is typically ‘busy’ and you find it difficult to put down the worries of your day to day life. Many people feel the benefits of meditation after the first lesson, it might take others a bit longer. A good teacher will be able to help if you are unsure about your progress. A simple analogy is that of learning to drive a car, many people pause driving lessons after a few hours training, disheartened by the challenge. There is an initial ‘biting point’ for people at the start of the meditation journey, if you haven’t reached it you haven’t really started to meditate.
Most meditators who practice two or three times a week can gain great benefit. They may work to change negative and limiting behaviours, address mental or physical health problems, feel a bit more comfortable in their own skin and take more control over their thought processes. But progress fluctuates and if you meditate for any length of time sooner or later you will feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as you would like. This impatience is natural and simply reflects resistance to change, many people put their meditation on hold at this point. Sometimes people do return to the practice but this might be many months or even years later. Consider that ultimately regular meditation leads to functional and structural change in the brain, if you don’t maintain the behaviour linked to the change, neural connections may weaken and you can go back to square one. It might feel like you have all that previous meditation related change still inside you but this probably isn’t the case. If it feels like you need a break, a change of practice might be more beneficial than stopping altogether. It should always be stressed that if you think a meditation method is having a negative impact on you, stop it immediately.
With each specific form of meditation a skillful teacher or experienced student will be able to offer advice, but specific help will be linked to your own experience and the nature of the practice. For example some traditional practices are more suited to the morning or evening or are not suitable for beginners or people taking medication. How you sit, breath and when you last ate might influence the quality of your meditation. Consider that most traditional meditation methods have been used by tens of millions of people for hundreds of years so there is a lot of useful information out there.
Why do people meditate? You might be surprised by the answer.
Want to know why people meditate?
Having introduced hundreds of people to meditation over the last fifteen years, the question of why do people meditate has always fascinated me. When I used to teach traditional Buddhist meditation many people would declare an interest in Buddhism or spirituality, but there was generally another reason that encouraged them to come to a class. Many came because they wanted some support with a health problem, either mental or physical and they thought that Buddhist meditation could offer them something. People attended classes to accompany their friends or because they were suffering a sense of loss, or were looking for direction in their life. But only a small minority meditated because they wanted to become a Buddhist or for some kind of spiritual development.
So interested was I in this question that I undertook some research while at the university, running a project asking people about their reasons for starting meditation. Health and wellbeing proved to be the single most popular answer both for traditional practitioners and secular mindfulness students, accounting for 55% of respondents. Although it now appears widely accepted that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to increased levels of self reported happiness how this is achieved is still somewhat obscured. In particular if meditation has a lasting effect on behaviour then it must have a role in maintaining/changing brain structure and function.
“regular meditators with younger brains than non meditators”
This is the new frontier for contemporary meditation research, how does meditation change the brain and what are the likely effects of it? Evidence is suggestive that meditation can make a positive impact on your overall brain health and in one study regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non-meditators. The point is that meditation’s real potential is in changing brain structure, this is particularly relevant when talking about, the ageing brain, mild cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration. We are starting to see the first wave of meditation methods specifically designed to allow people to improve brain health generally. Given the pessimistic predictions surrounding dementia this seems like a trend set to continue.
Meditation and brain health, the latest research urges that we prioritize dementia prevention.
The need to prevent dementia highlighted in latest research
The latest large scale research into dementia, Parkinson’s disease and stroke has confirmed that one in two women and one in three men will develop at least one of these diseases during their lifetime. The research offers insight into the long term health of people in their 40s. But in addition to highlighting the stark statistical probability of succumbing to neurodegeneration, the study suggests that delaying the onset of the these illness for 1 – 3 years may reduce the risk of avoiding them altogether by 20% to 50%.
It is widely recognised that a number of lifestyle factors can increase the probability of avoiding dementia. Stopping smoking, adopting a healthy diet and taking regular exercise have long been associated with improved physical and mental health. Recent scientific studies have also given the strongest indications yet that some forms of meditation might be directly reducing the rate at which a brain ages, enabling us to maintain full brain (cognitive) function for longer. We know that cognitive decline begins in our late 20s and early 30s. It will normally be visible by the age of 45. If our cognitive ability continues to shrink through middle age it can lead to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment and eventually even dementia.
“one study revealed that at the age of 50, regular meditators had brains several years younger than non-meditators”
Research has shown that meditation can lead to a slowing of brain ageing and an improvement to certain brain functions such as memory and attention. Although the understanding of how meditation is able to help create new brain structure is still at a preliminary stage. There is compelling evidence that some forms of meditation are related to maintaining, and in some respects improving our brain health. Although brain training (including meditation) can reduces the risk of developing dementia it is just one of a number of things we can do to live longer healthier lives. For a summary of the current advice on taking care of your brain visit the Brain Renewal website.
A unique opportunity for meditation and mindfulness in Kent
Cutting edge meditation comes to Canterbury, book a class!
Mind training has been undergoing a revolution over the last decade with different forms of meditation and mindfulness being offered in diverse settings including, schools, prisons and the workplace. However one of the groups least catered for in terms of meditation is adults over 40, even though this age range might get the greatest benefits from regular meditation practice. Scientific research has demonstrated a relationship between regular meditation and improved brain (cognitive) functions such as memory and attention. The first visible signs of cognitive decline tend to be visible during our 40s, and their deterioration can continue for the rest of our lives, potentiality leading to increased cognitive impairment and eventually dementia. However when practiced regularly meditation is linked to maintaining a younger, healthier brain.
“Cognitive decline begins at about the age of 30 perhaps earlier, most people will have visible signs of an ageing brain in their 40s, this decline can ultimately develop into mild cognitive impairment and even dementia!”
The evidence indicates that we start to experience cognitive decline in our late 20s to early 30s, this is described as brain aging and it is progressive process. Today neuroscience has shown that the rate at which a brain ages is connected to our environment as well as our genes. Lifestyle choice such as if we smoke, what we eat and how we live our lives can have a dramatic impact on brain health and the speed of cognitive decline. Recent research demonstrated that regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non meditators at age 50. Neuroscience research has also confirmed that new brain structure can be created throughout our lives.
Trained neuroscientist and meditation researcher Stephen Gene Morris is opening a Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) class in Canterbury. BRM combines the latest scientific research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience with established meditation
methods. BRM is based on traditional compassion mind training and mindfulness meditation. The practice is suitable for any adult, requires no prior knowledge or meditation experience. BRM is appropriate for anyone over the age of 18 but it has been created specifically for people of 40 and older. The meditation is primarily a compassion based practice which means the method is linked to the aspiration to reduce suffering for oneself and other. As Stephen explains “compassion is a reliable method of brain training, it’s been around for a long time, in its BRM configuration it uses the most useful elements of mindfulness and nondual meditation”.
“BRM engages the mechanisms for self interests and wider empathy networks, it promotes brain health and is linked to increasing a positive and engaged outlook.”
Evidence indicates that brain structure and function can be maintained and augmented through particular forms of meditation.
Taking responsibility is the key to brain health
In recent decades psychology and neuroscience have made progress in explaining brain functions and dysfunctions. But we still know far too little about how the human brain ages. In studies linked to meditation and mindfulness the vast majority of research (I’d estimate in excess of 80%) has been undertaken with participants under the age of 25. There is some research interest in people of retirement age and with people suffering from particular health problems. But if you trawl the academic databases for investigations of the effects of meditation on people in the 30 to 65 age range you will find relatively few studies and even fewer reliable conclusions. The irony of this lack of research is that this is the age at which cognitive decline is supposed to happen (from the early 30’s onward). It’s also supposed that dementia typically starts its journey in middle age, perhaps decades before the full symptoms manifest.
A concept that can be found throughout psychology and neuroscience is ‘age related cognitive decline’; the general correlation between age and brain function/structure. It is a pretty uncontroversial idea, we all carry around the stereotype that as we get older we can expect to experience ‘senior moments’, a lowering in cognitive ability. I’m not going to dispute that this does appear to be the pattern. But my experience of meditation is that the rate of cognitive decline is flexible. I’ve seen the transformation in people’s ability to think, problem solve and remember. There is also some evidence from neuroscience to support the premise that decline in cognitive function can be influenced by a range of activities, meditation in particular. This is not to say that meditation may keep your brain forever young, rather that you have a degree of control over how your own brain ages.
Whilst certain forms of meditation do appear to be linked to improved cognitive function, the neuroscience is at a preliminary stage. It’s clear that different forms of meditation have different effects, and meditation isn’t the only thing we can we can do to influence the development of brain function and structure. It should always be considered that just as some activities appear to support brain rejuvenation, others have the opposite effect. Anyone over the age of 30 is likely to benefit from maintaining, and where possible increasing cognitive function, meditation however is a cornerstone of this process. Keeping your body in good shape takes some time, effort and commitment, this is also true of mind training