I first became aware of mindfulness meditation a little over a year ago when I discovered a book written by Dan Harris called "10% Happier." In it, he talks about his journey with meditation after a serious wake-up call: You see, Harris had a panic attack while doing a live segment on "Good Morning America."
In the book, Harris shares his transformation from a hyper stressed-out person who feels out of control to someone who has a degree of inner peace and is better able to face life's challenges.
His story is what compelled me to start experimenting with mindfulness meditation. The results were positive, with a deep feeling of calm after each session and an overall reduced level of stress in my life. Unfortunately, what's hard with meditation — as with any new habit — is that you need to keep going. Over time, I just stopped making time for it regularly.
But a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry is making me want to get back on the horse!
Scientists have finally proved some of the physiological changes caused by mindfulness meditation, even in those who practice it for a relatively short period of time. (So no, you don't have to be a monk!)
Why this meditation study matters
What's different about this study is that the researchers devised a testing methodology that includes a placebo control group, something that has always has been a challenge in past studies of meditation because you have to convince people that they're meditating when they're not. It's this control group that gives the study extra credibility, because otherwise many of the benefits of mindful meditation could be misattributed placebo effects.
For the study, 35 job-seeking men and women were recruited to attend a three-day intensive mindfulness meditation or relaxation training program. About half of the participants were taught true mindfulness meditation, which requires nothing more than sitting in silence with your back straight back, your eyes closed, and your focus on breathing. One important thing is that you cannot "fail" at meditation. If your mind wanders, you have to non-judgmentally note it, and then return your attention to breathing. Eventually, awareness can be expanded into awareness of thoughts, feelings, actions and even bodily sensations.
The other group of test subjects practiced relaxation techniques that were different and incompatible with mindfulness meditation. They chatted with each other, the leader of the group made jokes, and they were encouraged to ignore their bodies.
Everybody said they felt better at the end of the three days, but biomedical testing by the researchers showed a marked difference between the two groups. Blood tests taken before the retreat and four months after showed a reduction in Interleukin-6, a biomarker linked to unhealthy inflammation — but only in the meditating group. Furthermore, brain scans detected that the meditating group had better connectivity in parts of the brain associated with calmness and stress.
"We've now seen that mindfulness meditation training can reduce inflammatory biomarkers in several initial studies, and this new work sheds light into what mindfulness training is doing to the brain to produce these inflammatory health benefits," David Creswell, lead author and associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, told Carnegie Mellon University News. "We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain's ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health."