In this era, stress is one of the world’s newest psychological problems, which played a role as “bogeyman” in our every human’s daily day life. According to a recent survey of American Psychological Association, stress is a modern mental bogeyman. Stress is linked to a higher risk of stroke and heart attack. The anxiety disorder is estimated to affect nearly 7 million Americans during any one year.
For the first time, researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington discovered that a Mindfulness meditation course (the practice of paying more attention to the present moment), helps the body respond to stressful situations and significantly reduces stress-hormones and decreases inflammation in the body. Whereas patients who took a non-meditation stress management course had worsened responses.
“Mindfulness meditation training is a relatively inexpensive and low-stigma treatment approach, and these findings strengthen the case that it can improve resilience to stress,” said lead author Elizabeth A. Hoge, MD, associate professor in Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry.
The research, published in the journal Psychiatry Research on January 24, included 89 participants diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition of chronic and excessive worrying. Elizabeth A. Hoge and her colleagues randomly divided the patients into two groups: One took an eight-week standard Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, which included “breath-awareness”, body scans and gentle Hatha yoga. The other group (the control group) took an eight-week Stress Management Education (SME) course, which included general tips on the importance of regular sleep habits, good nutrition, and other wellness topics but excluded any of the meditative elements.
Many previous studies of meditation-based therapies which compared a meditation group to an untreated control group, because participants in such studies are not blinded (they know if they are getting treatment or not). The participants are likely to be influenced by the placebo effect and other forms of expectancy bias. In this study, participants would have had little or no expectancy bias, because they were all assigned to a treatment, and were not told which was the treatment of interest to the researchers.
Before and after undertaking the courses, the participants underwent the Trier Social Stress Test (a standard laboratory test designed to make people feel stressed). In which the participants are asked to give a speech before an audience at short notice and are given other anxiety-inducing instructions (using a different arithmetic problem). The researchers also assembled blood samples before and after the test, monitoring the blood for different biological markers of subjects’ stress responses, including the stress hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) and the inflammatory proteins IL-6 and TNF-alpha. Stress can cause chronic inflammation in the body.
Study author Professor Elizabeth Hoge, from Georgetown University, Washington, said: “We were testing the patients’ resilience, because that’s really the ultimate question, can we make people handle stress better?”
After the course completion, the participants who took the stress-management education course showed a modest rise in levels of ACTH, IL-6, and TNF-alpha on their second test compared to the first, suggesting a worsening of their anxiety from having to endure the test again. In contrast, the participants in the meditation group showed significant reductions in these markers on the second test compared to the levels before the course, suggesting that the meditation training had helped them cope.
“Anxiety disorder patients had sharply-reduced stress-hormone and inflammatory responses to a stressful situation after taking a mindfulness meditation course – whereas patients who took a non-meditation stress management course had worsened responses,” said Elizabeth Hoge, of Georgetown University.
The findings indicate that mindfulness meditation “may be a helpful strategy to reduce biological stress reactivity “in people with anxiety disorder, the researchers said.
The scientists noted that future studies should examine the effect of meditation on “real-life” stress, rather than stress artificially created during the lab experiment.