Brain; Mental Health

Mindful meditation can reduce stress, risk of cardiovascular disease

Brain; Mental Health

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The American Heart Association has recommended meditation as one possible way to reduce cardiovascular risk.

In our fast-paced world, stress is so common we’ve accepted it as a normal part of life. Traffic, work deadlines, carpool, appointments – we are stretched in so many directions we feel as if we can’t afford to take a break. 

However, chronic stress can lead to many different and serious health problems, including high blood pressure, depression and heart disease.

When stressed, we are more likely to overeat, drink too much alcohol, and lose sleep. Many of us feel so tired after work we skip the gym or an evening walk – and instead relax by drinking wine or watching TV.  Over time, these behaviors can take a toll.

An integrative approach to health includes not only good nutrition, adequate exercise and sleep, but also engaging in positive relationships and stress management. The last six decades have brought forth extensive evidence on the mind-body connection.

In the 1960s, Herbert Benson, M.D., a cardiologist at Harvard, was the first to describe the relaxation response to meditation in cardiovascular patients. In the 1980s, Dean Ornish, M.D., demonstrated that cardiovascular disease can be prevented and reversed by lifestyle modifications including meditation and stress management. More recently, Richard Davidson, Ph.D., has used functional MRI and other brain studies to study emotion, mindfulness and neuroplasticity.

The good news is that mindfulness promotes brain changes that lead to improved self-awareness and self-regulation, while deactivating areas related to fear and anxiety. In a scientific statement published in September 2017, the American Heart Association recommended meditation as possibly beneficial in reducing our cardiovascular risk. 

Scientific research and the effects of mindful meditation

There are more than 8,000 papers on the health effects of meditation listed in PubMed, the National Library of Medicine database. Most of those have been published since 2014.

So, as you can see, it’s a hot topic.

But mindful meditation is not just a passing fad, particularly in clinical circles.

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, introduced a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and he is largely credited with bringing the Buddhist-based tradition of meditation into the medical setting for both practice and study.

"The most rigorous research on the effects of mindful meditation has stated its programs were effective in reducing anxiety, depression and chronic pain."

Arlene Betancourt, M.D.

Many clinical trials today are a variation of Kabat-Zinn’s eight-week MBSR program.

Among the most rigorous research on the effects of mindful meditation is a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine that stated mindful meditation programs were effective in reducing anxiety, depression and chronic pain.

The most conclusive evidence has become available in the last two decades, with the advent of neuroimaging studies. Dr. Davidson was one of the first to produce this kind of evidence, using functional MRI and other brain studies to study emotion, mindfulness and neuroplasticity. In 2017, The Lancet published the first study linking regional brain activity to cardiovascular risk.

Managing your stress with meditation 

Chronic stress is now recognized as an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In fact, the 2019 American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association guidelines for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease emphasize promoting a healthy lifestyle and addressing the social determinants of health.

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Since we cannot completely avoid stress, one of my favorite tools for managing stress is meditation. Many of us are interested in meditation but wonder what to meditate about. More good news: There are many free options available!

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Kristin Neff, Ph.D., is a psychologist at UT Austin who has researched self-compassion for more than 10 years. She has written books on the subject; her website includes free questionnaires and guided meditations.
  • Insight Timer: Another great source for free guided meditation is the Insight Timer app. It is considered the largest free library of guided meditations (more than 20,000 titles) taught by thousands of different teachers, including world-renowned experts like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg.
  • Loving Kindness: Many mindfulness practitioners recommend Loving Kindness meditation as an easy way to start practicing. In this kind of meditation, we send goodwill, kindness and warm feelings toward ourselves. There is no need for a script, we just direct compassionate feelings towards ourselves. “May I be safe, may I have peace…” By sharing our kindness and self-compassion, we feel more connected to ourselves and to others. This kind of meditation can also help overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation. You can find more information, including an example of a loving kindness meditation, on his website.

When practicing Loving Kindness meditation, I am reminded to be more accepting of myself and others. We are all human and we are all imperfect and that is OK. It is so comforting to know I can soothe my heart -- and many other hearts -- by meditating and practicing compassion.

Since meditation is safe, widely available and free or inexpensive, many physicians’ groups, including the AHA, recommend it as an adjunct to other proven modalities. At its core, meditation reminds us of the body's innate ability to heal and emphasizes the importance of finding our own pathway to better mental health.

If you would like more information about mindful meditation programs at UT Southwestern, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.