Mindfulness meditation doesn't just lower stress and regulate our emotions -- it could also improve a doctor's ability to care for his or her patient, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that training doctors in mindfulness meditation helped them to listen better and not be as judgmental both at home and at work. The study will be published in the June issue of the journal Academic Medicine.
For the study, doctors in Rochester, N.Y., participated in a mindfulness meditation training course that consisted of eight weekly two-and-a-half-hour sessions, one all-day session, and then 10 monthly two-and-a-half-hour sessions of mindfulness training. The researchers interviewed 20 of these doctors after the training program.
The researchers found that 60 percent of the doctors said that the training helped them to be more attentive listeners, and more than 50 percent said that they were more self aware and less judgmental in conversations.
Seventy-five percent of the study participants also said that it was especially meaningful to be able to talk about their personal medical experiences with other doctors in the training program, and that they felt safe to talk about these experiences in a setting that was free of judgment.
The findings provide evidence that "our health care delivery systems must implement systematic change at the practice level to create an environment that supports mindful practice, encourages transparent and clear communication among clinicians, staff, patients, and families, and reduces professional isolation," the researchers said in a statement.
A past study in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science explained what it is about mindfulness meditation that makes it so healthy. Researchers in that study defined mindfulness as "the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment," and identified the four acting components of mindfulness meditation: regulation of attention, body awareness, self-awareness and regulation of emotion.
Each of these elements helps us in different aspects of our lives, according to the study. For example, regulation of attention may help us be extra-aware of our bodily state. And by being aware of our bodies, we are able to recognize the emotions we are currently experiencing, researchers said.
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Quite literally, sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain's ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input. For much of the last century, scientists believed that the brain essentially stopped changing after adulthood. But research by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has shown that experienced meditators exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity and display an ability -- continuing after the meditation session has attended -- to not get stuck on a particular stimulus. That is, they're automatically able to control their thoughts and reactiveness.
A 2005 study on American men and women who meditated a mere 40 minutes a day showed that they had thicker cortical walls than non-meditators. What this meant is that their brains were aging at a slower rate. Cortical thickness is also associated with decision making, attention and memory.
In a 2006 study, college students were asked to either sleep, meditate or watch TV. They were then tested on their alertness by being asked to hit a button every time a light flashed on a screen. The meditators did better than the nappers and TV watchers -- by a whole 10 percent.
In 2008, Dr. Randy Zusman, a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital, asked patients suffering from high blood pressure to try a meditation-based relaxation program for three months. These were patients whose blood pressure had not been controlled with medication. After meditating regularly for three months, 40 of the 60 patients showed significant drops in blood pressure levels and were able to reduce some of their medication. The reason? Relaxation results in the formation of nitric oxide which opens up your blood vessels.
Telomeres -- the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes -- are the new frontier of anti-aging science. Longer telomeres mean that you're also likely to live longer. Research done by the University of California, Davis' Shamatha Project has shown that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity that non-meditators. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps build telomeres, and greater telomerase activity can possibly translate into stronger and longer telomeres .
A 2008 study on HIV positive patients found that, after an eight-week meditation course, patients who'd meditated showed no decline in lymphocyte content compared with non-meditators who showed significant reduction in lymphocytes. Lymphocytes or white blood cells are the "brain" of the body's immune system, and are particularly important for HIV positive people. The study also found that lymphocyte levels actually went up with each meditation session. However, due to the small sample size -- only 48 volunteers -- it's harder to draw definitive conclusions.
Earlier this year, a study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist University found that meditation could reduce pain intensity by 40 percent and pain unpleasantness by 57 percent. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically show a pain reduction of 25 percent. Meditation works by reducing activity in the somatosensory cortex and increasing activity in other areas of the brain. This study also had a small sample size, making it harder to draw definite conclusions.
The Positive Benefits of Meditation