There's nothing like economic calamity to focus the mind. But instead of obsessing over your job security or declining 401(k) balance, try diminishing your stress with a new assist from a very old tool: meditation.
Stretching back thousands of years to ancient spiritual traditions, meditation has been attracting a growing following of secular practitioners in recent years. While it's still not exactly mainstream, data released in December by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, show that 9.4 percent of adults surveyed in 2007 had tried meditation at least once during the previous 12 months, a significant increase from 7.6 percent in 2002. And 1 percent of children had zoned in, too.
Your choices are extensive—mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, and the latest trend, compassion meditation, are three of many approaches, each with a slightly different intent. Compassion meditation aims to foster a feeling of lovingkindness toward others, for example, while mindfulness meditation focuses on awareness and acceptance of the present moment.
Whatever the variation, certain basic elements are common to all forms of meditation. Comfortably seated, lying down, or even walking around, you focus your mind on your breath, a word, a mantra, an object—something specific—possibly for a few minutes but perhaps much longer, gently pushing away distracting thoughts. As you learn to stay focused, you experience a sense of calm. Your body relaxes. Your breathing slows. Your heart rate drops.
Many of those who practice meditation turn to it to help them deal with emotional stumbling blocks like stress and anxiety. It can also be used to change unhealthful eating habits or to battle substance abuse. And studies continue to add to the ways in which meditation might be able to play a therapeutic role—for example, it has been shown to bolster HIV patients' immune systems, ease chronic pain, and reduce blood pressure.
Gene control. New research has been taking these discoveries to a deeper level, revealing how meditation and other relaxation techniques work in cells, turning on and off genes that are associated with inflammation, cell aging, and free radicals, all of which are associated with damage to cells and tissues. French philosopher René Descartes famously believed that the mind and body were separate entities, but emerging evidence is proving him wrong.
"What this shows is that you can actually change the brain with the mind," says Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is a coauthor of a study demonstrating such genetic changes that was published in July in the online journal PLoS One.
Meditation's psychological and physical effects both are tied to the "fight or flight" response. When we are under stress, the brain sends hormones and other substances racing through our system to ready us for action. We become hyperalert, our heart rate and breathing speed up, our muscles tense, and our digestive processes shut down. While modern Americans are less likely to face physical danger than were our prehistoric, mastodon-hunting ancestors, there's no shortage of other sources of stress. High-pressure, overbusy lives, coupled with the unrelenting economic uncertainty of much of the past year, can put the body in a constant state of hypervigilance. That's not good. An ongoing state of revved-up alertness can damage tissues and organs, suppress the immune system, and cause anxiety and depression.
Mental workout. The calm that meditation engenders produces physical and emotional changes that represent the flip side of fight-or-flight. For those with overtaxed lives, a bonus of meditation is that a little of it apparently goes a long way. One study of individuals who were new to meditating showed measurable brain and behavior differences after just two weeks of daily 30-minute sessions, says Richard Davidson, director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But meditation is like any other workout: To reap the benefits, don't stop. "This is mental exercise," says Davidson. "If one wants [benefits] to continue, you have to continue."
Experts and practice centers that can serve as sources of meditation training are becoming easier to find. One of the best known and most studied programs is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, which started at the University of Massachusetts Medical School nearly 30 years ago and is now offered by certified instructors at centers around the world. (You can see if there is one in your area at umassmed.edu/cfm/mbsr.) The program brings together a group of people once a week for eight weeks to learn sitting and walking meditation practices and gentle yoga stretches. For those who would rather learn on their own, books, tapes, and CDs are available from Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts and creator of the MBSR program, at mindfulnesstapes.com. They can help do-it-yourselfers learn the ropes.
No amount of meditating can magically erase the stress of losing a job or a loved one. But it can help people cope. "It can transform the emotional brain in ways that promote higher levels of resilience [and] less vulnerability and affect the body in ways that can improve health," says Davidson. All that for just minutes a day? Even a shellshocked investor would have to admit: That sounds like a good deal.