Evidence is beginning to show that mind-body work is effective in improving depression, anxiety, fatigue, and balance in individuals with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Meditation is an extremely important part of the healing package. Some feel it is the most important part. I feel that almost everyone should take time to meditate, given the pace of our lives and the pressures most of us are under. It is doubly important for those with chronic illness. The evidence for the benefits of meditation on health is enormous and growing rapidly. A 2006 review showed that there was clear evidence of benefit for epilepsy, premenstrual syndrome, menopausal symptoms, mood and anxiety disorders, autoimmune illness, and emotional disturbance in cancer patients. Given the difficulties associated with ‘proof’ in medicine, it is likely that meditation is helpful in considerably more conditions.
Many experts recommend meditation twice a day. The competing demands of work, family and social life just won’t allow that for many people. The evidence suggests the more it is done, the greater the benefit. We need to focus all the energy we can on healing. If we are wasting energy with our minds being overactive, we are at a disadvantage. There is ample scientific evidence of the value of meditation. But like the diet, it only works if you do it. It is very important to make time every day for this activity.
Excessive thinking in effect gradually removes us from the present moment by dulling our senses to what is really going on in our lives. The antidote to excessive thinking is to concentrate on feeling and sensing our physical bodies again in the present moment. This is where the technique of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) as taught by Ian Gawler in his meditation workshops is of great benefit. As an introduction to meditation it is really good for relaxation, but more importantly, because the focus of concentration is on how the physical body is feeling, it helps to centre us again in our bodies, and hence helps us to live in the present moment.
Sometimes the continuous mind babble that we all have keeps returning to a theme. It might be how we have been harshly treated by a friend, or how we were hurt in a particular relationship. This indicates that at a deeper level, in the subconscious, we have not resolved an important issue in our lives. Our subconscious mind is very powerful. Until we satisfactorily resolve such issues, it will keep returning to the problem. This may not happen consciously, although it often does, but may take the form of dreams around a certain theme. Worse it may take the form of illness. To have the necessary energy to heal the illness, we have to heal the underlying problem in our subconscious. To marshal all our energies to deal with the illness, we have to resolve those underlying issues so that the energy is ours again to deal with the illness. Just by being aware of these mechanisms, we may liberate enough energy to begin dealing with the problems.
The first part of the process is to quiet the conscious mind enough to start to get in touch with the subconscious. This is the value of meditation. Some prefer other methods of quieting the mind. Yoga, tai-chi, playing music, gardening; all may be equally good, depending on personal preferences. Until the mind slows down though, and leaves enough gaps in the constant stream of mental chatter, the issues bubbling up from our subconscious remain elusive. While music or gardening may be helpful in quietening the mind, they are only really capable of slowing the mind a little.
Slowing the mind is in fact the correct physiological term for what happens. Normal brain wave recordings show waves of a frequency of greater than 12 cycles per second with a fairly small amplitude (height), looking a bit like a saw tooth pattern, termed beta waves. As meditation proceeds, or we get into reflective states while listening to music or gardening, the frequency slows. When it goes to about 8-12 cycles per second the waves are called alpha waves. This is the state we get into early in meditation, or when we are in that focused attention state, like seeing a movie, and other things are blocked out. For most people, this is where most meditation happens. In deeper alpha, we reach a twilight state like just drifting off to sleep, and the frequency drops further. This state is good for learning, and people feel very relaxed.
As meditation deepens, the brain wave frequency slows further, to between 4 and 8 cycles per second becoming theta waves. This is the brain wave pattern associated with dreaming during rapid eye movement sleep. It is also associated with visionary experiences, enhanced creativity and sudden breakthroughs. Some experienced meditators can get down to this level without difficulty.
As the brain quiets even further, the wave pattern continues to slow and grow in amplitude until we are experiencing waves which are large, but below 4 cycles per second. This is the delta wave pattern, and represents the subconscious mind. The brain waves by now are very large and slow. This is the state of deep dreamless sleep, but if it is experienced with awareness, as during meditation, there is an intense feeling of oneness and connection with the underlying energy of life. Mystics and very experienced meditators describe this state in detail and clearly have experienced it. Getting into this awareness of the subconscious mind can throw up all sorts of emotional difficulties, as long buried issues surface into awareness. But as a result it has the potential to be very healing too.
There are many different forms of meditation. For many people, finding one that does not have a religious connection is important, and this is now easy.
Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School and The Mind/Body Medical Institute outlines a very simple meditation method in The Relaxation Response. He suggests beginning by sitting in a comfortable position in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Then, relax all of your muscles, starting from your feet and gradually moving up to the muscles in your face. Every time you breathe out, you should silently say a word. While meditating you should try to avoid distracting thoughts. This exercise should continue for ten to twenty minutes.
Beyond this simple technique, there are many more formal methods of meditation. These techniques include mindfulness meditation (vispassana), transcendental meditation, and yoga. Hypnosis, prayer, guided imagery, and biofeedback may also produce the relaxation response.
Meditation may also have some influence on immune function, but this relationship is not well understood. One example of this relationship is found in a 1985 report documenting a woman who was experienced in a form of Eastern religious meditation. Over the course of three weeks, she was able to use meditation to decrease the reactivity of her immune cells to repeated skin injection of a virus to which she had been previously exposed.
Meditation has also been found in some studies to improve psoriasis, blood pressure, and heart function, as well as help overcome addiction.
Meditation is considered to be a low-risk therapy. People with serious psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, depression, and severe anxiety, may have some adverse reactions to meditation. In these conditions, meditation may produce disturbing thoughts, anxiety, and a fear of losing control. Meditation may be useful as a supplement to treatment, but it should not be used instead of conventional medicine for treating MS or serious MS-associated symptoms.
Meditation is an inexpensive, generally safe, and possibly beneficial therapy. It may alleviate anxiety, stress, depression, pain, and insomnia. It may also promote feelings of control and an improved sense of self-esteem.
Learning a mind-body technique called “mindfulness meditation” seems to help people with multiple sclerosis cope with the depression, fatigue, and anxiety associated with the disease, a new study indicates.
Researchers in Switzerland signed up 150 people with mild to moderate multiple sclerosis and randomly assigned them to receive usual types of care for the disease or to take part in an eight-week mindfulness meditation training course.
Patients in the training program focused on mental exercises that were aimed at developing non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, or mindfulness. Classes of 2.5 hours were held weekly, along with an all-day retreat and 40 minutes daily of homework assignments.
The researchers say people who took the meditation training managed to reduce fatigue, depression, and anxiety and report improvements in overall life quality, compared to people who received usual medical care. And the positive effects of the training, the researchers report, lasted for at least six months.
“People with MS must often confront special challenges of life related to profession, financial security, recreational and social activities and personal relationships, not to mention the direct fears associated with current or future physical symptoms and disability,” study author Paul Grossman, PhD, of the University of Basel in Switzerland, says in a news release. “Unfortunately, the treatments that help slow the disease process may have little direct effect on people’s overall quality of life, fatigue, or depression. So any complementary treatments that can quickly and directly improve quality of life are very welcome.”
Grossman mentions in the study that MS is an unpredictable disease, that some people can feel good for months and then have an attack that can reduce their ability to work or take care of their family.
“Mindfulness training can help those with MS better cope with these changes,” Grossman says. “Increased mindfulness in daily life may also contribute to a more realistic sense of control, as well as a greater appreciation of positive experiences that continue to be part of life.”
Only 5% of participants in the meditation class dropped out during the study, compared to 9% of participants in the usual care group. Those in the meditation group showed improvement in nearly every measure of fatigue, depression, and quality of life issues. Those who received standard medical care showed declines in such life quality measurements.
At the start of the study, about 65% of participants in the meditation group had serious levels of depression, fatigue, or anxiety, but meditation training reduced that by a third at the end of training, and the positive effects were still evident six months later, according to the study.