Can meditation, specifically mindfulness, reduce stress levels in otherwise healthy people? Yes, but…
That’s the conclusion of a meta-analysis done by Chiesa & Searetti, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Stress Management in Healthy People.
Their results were hedged: It works, but to make any further predictions will require a lot more research.
Background: Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a clinically standardized meditation that has shown consistent efficacy for manymental and physical disorders. Less attention has been given to the possible benefits that it may have in healthy subjects. The aim of the present review and meta-analysis is to better investigate current evidence about the efficacy of MBSR in healthy subjects, with a particular focus on its benefits for stress reduction.
Materials and methods: A literature search was conducted using MEDLINE (PubMed), the ISI Web of Knowledge, the Cochrane database, and the references of retrieved articles. The search included articles written in English published prior to September 2008, and identified ten, mainly low-quality, studies. Cohen’s d effect size between meditators and controls on stress reduction and spirituality enhancement values were calculated.
Results: MBSR showed a nonspecific effect on stress reduction in comparison to an inactive control, both in reducing stress and in enhancing spirituality values, and a possible specific effect compared to an intervention designed to be structurally equivalent to the meditation program. A direct comparison study between MBSR and standard relaxation training found that both treatments were equally able to reduce stress. Furthermore, MBSR was able to reduce ruminative thinking and trait anxiety, as well as to increase empathy and self-compassion.
Conclusions: MBSR is able to reduce stress levels in healthy people. However, important limitations of the included studies as well as the paucity of evidence about possible specific effects of MBSR in comparison to other nonspecific treatments underline the necessity of further research
They were specifically looking at something called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques which include each of the following:
- Body Scanning — Go through a mental “scan” of your body, starting at the feet and moving up toward your head.
Sitting — Standard seated forms of meditation, usually having the person focus on their breathing.
Hatha Yoga — Various breathing, posture, and stretching exercises.
MSBR is WAY too broad a category!
Unfortunately, however, it is still not possible to argue which is the specific ‘‘active ingredient’’ of MBSR…
The authors are (rightly) asking: EXACTLY what is the CAUSAL factor, here? This would be like doing a physical exercise study using 3 totally different exercises, each one with many variations, NONE of which is controlled for!
A note on “spirituality”:
A second important finding was that MBSR significantly enhanced spirituality levels in comparison to an inactive control but not in comparison to an active control, although there is not, to date, a clear and shared model that correlates increases in spirituality and decreases in perceived stress.
CONFESSION: I hate the word “spiritual”. It is used so liberally by my fellow liberals that it has ceased to have any definition at all.
We need to stop using a META-physical word when dealing with physical science. Would we use the word “God” in place of “Universe”? Or “Soul” in place of “Brain”? That’s not a problem with the authors of this study, but rather with the studies they were analyzing.
Finally, there needs to be more research, because so far, while there are lots of studies out there, the problems with those studies are very big. I’ll give the authors the last word:
An important final limitation is the differing durations of the studies and partially differing study designs, which could influence final values.
Now go lift something heavy,
PS. Check out my review of a paper on Meditation Experience and DMN Activity for more on the effect of meditation.