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Patients usually understand when I recommend meditation to control stress in their lives, even when I prescribe it for anxiety or depression. But when I suggest that my patients learn to meditate to help them lose weight, change bad habits, or deal with disease, they seem surprised. They always ask how meditation could possibly help them deal with things like fibromyalgia, migraines, or chemo treatments, and they surely doubt it could help them control their weight.
But it does.
Although meditation originated as a spiritual practice, with origins dating back thousands of years, its popularity in Western culture is based on its powerful ability to control stress. Today, stress and anxiety are common causes of illness and can lead to chronic disease.
Meditation is the antidote. By reducing the production of stress hormones, it counteracts all the stress-related changes in the body, giving a boost to the immune system and helping to prevent and manage chronic disease. It also helps prevent and treat cardiovascular disease and can even reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Stress is the way you respond when your needs or desires are not met. People under stress react with the fight or flight response. This is an ancient response based on fear, which prepares the body for potential danger. Stress affects the entire system and is produced in seconds; it increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory frequency. Basically, every cell in the body reacts to the increase in stress hormones that accompanies the fight or flight response, even if you’re not in real danger.
These changes in your physiology—when experienced on a daily basis—can affect your health because they act as seeds for disease. The constant fight or flight state has been associated with hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke, digestive problems, and in the long term, immune problems and chronic diseases such as cancer.
Meditation allows you to respond to stress instead of reacting to it. During meditation, you experience a profound sense of peace and relaxation that can dissolve the physiologic changes produced by stress. It can decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and it can lower anxiety and depression, which are the typical stress markers.
The benefits of meditation persist throughout the day, too. It helps you experience more peace and clarity in your life and this allows you to react differently to stress, breaking old habits and response patterns.
It’s not stress per se but your reaction to it that can affect your health. As philosopher and psychologist William James said, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Your reaction to unmet needs always starts with a thought, and then you react to that thought with a word, an emotion, or an action.
Meditation helps you to have the appropriate thoughts and actions in response to the different challenges of life. When you start meditating, you release the struggle; the right action comes to your awareness more naturally. You’re more in tune with the thoughts that lead to healthy actions.
This mindfulness of what’s best for your body is one way to help prevent disease. This allows you to break bad habits, like overeating or smoking, because you’re more conscious of what’s best for your health.
Pain is the main complaint among patients I see, and chronic pain can lead to other health issues. It not only increases stress, but also can trigger a reliance on painkillers.
Just as meditation can help you cultivate healthy thoughts, there’s evidence that it can help decrease chronic pain. After all, it has the power to transform the brain’s structure. Meditation trains the brain to be more present and focused, so patients who meditate don’t anticipate pain. This helps reduce anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
If the mind is restless, caught in the prison of your 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day, worrying about the future, or suffering because of the past, then the body is also struggling.
In Western medicine, the body is categorized into individual systems and organs in order to study it, and to treat disease. But the body has an underlying intelligence that connects every cell. This intelligence allows it to perform every function the way it’s supposed to, if we do not interfere. Just as the different organs of your body work together for a common goal, the mind and body function together, too.
This is the reason why meditation is so effective when the body experiences an imbalance. Meditation takes you beyond your thoughts, to a place of peace and silence. It calms the mind and therefore calms your body. A calmed body can find its way back to balance.
Please note that any decision regarding your treatment must be discussed with your doctor first—it’s best not to treat pain or any other symptom on your own. Treating a disease depends on modern medicine, science, and technology.
Luckily a holistic approach is becoming more common. Many doctors now note the importance of the mind-body connection, and recognize that meditation can be a powerful tool for regaining health. It’s important to note, however, that meditation is in no way a substitute for medical treatment if you’re facing a disease. It’s simply a doorway to a healthy lifestyle.