Lifestyle and exercise

Does meditation reduce stress?

There is now hard evidence that meditation can cut stress, newspapers reported October 10 2007. The Daily Mail said that “five short sessions of meditation could be enough to help us achieve piece of mind”.

The Daily Telegraph reported that “after meditation training of 20 minutes once a day for only five days, people, had measurably less anxiety and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol”. The papers said that levels of anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue had also gone down.

The stories are based on a study comparing meditative practice (using integrative body-mind training) with relaxation training, in 80 Chinese students. The newspapers have reported accurately the positive outcomes of the research.

The study is a small but well-conducted trial. Whether the findings can be generalised to the practice of individual meditation (as opposed to guided, group practice as is used here) and across cultures remains to be seen.

Where did the story come from?

Dr Yi-Yuan Tan and colleagues from Dalian University of Technology, Liaoning, China, carried out this research. The study was funded by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National 863 Plan Project, the Ministry of Education and from the University of Oregon. The study was published in the medical journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What kind of scientific study was this?

The study was a randomised, controlled trial. Researchers randomly assigned 80 undergraduate students from the Dalian University to either experimental or control groups.

The experimental group underwent integrative body-mind training (IBMT) for 20 minutes a day for five days. IBMT, based on traditional Chinese medicine, is a style of meditation training that encourages “restful alertness and awareness of the body”. It uses external instructions delivered through a CD and a coach. The control group underwent group sessions of relaxation therapy for 20 minutes per day for five days.

All participants were assessed for their general intelligence, attention levels (“orienting, alerting and conflict resolution”), mood states (including tension, depression, anger, vigour, fatigue, confusion), one week before the experiment began, and immediately after the last training session. They also subjected all participants to a stress test (using mental arithmetic) to determine their levels of the hormone cortisol, which reflects stress levels.

The assessors of these characteristics did not know which group the students had been assigned to (i.e. they were blinded). The researchers used statistics to determine whether meditation had an effect on any of the outcomes assessed.

What were the results of the study?

The researchers found that the five 20-minute sessions of IBMT mediation led to greater improvement in scores assessing conflict resolution, anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and vigour. They also found that meditation practice reduced the amount of cortisol that was released in response to the stress test.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers say that IBMT is an effective way to improve cognition, emotion and social behaviour. The researchers also conclude that their study has shown that randomised controlled trials can be used to assess the effects of meditation training.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This appears to have been a well-conducted study, offering evidence that meditation training can improve a person’s physical and mental state compared to simple relaxation training. There are two main issues to highlight which the researchers themselves discussed:

  • The study assessed the effects of a particular type of meditation training – integrative body-mind training – that was delivered in a group setting. Whether these benefits would be seen with individual meditation of different types needs further study.
  • The study was conducted in Chinese undergraduate students. The researchers raise the point that the effects of IBMT may be expected in China where there is a prior belief in the benefits of meditation. However, they state that “belief in meditation and traditional medicine is not high among undergraduates in modern China”. It is unclear whether the findings can be generalised to other cultures, only further studies in other countries could tell us this.

This well-conducted study is a good addition to the small amount of existing evidence for the effects of meditation on health.

Sir Muir Gray adds...

Self-care is the most common form of healthcare and people need to be aware of more techniques that they can use. We need a national encyclopedia of non-drug interventions to help them with this.

NHS Attribution