The stress of caring for her ailing parents, then grieving their deaths eventually caught up with Sharyn Resvick.
She suffered from shooting pain in her shoulder from a pinched nerve. Worse, she could feel her heart pounding and battled feelings of panic.
“My body just crashed,” said Resvick, 55, of Plymouth.
Instead of going on medication, she took a different tack: meditation.
Her remedy of choice was endorsed by her doctor, who scanned her heart to rule out other issues, then suggested she use mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) — a popular meditation program — to manage her symptoms.
As with yoga a decade ago, meditation is slowly expanding beyond its fringe following, appealing to a wider audience, even in the data-driven medical world. More doctors are prescribing meditation to help treat anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and manage pain, according to a recent study by the Harvard Medical School. It’s one of several studies showing that meditation can actually alter how the brain works.
“It’s that kind of scientific research that really changes physicians’ minds,” said Dr. Henry Emmons, a Minneapolis psychiatrist and author of “The Chemistry of Joy” and “The Chemistry of Calm.”
The trend has gained a foothold especially among health professionals, some of whom practice meditation themselves to cope with the demands of their stressful occupations. Ever so gradually, they’ve moved from practicing the technique to preaching it.
For a long time, doctors who meditated were quiet about it, said Dr. Selma Sroka, medical director of Hennepin County Medical Center’s Alternative Medicine Clinic.
“It wasn’t professional. It wasn’t medical to talk about it,” she said. “I think things are getting more open.”
The mindful revolution
Sroka is a big believer in meditation’s healing powers.
The body’s stress response, also known as “fight or flight,” is aggravated by emotional or physical stress, she explained. The opposite of that reaction is the body’s relaxation response. Meditation triggers that response.
“Any chronic illness can be benefited from emptying one’s mind and not thinking, and breathing more deeply,” Sroka said. “That’s all part of meditation.”
She often recommends that her patients give their minds a rest for a few minutes each day to help their bodies heal. Getting a patient who has suffered a heart attack, for example, to see the importance of the mind-body connection to their recovery is the first step.
“Then, right there in the exam room, I will teach them a simple deep-breathing technique and have them do it for three to four minutes,” Sroka said. She instructs her patients to aim for meditating for 10 minutes a day. “I’m trying to plant seeds,” she said.
Like Sroka, Dr. Debra Bell, a family medicine doctor, regularly prescribes meditation to her patients.
She works for Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis and recommends several meditation resources to her patients. She suggests classes and books to help them learn different techniques and gives some basic instructions herself.
Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first researchers to do studies showing that mindfulness-based meditation is effective in helping treat people for anxiety, pain and high blood pressure. Kabat-Zinn, the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is the father of the MBSR program, now used in more than 200 medical institutions nationwide, including the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University and Harvard Medical School.
In mindfulness-based meditation, a person sits in silence and observes the thoughts that pop up without engaging them. It also involves deep breathing and choosing to “let go” of any thoughts.
Bell says she’s seen many patients with chronic pain who have been referred to her by their primary care physicians. She teaches them to concentrate on the present moment so they don’t focus on their pain.
But meditation has its limits as a healing agent.
Even among the doctors and hospitals embracing it, meditation is viewed as a complement to traditional medicine. They caution that meditation shouldn’t replace high blood pressure medication, for example. Nor should it be used to substitute chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer patients.
“The scientific literature is still very much in its infancy,” said Richard Davidson, a prominent University of Wisconsin researcher who has led neuroscience studies showing how meditation changes the brain. “That said, there are reasons to believe that it could be useful in certain illnesses. It can be used as a complement, but not as a whole remedy.”
Practice, practice, practice
Quieting the mind in our loud and chaotic world is a skill that can be difficult to master.
At the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, students enrolled in the MBSR classes learn the practice step by step. Terry Pearson, a pharmacist and a mindfulness instructor at the center, said she spent years studying meditation as a way to treat her anxiety.
“If I’m feeling anxiety, I just sit with it, I notice it and I work with it,” she said. “I also have a way where I can come to my breath and work with it instead of thinking, ‘Omigod, what’s going to happen?’ and going into a cycle of panic. Instead of ruminating or going on and on … I can stop and breathe and don’t let my mind go into the groove of anxiety.”
The path to meditation was gradual for Corey Jensen, one of Pearson’s students.
He was curious about the practice, but at the same time his original impression was that “it was kind of strange.” Having completed the eight-week course this spring, he said he’s now a believer.
“Now that I’ve been through it,” he said, “I think it is something that should be taught to everyone.”