Health Psychology Home Page
Papers written by students providing scientific reviews of topics related to health and well being
|Search||Home | Weight Loss | Alternative Therapy | Supplements | Eating Disorders | Fitness | Links | Self-Assessment | About this Page ||
Who Else Wants To Quiet The Mind, Super-Charge Their Energy Level, & Manifest What They Truly Want In Life?
That’s right, folks: you to can become all that you ever wanted to be. All you have to do is give us your email address so we can sell it to hundreds of companies that will send you countless emails about stuff you don’t need. Our program is fool proof; if you follow our twenty simple steps you will be ruling the earth by next Friday. If you experience any difficulty with our program or do not see results within five days, it is not our fault. You are just not doing it right.
The sentence that looms at the top of the page is an actual claim on an Internet site promoting a meditation program. I would hope that anyone who reads this claim would chuckle to himself and quickly dismiss it. However, claims like these cause people to consider “alternate” forms of medicine and therapy as “humbug”, as Harry Houdini would say. Advertisements like these leave a skeptical taste in the mouth and discourage people from actually finding out if there are effective applications of these alternate methods. Claims like these challenge common idioms in everyday life. At some point we have all heard some saying that life is hard and you have to work hard to accomplish something. The majority of us buy into this and it appears true in terms of the way our society is structured. We work our way through schools to earn degrees, we work our way up the corporate ladder, and we admire and honor those who have accomplished great things. But could I make my dreams a reality by sitting still for twenty minutes a day? That seems to go against the popular “work hard to achieve” ideal that society seems to follow. Meditation, by these standards, seems to be a load of humbug.
But all is not lost, for I will show you the way. Read on and know the true secrets of meditation. There are claims of improving this, that, and the other thing through meditation. We will be looking at the facts behind the effects of meditation on stress. Claims regarding this area range from “COMPLETELY ELIMINATE ALL STRESS IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!” to simply easing the strain of everyday stress through breathing exercises and meditations. But to understand the effect meditation has on stress, we must first understand stress itself and the effect it has on our bodies.
Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted in the event of a stressor (a situation that causes stress). Specifially, Cortisol is released in the case of prolonged stressors, usually a few hours at the most. This can range from things like taking a very important test in school to working out for an hour or two. Cortisol’s function is to inhibit systems of the body that are unnecessary to deal with the stressor so that you can deal with the situation better. For example, people with stressful jobs are under considerable amounts of stress throughout the entire day. Cortisol would be released throughout most of the day in hopes that it would help the person deal with that stress. While Cortisol is our best defense against stessors, it is not designed to accommodate chronic stress as we see it in our culture today. Chronic exposure to Cortisol can damage the body and cause many health problems.
Cortisol’s main function is to prepare the body for action. To do so it raises blood pressure and heart rate, increases appetite, suppresses the immune system, and decreases sensitivity to insulin so that more fat can be stored. As anyone could tell, having this kind of activity in the body for long periods of time could be extremely detrimental to one’s health. Once people develop a health problem resulting from chronic stress, they are often treated for solely that specific problem like, for example, being put on blood pressure medication. The underlying cause of the problem, the chronic stress, is often left unchecked because it stressors can come in so many varied forms.
The claim is that meditation will help eliminate stress in your life. Now we must assess the truth of this claim by examining some actual research done by credible institutions. However, just as we see in the media today, people try to “spin” information so it can work in their favor. The website www.tm.org is a well-known and widespread organization promoting the practice of a meditation program called transcendental meditation. It boasts five hundred and eight studies done over the years supporting the program’s beneficial effects to one’s health. On the website itself, there are two pages of simple research summaries and a list of journal articles about the meditation program. These two pages do not contain a high level of detail; however, there was another link that said it was an online list of all of the five hundred and eight studies and the journals they appeared in. Oddly enough, my web browser crashed every time I tried to click on this link. While that last part may just be coincidence, I needed to find an unbiased database of research on meditation.
With five hundred and eight studies showing that meditation is beneficial to one’s health, it is hard to believe that it isn’t a more common practice in our culture. However, like most alternative medicines and therapies, results from research were mixed. What I mean is that the effects and benefits of meditation didn’t appear to go as far as the sites claim. I was able to find a site that compiled all research done on meditation over the past several decades, and found that there were many ways that meditation failed to live up to the claims.
Let us look at specific results so we can get an idea of how meditation may help us deal with stress. In a study published in 1991 researchers found reduced Cortisol levels after meditation in inexperienced meditators - (Sudsang, Chentanez, and Veluvan, 1991). Meditation does seem to have an effect on the levels of cortisol in our body, but does is there anything that sets it apart from traditional relaxation? An earlier study controlled for this condition, the experiment had a group of meditators and a control group who practiced non-meditative relaxation techniques. Researchers found that Cortisol levels dropped for both groups, but the fluctuation of Cortisol levels in the control group varied much more than the meditation group. Michaels also measured for sympathetic nervous system activity and he found no difference between the controls and meditators. This did not support the belief that meditation induces a state in which there is decreased sympathetic activity or release from stress (Michaels, Huber, and McCann 1976). As with most of the studies, there is a general consensus that meditation helps lower Cortisol levels during meditation. This is not to say that meditation decreases our response to stress, it only helps to relieve it. In another study done in 1976, researchers found decreases in Cortisol during meditation yet again. However, they also measured Catecholamine levels, which is a hormone present in the hypothalamus, which is linked with the sympathetic nervous system and fight or flight responses. There were no changes in Catecholamine levels, which suggested that our responses to stress are not modified by meditation (Bevan, Young, and Wellby 1976).
From these findings we can now assess the claims made about stress and meditation. Will you eliminate all your stress through meditation? No. Stress is something with which we all will deal throughout our lives. Stress is a natural part of life, so much so that we have adaptive mechanisms, such as Cortisol, to help us deal with stressors. With chronic stress, however, our adaptive mechanism for dealing with stress begins to work against us. This is where, as the studies show, meditation may help relieve some of the burden of chronic stress. Meditation appears to help lower Cortisol levels in our body, which means it helps us recover from stress faster and more effectively. We now know what meditation is not. It is not a method that we can use to modify our underlying response systems so that we are impervious to stress. Many of the Internet claims fall short of their promises of revolutionizing our life, but despite these claims we can see that there is some scientific basis for the benefits of meditation.
These are a couple of informational links that will help you to get started in understanding the different applications of meditation and the effects of stress
Michaels, R.R., M.J. Huber, and D.S. McCann. (1976) "Evaluation of Transcendental Meditation as a Method of Reducing Stress." Science 192, no. 4245 1242-1244.
Sudsang, R., V. Chentanez, and K. Veluvan. (1991) "Effect of Buddhist Meditation on Serum Cortisol and Total Protein Levels, Blood Pressure, Pulse Rate, Lung Volume and Reaction Time." Physiology and Behavior 50, no. 3 543-548.
Bevan, A.J., P.M. Young, M.L. Wellby, (1976) "Endocrine Changes in Relaxation Procedures." Proceedings of the Endocrine Society of Australia 19 59.
The Health Psychology Home Page is
produced and maintained by David Schlundt, PhD.
Vanderbilt Homepage | Introduction to Vanderbilt | Admissions | Colleges & Schools | Research Centers | News & Media Information | People at Vanderbilt | Libraries |Vanderbilt Register | Medical Center
|Return to the Health Psychology Home Page|
|Send E-mail comments or questions to Dr. Schlundt|