Can mindfulness be used for more than stress reduction?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I can’t turn around without hearing about mindfulness these days. Is it just for stress reduction, or is there more to it?

DEAR READER:

Mindfulness may have started out as a meditation technique. But now it is being used for everything from boosting happiness to treating high blood pressure. It’s been shown to help treat depression and anxiety and improve sleep quality. And it’s being studied as a complementary therapy for cancer, stroke, multiple sclerosis and pain.

Mindfulness trains you to focus your mind on the present moment. It helps you to observe your thoughts, emotions, and internal and external sensations without judgment. The process can lead to improved concentration and emotional well-being.

Mindfulness activates the relaxation response. That’s the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Mindfulness reduces stress and thereby lowers your levels of epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, two stress-related hormones. It also lowers your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate.

But how can mindfulness help treat physical conditions? I asked my colleague Dr. Ronald Siegel, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. He noted that many conditions — from chronic back pain to psoriasis — have stress-related components. This means that stress helps to create, maintain and worsen the symptoms of the condition. Reducing stress reduces symptoms — and may also assist in resolving the disorder.

Several decades ago, some doctors speculated that psychological factors might make cancer more or less likely to progress. Subsequent research has not supported that theory.

But a person’s thoughts have a big effect on how that person functions with cancer. Mindfulness helps people live more fully despite the disease, and thereby suffer less.

Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all for illness; it’s a complementary therapy. And it’s one that more and more doctors are using as part of treatment. It has been used to help people recovering from chronic back pain and bronchitis (to help relieve the distress of coughing). It’s also been used for gastrointestinal distress, headaches and sleep disturbances.

Dr. Randall Zusman, a cardiologist and Harvard Medical School associate professor, prescribes mindfulness and other meditative practices to help lower blood pressure. He has found that the relaxation response can help lower blood pressure by as much as 15 or more points.

Of course, not all doctors prescribe mindfulness. Some physicians grounded in Western medicine are not on board yet with a place for mindfulness in the clinical toolbox. That’s understandable, as there are few large studies of the effectiveness of mindfulness in stress-related conditions, cancer and other illnesses. Most of the research on mindfulness therapy has concentrated on psychological disorders, including bipolar disorder, anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Nevertheless, I’ve been impressed by the anecdotal experiences of colleagues who use mindfulness therapy to help people deal with the stress of non-psychological diseases. I’ll bet it becomes more widely used.