Stress meditation programs are all the rage these days, but do they work better than simply relaxing in more conventional ways like exercise, stretching, or group conversation?
I’ve already written about how meditation changed my life, in part by reducing stress. But what about other people. Lets take a look at a study to find out.
Stress Meditation Put To The Test
Not many things are more stressful than losing your job and being unable to find a new one while the bills pile up.
This is a situation that 35 job-seeking, stressed-out adults found themselves in when researches decided to sort them into two groups1. Both groups were sent away to three-day relaxation retreats that were similar in many ways, but one group had their retreat activities focused on meditation and mindfulness, while the other simply did things without an emphasis on present-state awareness.
The meditation group did body scan awareness exercises (a type of meditation), sitting and walking meditations, practiced mindful eating, did mindful stretching, and had discussions about mindfullness in everyday life.
The other group walked, stretched, had conversations, and were told jokes my their instructor rather than having their focus be on presence.
The researchers did this to control for non-mindfulness-specific factors like the placebo effect, group support, teacher attention, physical activity, and mental engagement.
So which group came out on top?
Well at the end of the retreat, but groups told the researchers that they felt very refreshed, and better equipped to continue their job search.
But brain scans told a different story.
The brain scans showed that the group that got the mindfulness meditation training dramatically increased the functional connectivity of the parts of the brain responsible for executive control, such as dorsolateral prefontal cortex. These parts of the brain now lit up during the scans, but the relaxation group didn’t see any similar brain changes.
But these were the results apparent right after the meditation. What about the long-term effects? Did all that meditation do any long-term good?
The Long-Term Affects Of Stress Meditation
When the body is under a lot of stress, be it emotional or physical, white blood cells respond by pumping out interleukin-6, a signaling molecule that helps to ramp up the immune system to deal with that stress. Those going through divorce, burn victims, cancer patients, and many others experiencing stress have been shown to have elevated levels of interleukin-6, as well as increased levels of inflammation in the body.
Four months after the end of the retreat, the researchers measured interleukin-6 levels on both groups and compared it to their levels at the start of the trial.
Almost none of the patients in either group had continued with the meditation or relaxation exercises the researchers had suggested to each groups, respectively.
Yet the interleukin-6 levels of the meditation group had plummeted from baseline, while the relaxation groups had stayed almost the same (it had risen slightly).
Both groups had found jobs at a similar rate, so job-hunting success can’t be the culprit.
It seems likely that even periodic meditation brings about long-term stress-relieving benefits.
Creswell, David J. Alterations in resting state functional connectivity link mindfulness meditation with reduced interleukin-6: a randomized controlled trial. Biological Psychiatry, 2016↩