Does meditation reduce stress?

Monday, November 20, 2006
What is this ancient art of meditation that has been practiced for thousands of years? Some do it for religious enlightenment, others are trying to escape the stress of everyday life.

But are there any real health benefits to meditating? Our reporter Dr Andrew Rochford finds out.

Can meditation help in stressful situations?

It all started in Vedic Hinduism and spread throughout eastern religions to Buddhism, and then on to other spiritual beliefs.

You can do it sitting, you can do it chanting and you can do it walking around.

Venerable Master Chin Kung, from the Pure Land learning college in Toowomba, is a Buddhist monk and has been meditating for 37 years.

"When you practise meditative practice, you will release good vibrations, you will have good energy because your mind is more pure and more clear," he says. "More pure and more clear" eh? Well, here at Monash University researchers are actually measuring how that works.

Dr Craig Hassed is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine, he's teaching medical students how to relax under pressure.

"The reaction of the students is that there are some who are dead keen, there are a lot who are sort of interested and there are some students who are very sceptical," he says.

Andrew: "Wish I'd had classes like this in my day. Looks like a real bludge."

But would Andrew have flunked? We're about to see. Andrew's going to get Dr Hassed to give him a stress test.

Dr Hassed: "Okay Andrew, pop your finger in here, this will measure your pulse rate but also your heart rate variability and that's sort of like a measure of how relaxed or how stressed you are … so let's just start you off now. So that's going to be tracing not just your heart rate, but also tracing your heart rate variability."

Dr Hassed is making Andrew count backward from 200, subtracting seven each time.

"If you make a mistake I'll pull you up," he says.

Andrew's doing what should be dead simple sums in his head, but Craig's convinced he'll stress out under pressure.

When Andrew stumbles on a count his heart rate goes from the low 70s to over 100!

The same test with Jason, one of Craig's meditating students, showed a drop of 20 beats per minute. Maybe meditation could make us calmer?

But mental arithmetic is kids' stuff, the next step is to see how Andrew goes under some major league stress — he's going to put himself and a meditation guru in a pool full of menacing sharks.

Andrew visits Sea World on Queensland's Gold Coast to get the test underway and put the powers of meditation to the test.

Now Andrew's not a world-class champion in meditation, but Chris Kang who is a meditation coach has been doing it for 21 years. If meditation works, Chris should handle the fear a whole lot better than Andrew does.

Chris: "I'm quite looking forward to this because this is my first dive, so I'm more excited about a dive than about the sharks."

Andrew: "So we've just started the test running. We've got our heartbeats here and I'm pretty happy at the moment. It's about 85 at the moment but I haven't seen any sharks yet."

That's all about to change.

Andrew: "Just between you, me and my heart rate monitor, this is really stressing me out."

Andrew opts to go second so Chris is up first.

Andrew: "We'll you're off first and if you don't come back I know that meditation doesn't work."

As he gets in the cage and goes underwater, Chris's heart rate is 110. The sharks that are circling him are man-eating sharks that haven't yet had their daily feed and Chris is sitting in their feeding cage, cool as a cucumber.

So cool, his heart rate's actually dropping.

It would seem that just by sitting there meditating he's able to take control of his hostile environment. After 10 minutes, Chris has dropped his heart rate to an amazing 93 beats per minute.

How did he do it?

Andrew: "So Chris what kind of techniques did you use to meditate while you were down there to be at peace with the sharks?

Chris: "It's about being in the present moment, but more than that it's about being kind, being caring."

Being caring? "The only thing I care about is not becoming shark bait," says Andrew.

But he can't put it off any longer. Even before he hops in the tender, his heart is ticking over at 90 beats per minute.

"What is that? What is that? A hundred-and-three [beats] and all I've seen is a fin. I don't know if I'm going to deal too well with this," Andrew says. "Wish me luck, I'm about to spend 10 minutes in a place I really don't want to be."

Three minutes in, Andrew's heart rate hits 130. Five minutes in, it's 170 — that's like running! After what feels like the longest 10 minutes of Andrew's life it's all over.

His final heart rate? 140 — perhaps Andrew does need to sign up for a meditation course? Maybe we all should.

"Okay, I know you're not going to be diving with sharks any time soon, but when it came to dealing with that stressful situation Chris did so much better than I did. He kept his heart rate down and he actually enjoyed it — maybe meditation really does work," says Andrew.

Someone who's sure it does is Jack Pettigrew, Professor of Physiology at the University of Queensland.

He's studied Buddhist monks and is a believer in the health benefits of tonglin meditation.

"I use it all the time. I have bad arthritis in my ankles from old climbing injuries [but] I just tonglin them away. So I use it every day. It becomes so that you can do it almost automatically," he says.

Jack studied monks whose powers of meditation give them amazing mind control.

Here's one of the tests Jack used. On a screen are some rolling balls that are always rotating in the same direction, but your mind sometimes makes you think it has changed direction or what you see you think has flipped.

"And the screen flips … and I can measure their attentional spotlight by counting how often it flips," says Professor Pettigrew.

How long you can concentrate on the ball going in one direction only says a lot about your mind control. Some of the monks Jack's tested can keep the ball rolling the same direction for 10 minutes — which is remarkable. It's mind discipline that comes from constant meditation.

There is a catch though — experts warn against it for people with a history of mental illness or on psychiatric drugs.

"Some people have become psychotic from meditating. That's rare, but it has happened and where the dalai lama lives they dread the influx of tourists who throw away their medication 'cause they reckon meditation's going to solve all their problems," says Professor Pettigrew.

Conclusion

So meditation's not for everyone, but for most of us, there do seem to be health benefits.

We can't explain scientifically how meditation works, but clearly it works for some and it's not so much how you meditate, whether it's in a nice peaceful spot, in a temple or at the bottom of a shark tank, it's that we recognise how important relaxation and peace of mind is for your health and lets face it in today's busy life it's pretty easy to forget.

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