Other common name(s): mindfulness meditation, Transcendental Meditation
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Meditation is a mind-body process that uses concentration or reflection to relax the body and calm the mind. It has been defined as the intentional self-regulation of attention, a mental focus on a particular aspect of one’s inner or outer experience.
Meditation is one of several relaxation methods evaluated and found to be of possible benefit by an independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The panel found that it might be a useful complementary therapy for treating chronic pain and sleeping problems such as insomnia. Some cancer treatment centers offer meditation or relaxation therapy with standard medical care. Available scientific evidence does not suggest that meditation is effective in treating cancer or any other disease; however, it may help to improve the quality of life for people with cancer.
How is it promoted for use?
The NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine reports that regular meditation can reduce chronic pain, anxiety, high blood pressure, cholesterol, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam veterans, and blood cortisol levels that are increased by stress (sometimes called “stress hormones”), as well as reducing the use of health care services.
Practitioners also claim meditation improves mood, immune function, and fertility. Supporters further claim meditation increases mental efficiency and alertness and raises self-awareness, all of which contribute to relaxation.
What does it involve?
There are different forms of meditation. Meditation may be done while sitting, but there are also moving forms of meditation, like tai chi, qigong, walking, and the Japanese martial art aikido. One commonly practiced type is Transcendental Meditation, which involves repeating a word or phrase, called a mantra, either silently or aloud. Another is mindfulness meditation, in which a person observes sensations, perceptions, and thoughts without judgment as they arise. There are other types of meditation that focus one’s attention through walking or visualizing. Meditations that focus on words or images and do not strive for a state of thoughtless awareness are sometimes called quasimeditative. Meditation can be self-directed, or guided by doctors, psychiatrists, other mental health professionals, or yoga masters. It can also be guided by masters from different schools of meditation (for example, Zen meditation, Tibetan meditation, Transcendental Meditation), as well as those from tai chi and martial arts.
Meditation may be done by choosing a quiet place free from distraction, sitting or resting quietly with eyes closed, noticing one’s breathing and physical sensations, and letting go of all intruding thoughts. The person may also achieve a relaxed yet alert state by focusing on a pleasant idea or thought, or by chanting a phrase or special sound silently or aloud. The ultimate goal of meditation is to separate oneself mentally from the outside world by suspending the usual stream of consciousness. Some practitioners recommend two sessions of fifteen to twenty minutes a day.
What is the history behind it?
Meditation is an important part of ancient Eastern religious practices, particularly in India, China, and Japan, but can be found in all cultures of the world. Meditation began to attract attention in the West in the 1960s when the Indian leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi brought his method called Transcendental Meditation to the United States. In 1968, a group of practitioners of this method asked a Harvard cardiologist named Herbert Benson to test them on their ability to lower their own blood pressures. There was no change in the practitioners’ blood pressure. Benson later developed a popular relaxation technique called the relaxation response. Interest in the use of meditation in the treatment of people with cancer began in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Ainslie Meares, MD, an Australian psychiatrist, studied the use of meditation for enhancing the immune system in order to reduce the size of tumors.
Today, universities and continuing education programs provide training in behavioral medicine, including meditation. Some clinics at major medical centers and local hospitals offer meditation as a form of behavioral medicine.
What is the evidence?
In the last twenty years, meditation has been studied in clinical trials as a way of reducing stress on both the mind and body. Research shows that meditation can help reduce anxiety, stress, blood pressure, chronic pain, and insomnia.
Studies of mindfulness meditation found that it seemed to help with symptoms of anxiety. One controlled study with a group of healthy workers found more brain activity in an area linked to positive emotional states in those who meditated. The same study found that those who meditated had a better immune response to the influenza vaccine than those who did not meditate.
In a controlled study of ninety cancer patients who did mindfulness meditation for 7 weeks, 31% had fewer symptoms of stress and 65% had fewer episodes of mood disturbance than those who did not meditate. Some studies have also suggested that more meditation improves the chance of a positive outcome.
Are there any problems or complications?
Most experts agree that the positive effects of meditation outweigh any negative reactions. Complications are rare; however, a small number of people who meditate have become disoriented or anxious and experienced some negative feelings. People with certain types of mental illness may be more likely to have these responses. Those with cancer and chronic conditions such as arthritis and heart disease should talk with their doctors before starting any type of meditation that involves movement of joints and muscles, such as qigong or martial arts.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Astin JA, Shapiro SL, Eisenberg DM, Forys KL. Mind-body medicine: state of the science, implications for practice. J Am Board Fam Pract. 2003;16:131-147.
Benson H, Stark M. Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief. New York, NY: Scribner; 1996.
Coker KH. Meditation and prostate cancer: integrating a mind/body intervention with traditional therapies. Semin Urol Oncol. 1999;17:111-118.
Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, et al. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003;65:564-570.
Ernst E, ed. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. New York: Mosby; 2001.
Massion AO, Teas J, Hebert JR, Wertheimer MD, Kabat-Zinn J. Meditation, melatonin and breast/prostate cancer: hypothesis and preliminary data. Med Hypotheses. 1995;44:39-46.
Meditation. Aetna InteliHealth Web site. Accessed at www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH?d=dmtContent&c=362173& on May 23, 2008.
Mind-body medicine: an overview. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Web site. Accessed at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/backgrounds/mindbody.htm on June 12, 2008.
National Institutes of Health. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons: A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1994. NIH publication 94-066.
Smith JE, Richardson J, Hoffman C, Pilkington K. Mindfulness-based stress reduction as supportive therapy in cancer care: systematic review. J Adv Nurs. 2005;52:315-327.
Speca M, Carlson LE, Goodey E, Angen M. A randomized, wait-list controlled clinical trial: the effect of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients. Psychosom Med. 2000;62:613-622.
Spencer JW, Jacobs JJ. Complementary/Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. St. Louis, MO: Mosby;1999.
US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Unconventional Cancer Treatments: OTA-H-405. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1990.
Wallace RK, Benson H, Wilson AF. A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state. Am J Physiol. 1971;221:795-799.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 11/01/2008