Mindfulness meditation helps women but not men, first study suggests

Mindfulness does not help men, a new study has shown
Mindfulness does not help men, a new study has shown 

Mindfulness does not help men, the first study to look at the gender divide in meditation suggests.

Although recent research has shown that mindfulness meditation, the practice of directing attention to present sensations and feelings, can be beneficial, nobody has checked whether the results were the same for both sexes.

But when Brown University broke down results they found a clear difference for men and women. While practising significantly helped women overcome a downcast mood, it actually made men feel slightly worse than before they began.

 “That was the surprising part,”said Dr Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour and of behavioural and social sciences.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a widespread phenomenon that researchers hadn’t bothered to investigate.”

Students meditate in the lab component of their coursework
Students meditate in the lab component of their coursework

The study followed 41 male and 36 female students over the course of a full, 12-week academic class on mindfulness traditions which included three one hour-long meditation labs a week.

Over that time the average student had engaged in more than 41 hours of meditation in class and outside.

But while women’s moods improved by an average of 11.6 points over the trial, the average mood of men got slightly worse.

The researchers believe that the traditional way in which men and women deal with emotional distress could be behind the disparity.

“The mechanisms are highly speculative at this point, but stereotypically, women ruminate and men distract,” added Dr Briton.

“So for people that tend to be willing to confront or expose themselves or turn toward the difficult, mindfulness is made for improving that. For people who have been largely turning their attention away from the difficult, to suddenly bring all their attention to their difficulties can be somewhat counterproductive.

 “While facing one’s difficulties and feeling one’s emotions may seem to be universally beneficial, it does not take into account that there may be different cultural expectations for men and women around emotionality.”

Dr Brown said since conducting the study she has found the same gender divide in two other published studies, and will shortly publish new details on her findings.

Source: Frontiers in Psychology.

How Meditation Changes Your Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains

Do you struggle, like me, with monkey-mind? Is your brain also a little unsettled, restless, capricious, whimsical, fanciful, inconstant, confused, indecisive, or uncontrollable? That’s the definition of “monkey mind” I’ve been given!

If you need more motivation to take up this transformative practice, neuroscience research has shown that meditation and mindfulness training can cause neuroplastic changes to the gray matter of your brain.

A group of Harvard neuroscientists interested in mindfulness meditation have reported that brain structures change after only eight weeks of meditation practice.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D., the study’s senior author, said in a press release,

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”

To test their idea the neuroscientists enrolled 16 people in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. The course promised to improve participants’ mindfulness and well-being, and reduce their levels of stress.

Everyone received audio recordings containing 45-minute guided mindfulness exercises (body scan, yoga, and sitting meditation) that they were instructed to practice daily at home. And to facilitate the integration of mindfulness into daily life, they were also taught to practice mindfulness informally in everyday activities such as eating, walking, washing the dishes, taking a shower, and so on. On average, the meditation group participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day practicing some form of mindfulness.

Magnetic resonance images (MRI scans) of everyone’s brains were taken before and after they completed the meditation training, and a control group of people who didn’t do any mindfulness training also had their brains scanned.

After completing the mindfulness course, all participants reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness, such as “acting with awareness” and “non-judging.”

What was startling was that the MRI scans showed that mindfulness groups increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum. Brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking!

Britta Hölzel, the lead author on the paper says,

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

Sarah Lazar also noted,

“This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

The Benefits Of Meditation Aren’t As Immediate As You Think; How To Practice Every Day

You’ve no doubt heard of the many benefits meditation can offer. Now, it’s easier than ever to put them into practice, thanks to a growing number of meditation apps and centers. Here’s how to really get started. 

The Spa Finder Wellness 365 Trends Report predicted 2013 would be the year of “mindful living” — and they were right. They were so right that they didn’t know how right they were. The idea to be mindful or mindfully meditate continues to be a focus of health and wellness as we head into 2015.

To be fair, meditation’s effort to break out of early civilization caves and into the mainstream has been a slow, albeit steady build. Archaeologists found evidence of wall art, including figures sitting on the ground with their legs crossed, from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. And The Chopra Center dates the earliest documentation back to 1,500 BCE.

Contemplation, thought, thinking, and pondering are words we interchange with meditation — but this doesn’t accurately define the practice itself. Yoga International said “meditation is a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state.” Meditation allows people to experience the center of consciousness within, while also teaching the power of stillness.

In this respect, the practice — mindfulness and its many other forms, such as transcendental meditation — is an aspect of yoga. So it was only a matter of time before meditation went beyond the mainstream and into studios and centers across the world, too. Just this past April,Prevention reported on a noticeable trend after Unplug Meditation, a new studio in Santa Monica, Calif., opened up for the public to participate in 45-minute classes every hour, on the hour.

It would seem the conversation surrounding meditation is no longer concerned with the “why;” it’s undeniable the practice elevates health and wellness. Instead, the conversation is steered toward the “how.” Meditation centers (and apps) are designed with this in mind, especially for those still of the opinion there’s no time to be still and also get to work, and cook dinner, and do everything else… in time.

Health Reporters; Just Like Us!

Confession: I downloaded Headspace, a popular meditation app, months ago and maybe used it twice. Calm is another app I’ve downloaded, and I felt so guilty every time I ignored the notification to take a quick break that I deleted it. Basically, time is why I’m wary of regular practice, too. It’s one of the first things I mention to Shephali Agrawal, executive director of the Art of Living Center in midtown Manhattan. I say, I know meditation is really healthy for me, but I just can’t find the time. This excuse makes her chuckle, though not at me.

“It’s not the excuse part,” she tells me. “It’s that, we don’t have time to not do it.  If someone actually has that practice of meditation, everything moves so much faster and clearer and effortlessly. If you’re a writer, it’s like saying, ‘I don’t have the time to sharpen my pencil, so I’m going to write with the nub.’ It’s blunt and not working well.”

Growing up, Agrawal remembers things, like yoga and meditation, being esoteric; now, she sees it all over the place.

“In the last 13 years, I’ve seen a growing need for — and recognition that there needs to be — something more to calm the mind, to get back to the self, to be rested and able to voice joy and connection,” Agrawal said.

When you take a look at the science, meditation is the natural solution. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found mindfully meditating for 25 minutes a day for three consecutive days is all it takes to reduce stress levels. Another study found meditation can ease depression and anxiety. Health Central reported mindfulness meditation can improve academic performance, help regulate emotions, fight PTSD and memory loss. In fact, a study published in Psychological Science found it both improves memory and keeps the mind from (always) wandering.

Health Central infographic

The science of meditation. Health Central

It’s no surprise, then, psychotherapists consider mindfulness meditation a form of cognitive therapy. Additionally, studies have shown meditation can curb cravings, treat insomnia, protect against chronic pain and disease, even positively influence the DNA of recovering breast cancer patients.

Every person can reap these benefits, be it in the comfort of their own home, with the help of an app, or in a studio. However, not every person can meditate exactly the same.

Om-en For Business

The Art of Living New York Center is one of many built as an extension of the Art of Living Foundation. In 2001, after 9/11, the foundation offered free courses to New Yorkers affected by the attacks. The overwhelming response made the foundation realize it needed to establish a presence in the city. Today, the center offers a variety of courses (one of which is still free) rooted in traditional Sahaj Samadhi.

“A ‘good meditation center’ is connected to a tradition of masters, where the knowledge has been handed down over thousands and thousands of years, from one teacher to the next,” Agrawal said.

At the foundation’s Manhattan location, three popular courses are the happiness program, aSahaj Samadhi meditation, and a silence retreat. Each is just how it sounds; meditators will focus on their breath, learn tailored techniques to focus on the breath and settle their nervous system before being guided to a meditative state. Agrawal emphasizes the courses allow people to personalize their meditation, providing mantras and tools to help each person experience a deep, stress-free, meditative bliss.

“Meditation is a vacation for the body, spirit, and mind,” Agrawal said. “The chattering in your mind over a few days actually reduces and you gain a lot of energy.”

Offering a similar vacation is The Transcendental Meditation (TM) Center in New York’s financial district. The TM center is rooted in the Veda teachings of ancient India, the otherwise ancient scriptures of hymns and religious texts written in Sanskirt.

This particular center offers a four-day consecutive course, in which participants go through an induction ceremony, receive one-on-one training with certified teachers and instructors, and graduate with the ability to return and meditate any time they’d like to in the future.

What’s interesting about TM is its individualized benefits. A study published in the journalCirculation found patients with coronary heart disease report a 48 percent reduction in death, heart attack, and stroke, compared to patients who don’t practice TM. A similar studypublished in Hypertension found TM is the only meditative technique that has been shown to lower blood pressure. Outside of science, TM improves focus, rest, and happiness in schools; productivity and social behavior in the office; and moral reasoning in prisons.

A Beginner’s Guide

I attended an introductory talk for both (obviously) the Art of Living and TM center. Both opened with the benefits of practicing meditation, with the TM Center spending more time with the actual science and meditation’s effects on the brain; meditation makes brain waves much more orderly and allows individuals to live a more vibrant lifestyle, one teacher said.

While the TM center naturally progressed to an overview of their center’s amenities and courses before opening it up to questions, Art of Living guided a nearly 30-minute meditation. The room I was sitting in was minimal and cozy — still unbelievable considering I was around the corner from Herald Square — with chairs and blankets arranged on yoga mats for each person. Yes; I meditated under a blanket.

And yet, the blankets aren’t the sole reason I would return here over the TM center. I walked into their loft-like, almost secret oasis and instantly felt more calm. Agrawal, and each teacher I spoke to afterward, was welcoming and enthusiastic — and their practice felt like one I wouldn’t just kept up with, but one I’d want to keep up with; the TM center felt a little more formal, which isn’t to say any less serene or helpful.

That right there is the first step to cultivating daily practice: research. A majority of meditation studios and centers offer free introductory talks and courses, and it’s an opportunity to learn more about a particular studio and the people you’ll encounter, especially if it’s been difficult to cultivate a practice on your own. Center courses range in price, but some are an upward of $400.  If the number is overwhelming, consider it the same way you do an annual gym membership. It’s an investment to better your mind and body.

Next, schedule meditation the same way you would a workout. It can be as little as five minutes or it can be as long as 30 minutes. One breathing technique I learned at the Art of Living center is one I can easily do during my lunch hour. Apps, like Headspace and Calm, make it so you can meditate anywhere.

And whether you stay home or go into a studio, know that you will not buzz with a sense of enlightenment after your first session. Thoughts will come up — and at the TM center, they’re encouraged. The mind’s ability to shift is a liability; it’s geared toward challenge and wants more, which is to be expected even during meditation.

Once you land on a style and schedule of meditation you like, give yourself 40 days, Agrawal said. Science traditionally says it takes as long to develop a habit.

“You don’t have to do it forever,” Agrawal said. “Just see what happens.”

Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress.


My mom began meditating decades ago, long before the mind-calming practice had entered the wider public consciousness. Today, at age 81, she still goes to a weekly meditation group and quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk known for his practice of mindfulness, or “present-focused awareness.”

Although meditation still isn’t exactly mainstream, many people practice it, hoping to stave off stress and stress-related health problems. Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has become more popular in recent years. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. (Or, as my mom would say, “Don’t rehearse tragedies. Don’t borrow trouble.”)

But, as is true for a number of other alternative therapies, much of the evidence to support meditation’s effectiveness in promoting mental or physical health isn’t quite up to snuff. Why? First, many studies don’t include a good control treatment to compare with meditation. Second, the people most likely to volunteer for a meditation study are often already sold on meditation’s benefits and so are more likely to report positive effects.

But when researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD sifted through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, they found 47 trials that addressed those issues and met their criteria for well-designed studies. Their findings, published in this week’sJAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.”

“If you have unproductive worries,” says Dr. Hoge, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently. “You might think ‘I’m late, I might lose my job if I don’t get there on time, and it will be a disaster!’ Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that—a thought, and not a part of my core self,’” says Dr. Hoge.

One of her recent studies (which was included in the JAMA Internal Medicine review) found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability. People in the control group—who also improved, but not as much as those in the meditation group—were taught general stress management techniques. All the participants received similar amounts of time, attention, and group interaction.

To get a sense of mindfulness meditation, you can try one of the guided recordings by Dr. Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. They are available for free at www.mindfulness-solution.com.

Some people find that learning mindfulness techniques and practicing them with a group is especially helpful, says Dr. Hoge. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training, developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA, is now widely available in cities throughout the United States.

My mom would point you to Thich Nhat Hahn, who offers this short meditation in his bookBeing Peace: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Changing Our DNA through Mind Control?

A study finds meditating cancer patients are able to affect the makeup of their DNA

“I think, therefore I am” is perhaps the most familiar one-liner in western philosophy. Even if the stoners, philosophers and quantum mechanically-inclined skeptics who believe we’re living an illusion are right, few existential quips hit with such profound, approachable simplicity.  The only catch is that in Descartes’ opinion, “we” – our thoughts, our personalities, our “minds” – are mostly divorced from our bodies.

The polymathic Frenchman and other dualist philosophers proposed that while the mind exerts control over our physical interaction with the world, there is a clear delineation between body and mind; that our material forms are simply temporary housing for our immaterial souls. But centuries of science argue against a corporeal crash pad. The body and mind appear inextricably linked. And findings from a new study published in Cancer by a Canadian group suggest that our mental state has measurable physical influence on us – more specifically on our DNA.

Lead investigator Dr. Linda E. Carlson and her colleagues found that in breast cancer patients, support group involvement and mindfulness meditation – an adapted form of Buddhist meditation in which practitioners focus on present thoughts and actions in a non-judgmental way, ignoring past grudges and future concerns — are associated with preserved telomere length. Telomeres are stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes and help prevent chromosomal deterioration — biology professors often liken them to the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shortened telomeres aren’t known to cause a specific disease per se, but they do whither with age and are shorter in people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and high stress levels. We want our telomeres intact.

In Carlson’s study distressed breast cancer survivors were divided into three groups. The first group was randomly assigned to an 8-week cancer recovery program consisting of mindfulness meditation and yoga; the second to 12-weeks of group therapy in which they shared difficult emotions and fostered social support; and the third was a control group, receiving just a 6-hour stress management course. A total of 88 women completed the study and had their blood analyzed for telomere length before and after the interventions. Telomeres were maintained in both treatment groups but shortened in controls.

Previous work hinted at this association. A study led by diet and lifestyle guru Dr. Dean Ornish from 2008 reported that the combination of a vegan diet, stress management, aerobic exercise and participation in a support group for 3 months resulted in increased telomerase activity in men with prostate cancer, telomerase being the enzyme that maintains telomeres by adding DNA to the ends of our chromosomes. More recent work looking at meditation reported similar findings. And though small and un-randomized, a 2013 follow up study by Ornish, again looking at prostate cancer patients, found that lifestyle interventions are associated with longer telomeres.

The biologic benefits of meditation in particular extend well beyond telomere preservation. Earlier work by Carlson found that in cancer patients, mindfulness is associated with healthier levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a decrease in compounds that promote inflammation. Moreover, as she points out, “generally healthy people in a work-based mindfulness stress reduction program have been shown to produce higher antibody titers to the flu vaccine than controls, and there has been promising work looking at the effects of mindfulness in HIV and diabetes.” Past findings also show that high stress increases the risk of viral infections – including the common cold – as well as depression and cardiovascular disease.

The therapeutic potential of the mind-body intersect is well-known. Biofeedback – in which sensor-clad patients learn awareness of and control over various physiologic functions – has been around for decades and is used to treat pain, headache, high blood pressure and sleep problems, among numerous other conditions. And of course there’s the placebo effect, the complicated yet very real psychobiological benefit achieved from a patient’s expectations of a treatment rather than the treatment itself.

Though optimistic that meditative and social approaches are mental means toward better physical, and not just psychologic well-being, Carlson rightly hedges. “The meaning of the maintenance of telomere length in this study is unknown. However, I think that processing difficult emotions is important for both emotional and physical health, and this can be done both through group support with emotional expression, and through mindfulness meditation practice,” she says.

Carlson wonders if mentally-rooted telomeric changes are long-lasting, if the same patterns would hold true in other cancers and conditions, and what the effects of mental intervention would be if offered at the time of diagnosis and treatment – all questions she hopes to pursue.

According to a report published by Harvard Medical School in 2011, 6.3 million Americans were using mind-body therapies at the advice of conventional doctors – a surprisingly high number that has surely since grown. Still, prescription meditation – especially in the interest of physical health — is far from the norm in Western medicine. And it remains unclear whether or not preserved telomeres actually prolong survival in cancer patients; or in anyone for that matter. But stress reduction in the interest of chromosomal preservation, and other possible health benefits, seems like a pursuit even a 17th Century dualist philosopher could get behind.

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