Self-hypnosis and meditation are increasingly being promoted as a tool for maintaining health and for treating serious illnesses including depression.
An exponential increase in the level of interest among clinicians and researchers is certainly accelerating this process.
This paper will establish some background regarding stress and its effects on mind and body, and then explore scientifically, practically and philosophically how self hypnosis and meditation might be used as a tool to promote happiness of mind and body.
MENTAL HEALTH TODAY
Figures seem to suggest that the stress of modern life is increasing at an alarming rate. Some studies suggest that there has been a 45% increase over the last 30 years.(1) Explanations are many and could include; an increased awareness about stress; that we lead more stressful and busy lives; that many people see happiness as being more dependent on material circumstances; the level of drug and pleasure seeking behaviour; the level of change and instability in modern life. The answer is probably a combination of all these. If trends continue, mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, are predicted to be the single major burden of disease within the next two decades.(2) Chronic stress and anxiety are, of course, inextricably linked to mood and depression. This is reflected in the fact that stress reduces serotonin levels in the brain, the main neurotransmitter linked to mood.(3)
Our modern pharmacological treatments of depression are all aimed at increasing the level of serotonin in the brain. These, which are aimed at changing a chemical, not a thought or behaviour pattern, only provide limited success in treating depression and preventing relapse. Depending on whether one reviews only published data or also includes unpublished data, the level of placebo effect of antidepressants can vary from 60% to 80%.
THE STRESS RESPONSE AND ITS EFFECTS ON THE MIND, BRAIN AND BODY
“The body is the shadow of the soul.” Marsilio Ficino.
To understand the mind-body relationship one has to take a metaphysical view. To use the analogy above, the light is the awareness or consciousness. It is primary. Next is the mind with its contents of thought and emotion. The mind intercepts the light and gives it its apparent shape, colour and movement. Then is the shadow, the gross physical world, the end result of this creative process. Thus, if awareness is given to a happy thought it produces one set of effects in the body and behaviour. Given to an angry thought, it produces another.
Who is a meditator and who isn’t? If meditation is the focusing of attention on a particular thought or object, it may be said that the whole of humanity meditates on something or other: it is just unfortunate that we spend so much time meditating on resentment, anger, fear, depressive thoughts, regrets and the rest. In principle, the physical body, and that includes the brain, will reflect or express whatever is going on in the subtle, or non-physical, mind. The relationship is much like the driver of a car and the car itself. The body has the capacity to increase performance when it needs to, in order to avert danger. We call this the ‘fight or flight response’. This response is a natural, necessary, healthy and appropriate physiological response to an exceptional and threatening situation, for example if we were about to be attacked by a lion. In such instances, one needs to respond quickly. The response is aimed at preserving life.
These responses, activated appropriately and allowed to switch off when they are no longer needed are, generally speaking, not damaging to the health. Activated inappropriately and almost continuously, however, these changes become a significant risk factor for a range of illnesses. It is important to note that the brain will activate the response when told to by the mind; it does not matter if the stressor does not exist, that is, the lion is imaginary. Thus, imagination, rumination, anticipation, exaggeration and dreaming can all activate the fight or flight response. In fact, the vast majority of times when we activate this response it is based on one or other form of misperception; imagining things to be happening which aren’t or perceiving things to be far larger threats than they really are.
The prolonged activation of the fight or flight response, mediated through the Sympathetic nervous system, leads to ‘wear-and-tear’ on the body called ‘allostatic load’.(4) The brain is not static, as it was once thought by medical science. It can be wired and rewired (called neural plasticity) to promote the stress response, or to reduce it. If we practice dwelling (meditating) on a particular thought or desire, or if we reinforce a pattern of deeper ruts which it is increasingly difficult to get out of. This state of mind will reflect itself in the circuitry of the brain, and so, although these responses can be wired out, much like programming and reprogramming a computer. The level of emotional reactivity to events, thoughts, desires and memories seems to determine to a large extent the level to which this wiring takes place. Learning to be less automatically reactive to what passes through the mind is possibly a prime way in which meditation helps to protect the body from damaging effects of chronic stress depression.
Prolonged allostatic load leads to a range of effects including increases inflammation, impaired immunity (increases the risk and severity of infections), accelerated atherosclerosis (‘hardening of the arteries’), increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, increases bone demineralisation (osteoporosis), and can also lead to atrophy or loss of nerve cells in some vulnerable regions of the brain which are targeted by stress hormones. These regions including the hippocampal formation (important for learning and memory) and the prefrontal cortex (the ‘frontal lobes’ play a role in working memory, decision making, reasoning, impulse control and emotional regulation).
Thus, chronic stress and depression are risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia. Meditation, as will be soon discussed, seems to protect the brain from these damaging effects.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ATTENTION
How we develop our ability to pay attention is a rather important issue. It has been seen that attention spans have steadily decreased in recent decades as the pace of life accelerates and the bombardment of banal and mind-numbing stimuli increases. Television watching does not seem to be the best way to enhance a person’s ability to pay attention. For example, children who watch higher levels of television by the age of 3 are significantly more likely to display attention problems at the age of 7.(5) Throughout one’s life the way we use our leisure time has an effect on cognitive decline. Those who have less than average diversity in leisure activities, spend less on them, and practise more passive leisure activities (principally TV viewing) were nearly four times as likely to develop dementia over a 40-year follow-up compared with those who rate higher than average on these parameters.(6)(7) “Among leisure activities, reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing were associated with a reduced risk of dementia.”(8)
Attention has a number of facets; arousal, orientation and focus.(9) The reticular activating system activates other parts of the brain and closes down unnecessary parts of brain activity.(10)(11) The focused or alert brain is a relatively quiet brain, reflected in the term “restful alertness”. When attention is aroused other parts of the brain associated with orientation and focus activate and these communicate with frontal lobes for higher decision making and appraisal. The attention centres are activated with concentration and meditative exercises(12) and are associated with down-regulating the stress response. Interestingly, it has recently been demonstrated by MRI assessment of cortical thickness (the ‘grey matter’) that brain regions associated with attention, interoception (being aware of oneself) and sensory processing are thicker in meditators than non-meditators. It seems that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning and provides “evidence for experience-dependent cortical plasticity associated with meditation practice.”(13)
That means, we may be able to change the brain anatomically and preserve many functions which are otherwise lost as a part of the ageing process.
THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS
Given that all people share this pursuit in common, the ways in which people pursue happiness are many and varied. Possibly, the most common concept of happiness in the modern day, and the one which we are bombarded with on a daily basis, is that happiness equates with pleasure. The past experience of pleasure, when viewed as an end in itself, generates desire for the future experience of it and anxiety at the prospect of frustrated desire. Various wisdom traditions would suggest that pleasure is the shadow of happiness and a person soon finds themselves chasing a shadow with ever less substantial returns for the time and energy invested in it.
So it is that wisdom traditions tend to encourage people not to dwell on desire but rather to transcend it in order to find lasting peace and happiness. Meditation, when aimed at liberation, is a constant practice in this. The worldly vie has it that happiness is attained through the constant and restless fulfilment of desires.
On a biochemical level, dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with most of the pleasure or reward-seeking behaviours and addictions. It is a prime source of motivation and is also, when abused and depleted, associated with depression. Dysfunction of dopamine transmission in the reward circuit is associated with symptoms such as anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure), apathy (lack of motivation) and dysphoria (disturbed mood).(14)
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with pleasure, because it is a natural part of life and promotes many behaviours which are vital for survival. It does seem to suggest, however, that pleasure doesn’t lead to the stable happiness which people seek. When it is sought as an end to itself, and ”meditated” upon, it soon leads to the opposite of the intended effects. One of the effects of true meditation may be that it helps a person to gradually undo such compulsions fanned by imaginings and anticipation by learning to refocus attention.
MEDITATION, HEALING AND HAPPINESS
Apart from helping to facilitate health lifestyle change, meditation has many other effects which are conducive to greater health and happiness.(15) meditation research began thousands of years ago when many wise sages observed ever more intently their own experience during and after meditation. Modern science seems to be catching up with what many have suspected for a long time: meditation is a powerful healing agent for mind and body. What the sage explores from within, science explores from without. Modern research began with measuring a range of physiological and psychological effects. Over the last one to two decades it has increasingly shifted to looking at the clinical outcomes for various illnesses.
Other research looked at the overall effect of meditation, in this case Transcendental Meditation, on healthcare utilisation and medical expenses. This field of research is of particular interest to insurance companies.
One study found over an 11-year follow-up of 600,000 non-meditators and 2,000 meditators that there were significant reductions in illness and a 63% reduction in health-care costs (i.e. 63 cents in the health dollar saved).(16) There were 11.4 times less hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease, 3.3 times less cancer, and 6.7 times less mental disorders and substance abuse. The study did not control for lifestyle and personality factors and so self-selection, healthy lifestyle change and direct physiological benefits would all play a part in the results. Nevertheless, on the strength of the data a number of insurance companies in the US and Europe now offer 30% reductions in health insurance premiums for regular meditators.
It is likely that in the future we will see meditation as an increasingly recognised and practised life-skill as well as a treatment for depression. It may be the most natural, simple and gentle way we know of to attain the peace, freedom and happiness which we all seek. That it helps us to know ourselves better is probably just another way of saying the same thing.
Written by Dr Craig Hassed MBBS, FRACGP.
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This article originally appeared in the ‘Personal Development’ section of the April 2007 issue of Living Now magazine.