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Published: Sunday, 11/4/2001

Meditation may be best stress-buster

Terrorist attacks from the sky. Anthrax threatening the mail. Economic woes and news of more people losing their jobs. Military action overseas. Now more than ever, a jittery nation needs a way to relax.

Consider the stress break recommended by many physicians as the first-line, non-drug treatment when psychological stress contributes to high blood pressure, chronic pain, anxiety, and other medical and psychological problems: Meditation.

Mention meditation and most people visualize some off-the-wall Far Eastern hocus pocus that involves hermits in Tibet and takes a lifetime to learn. Meditation, however, definitely has gone mainstream from a medical and practical standpoint.

Scientific studies conducted since the 1970s show that meditation makes sense medically in the modern world. Dozens of studies have established that meditation can reduce blood pressure; help to control chronic headaches and other kinds of chronic pain; relieve psychological stress, and reduce the use of health care services.

As someone who has meditated almost daily for 25 years, I can verify that it leaves a deep sense of relaxation and calm; taps new reserves of energy; clears the mind, and sharpens the ability to focus on work and other important activities.

People do meditate more effectively with practice. But learning “medical meditation” takes only minutes and the benefits are apparent almost immediately. Medical meditation need have no religious content whatsoever, although many people do use religious names, terms, or images while meditating.

There many kinds of meditation. The simplest, which is widely used in medicine, involves silently repeating a word. It can be any word - religious, secular, meaningful, or nonsense.

Dr. Herbert Benson, author of the 1975 classic on medical meditation, The Relaxation Response, and who helped prove the medical benefits of meditation while at Harvard University, suggested using the word “one.” Dr. Benson found that several popular stress-reduction methods, including Transcendental Meditation, progressive relaxation, yoga, and autogenic training, work through a common body process which he termed “the relaxation response.”

What's medical meditation like? Beginners start in a reasonably quiet place, such as an empty room or office. Total silence is not necessary. After practice, people can meditate anywhere, even in noisy places.

Find a comfortable position, such as sitting in a chair with hands resting on the thighs. Relax. Close the eyes. Silently repeat your chosen word. It can be “one,” “candy,” “God,” “brontosaurus,” or any other word.

Adopt a passive frame of mind as you silently repeat the word. Other thoughts will intrude, but don't be concerned. Let them float though and disappear. Return to your word. Some thoughts may involve unresolved problems or forgotten situations. Let them pass. It's OK to open the eyes and check the time. Keep returning to your word. Breathe normally. Don't worry about doing it wrong.

A beginner's meditation session, using the word “one” might go like this: One, one, one, one, one . . . I feel silly doing this . . . one, one, one, one, one ... I wonder if this word really works ... one, one, one, one. . . the car's low on gas . . . one, one, one . . . I'm going to open my eyes and check the time . . . one, one . . . Relax your muscles . . . one, one, one, one . . . that project is due Friday . . . one, one . . .

Meditate for about 20 minutes twice a day. To end a session, stop repeating the word, take a deep breath, and sit quietly for a minute.

Many sources of information are available for individuals who want to try meditation. Those include formal courses, magazine articles and books available in the library, and articles on the Internet (search for “meditation”).

Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. His column on health appears each Monday. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.

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