The Science Behind Mindfulness and MS: A Survey of Recent Research
Can practicing mindfulness actually reduce your symptoms of MS?
Dr. Amit Sood, for the Mayo Clinic, describes mindfulness (mindful meditation) as “a type of mind-body therapy that involves focusing awareness on what you're experiencing in an open, interested and nonjudgmental way. The goal of mindfulness is to create distance between your perception and response to certain situations or feelings, helping you respond more thoughtfully and calmly, and potentially reducing the effects of stress.”
Chronic stress and MS symptoms
Sood writes: “Researchers believe that mindfulness may help people better respond to stress by fostering healthier coping strategies. For example, study participants who reported higher levels of mindfulness were less likely to rely on denial, disengagement and self-blame as coping strategies. They were also more likely to use more-positive strategies, such as information gathering, planning and seeking out social support.”
Recent research supports mindfulness for MS
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society promotes mindfulness for the person with MS to “build internal energy or life force and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity, and forgiveness.” They describe it as a “state of active attention to the present” which can “help shift our perspective and change our mindset.”
3 recent studies about mindfulness meditation
Here are 3 recent studies showing the promise of mindfulness meditation as a means for coping with the roller coaster of symptoms and side effects that describes living with MS:
1. Mindfulness meditation's effect on psychological well-being
The study team evaluated the impact of meditation training over 8 weeks on a group of patients with MS. They considered specific factors such as personality types, mental health symptoms (anxiety, depression), and basic mindfulness skills already practiced by their subjects. A control group included people with MS who did not participate in the training.
The results showed that the participates in their mindfulness-oriented training session showed improvements in self-directedness and cooperative levels of maturity. Subjects were shown to practice more mindful, conscientious behavior and seemed to display less anxiety as a result. This suggests that potential therapies for people with MS may consider including mindfulness and meditation as practices as a positive way to balance out the negative behavioral and emotional aspects of living with MS.1
2. Online meditation training
Quality of life (QoL) issues are a problematic outcome for those diagnosed with MS, especially when it comes to psychological and emotional health and well-being. This research team sought to test a mindfulness-based invention (MBI) delivered as an online service to see if it could help improve QoL, sleep health, psychological well-being, and measures of fatigue in 139 patients with MS.
The subjects were assessed for QoL, depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and fatigue concerns upon recruitment into the study, then after 2 months and 6 months following the beginning of the use of the online MBI tool. A control group, which did not participate in the online MBI, was also assessed.
The experimental subjects reported higher QoL and fewer problems with depression, anxiety and sleep by the end of the study. Fatigue remained unchanged, however, and interestingly, at 6 months post-study, the experimental group no longer differed from the control group. This suggests that, for the effects of an MBI to be long-lasting, consistent and regular participation may be required.2
3. Mindulfness-based stress reduction
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a formal term for a specific set of practices developed in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn. MBSR is an 8-week training program comprised of 2.5 hours sessions teaching mindfulness meditation, body awareness, yoga and other techniques that support stress reduction, self-awareness, and relaxation.
This research, published in BMC Neurology, tested the likely effectiveness and feasibility of an MBSR program for people with MS. There was an active cohort who underwent the trial and a control group which did not participate. Outcome measures included levels of perceived stress, quality of life, MS symptom severity, mindfulness, and self-compassion.
According to Simpson, Mair & Mercer, perceived stress showed immediate improvement post-MBSR, as well as measures of depression, anxiety, and self-compassion. Quality of life did not show major changes. Mindfulness, however, showed long-lasting improvements at 3 months post-MBSR, as did self-compassion and MS symptoms such as memory and “positive affect” (positive attitude).
This small trial (60 participants) suggests more research should be done to understand the importance of MBSR as a tool for stress reduction in people with MS.3
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