Compassion meditation may improve physical and emotional responses to psychological stress

October 7, 2008,

Data from a new study suggests that individuals who engage in compassion meditation may benefit by reductions in inflammatory and behavioral responses to stress that have been linked to depression and a number of medical illnesses. The study's findings are published online at www.sciencedirect.com and in the medical journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

"While much attention has been paid to meditation practices that emphasize calming the mind, improving focused attention or developing mindfulness, less is known about meditation practices designed to specifically foster compassion," says Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, PhD, who designed and taught the meditation program used in the study. Negi is senior lecturer in the Department of Religion, the co-director of Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies and president and spiritual director of Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc.

This study focused on the effect of compassion meditation on inflammatory, neuroendocrine and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress, and evaluated the degree to which engagement in meditation practice influenced stress reactivity.

"Our findings suggest that meditation practices designed to foster compassion may impact physiological pathways that are modulated by stress and are relevant to disease," explains Charles L. Raison, MD, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program, Emory University's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory School of Medicine, and a lead author on the study.

Sixty-one healthy college students between the ages of 17 and19 participated in the study. Half the participants were randomized to receive six weeks of compassion meditation training and half were randomized to a health discussion control group.

Although secular in presentation, the compassion meditation program was based on a thousand-year-old Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice called "lojong" in Tibetan. Lojong practices utilize a cognitive, analytic approach to challenge an individual's unexamined thoughts and emotions toward other people, with the long-term goal of developing altruistic emotions and behavior towards all people. Each meditation class session combined teaching, discussion and meditation practice.

The control group attended classes designed by study investigators on topics relevant to the mental and physical health of college students such as stress management, drug abuse and eating disorders. In addition, a variety of student participation activities were employed such as mock debates and role-playing.

Both groups were required to participate in 12 hours of classes across the study period. Meditators were provided with a meditation compact disc for practice at home. Homework for the control group was a weekly self-improvement paper.

After the study interventions were finished, the students participated in a laboratory stress test designed to investigate how the body's inflammatory and neuroendocrine systems respond to psychosocial stress.

No differences were seen between students randomized to compassion meditation and the control group, but within the meditation group there was a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to the stressor.

Consistent with this, when the meditation group was divided into high and low practice groups, participants in the high practice group showed reductions in inflammation and distress in response to the stressor when compared to the low practice group and the control group.

"It will require conducting stress tests before and after meditation training in order to conclusively show it was the practice of compassion meditation that resulted in reduced stress responses," says study co-author Thaddeus W.W. Pace, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory.

"But these initial results are quite exciting," says Pace. "If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease and diabetes."

Raison concurs. "Based on the promising findings from this study we are planning to offer compassion meditation classes to patients at Emory Winship Cancer Institute, and have partnered with the Emory Predictive Health Institute to study potential long term effects of compassion meditation on health and well-being," says Raison.

Source: Emory University

Explore further: Yoga changing to meet contemporary needs

Related Stories

Yoga changing to meet contemporary needs

June 20, 2018
On June 21, on International Yoga Day, people will take out their yoga mats and practice sun salutations or sit in meditation. Yoga may have originated in ancient India, but today is practiced all over the world.

Mindfulness meditation and relaxation response have different effects on brain function

June 13, 2018
A variety of meditation-based programs have been developed in recent years to reduce stress and medical symptoms and to promote wellness. One lingering question is to what extent these programs are similar or different. In ...

Training compassion 'muscle' may boost brain's resilience to others' suffering

May 22, 2018
It can be distressing to witness the pain of family, friends or even strangers going through a hard time. But what if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate ...

New book details the scientific evidence behind bringing mindfulness into the bedroom

April 24, 2018
For women, the answer to the loss of sexual desire does not lie in prescription pills but in the practice of mindfulness, says Lori Brotto, a UBC psychologist and sex researcher.

Medical students taught meditation techniques to prevent burnout and improve care

October 30, 2013
Doctors commonly tell patients that stress can be harmful to their health. Yet when it comes to reducing their own stress levels, physicians don't always heed their own advice.

Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress

October 4, 2017
Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness. However, the words "mindfulness" and "meditation" denote a variety of mental ...

Recommended for you

Scientists uncover DNA 'shield' with crucial roles in normal cell division

July 18, 2018
Scientists have made a major discovery about how cells repair broken strands of DNA that could have huge implications for the treatment of cancer.

Researchers report protein kinase as the switch controlling obesity and diabetes

July 18, 2018
One of the research lines targeting the worldwide obesity epidemic is the manipulation of brown adipose tissue, a 'good' type of fat that burns lipids to maintain an appropriate body temperature. Researchers at the Centro ...

Researchers develop novel bioengineering technique for personalized bone grafts

July 18, 2018
Scientists from the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) Research Institute have developed a new bone engineering technique called Segmental Additive Tissue Engineering (SATE). The technique, described in a paper published ...

New retinal ganglion cell subtypes emerge from single-cell RNA sequencing

July 18, 2018
Single-cell sequencing technologies are filling in fine details in the catalog of life. Researchers at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UConn Health) and The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) have identified 40 subtypes ...

Scientists find malformations and lower survival rates in zebrafish embryos exposed to cannabinoids

July 16, 2018
Exposure to the main chemical components of cannabis has a detrimental effects on developing zebrafish embryos, according to a new study conducted by University of Alberta biologists.

Fetal gene therapy prevents fatal neurodegenerative disease

July 16, 2018
A fatal neurodegenerative condition known as Gaucher disease can be prevented in mice following fetal gene therapy, finds a new study led by UCL, the KK Women's and Children's Hospital and National University Health System ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.