We begin with a series of findings exploring the mind-body connection and the impact of meditation and spirituality on psychological well being.
A team of researchers in California used data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey, published by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the National Center for Health Statistics to explore the prevalence of mind-body practices in US adults. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is the US Government’s lead division “for scientific research on the diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine.” The National Health Interview Survey is organized by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) to track health status, health care access, and progress toward achieving national health objectives. Data has been collected since 1957.
The researchers found that the use of mind-body practices like meditation had tripled since 2012. The current findings that 14.2% of adults reported such practices in the 2017 survey as compared to 4.1% in the 2012 survey. Other practices included yoga, tai chi, and qigong. The researchers suggest that the increased acceptance of mind-body practices can support a well-being orientation in life, and particularly in later life. They urge continued research into the area as it will promote more integration of mind-body practices into healthcare, especially since these practices are minimally invasive and cost-effective approaches for some psychological and cognitive disorders.
The research is published The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in February 2019.
Researchers in South Korea extended research on the benefits of meditation by exploring the maintenance of meditation effects on neural mechanisms. In a controlled 4-day residential experiment on meditation, data were collected from 47 participants using both self-report examinations and magnetic resonance imaging scans at baseline, post-intervention and 90-day follow-up.
The participants were split into two groups. Seventeen were in a relaxation group that served as the control group. Thirty participants were in the meditation practice group.
All participants showed improvements in mindfulness and resilience immediately. Resilience refers to the capacity to resist stressors and activate coping strategies in response to challenges.
However, only the meditation group showed sustained improvements at the 90-day follow-up including neural changes to different regions of the brain. The authors note in their findings that these changes in brain neural pathways via meditation cause “an immediate enhancement in resilience that is sustained. Since resilience is known to be associated with the preventative effect of various psychiatric disorders, the improvement in stress-related neural mechanisms may be beneficial to individuals at high clinical risk.”
The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, in March 2019.
* * *
Dutch researchers explored a specific type of meditation and its effect on heart rate and blood chemistry. The researcher examined śamatha quiescence meditation specifically. This is a single-pointed meditation technique that is most commonly exercised through mindfulness of breathing. The Buddha identified śamatha as one of the paramount mental qualities that arise from meditative practice, in this case, calmness, composure, and concentration. Tibetan Buddhism recognizes this meditation producing, tonglen, “giving or sending”, and “receiving or taking”.
The researchers employed a three-breath technique and followed 20 participants on a daily basis of a 6-week period monitoring heart rate patterns and the presentation of blood cortisol, a stress marker every two weeks. The heart rate patterns were measured using devices that capture the movement and velocity of the bloodstream.
The researchers found a reduction in cortisol and improvements in the recordings of the bloodstream patterns. The researchers noted that “Participants reported positive subjective changes in attention focus, sense of happiness and calmness, and increased abilities in emotional regulation and attunement.”
The research is published in the journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback in September 2019.
* * *
In a British study of adolescents, researchers examined the effects of different components of spirituality on positive mental health. The components of spirituality were connections to ‘self’, ‘others’, ‘nature’, and the ‘transcendent’. The researchers gathered data from adolescents who participated in the 2014 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study conducted in Canada (with 21,173 participants), England (with 4,339 participants) and Scotland (with 5,603 participants). The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study is a collaborative data collection involving 11-, 13- and 15-year-old of all genders in 44 countries. The study is coordinated by the World Health Organization.
The researchers found “strong associations between positive mental health and higher scores for each of the four spiritual health domains.” But the researchers conducted additional statistical analysis and identified that connections to the domains of ‘others’, ‘nature’, and the ‘transcendent’ may be mediated by a stronger connection to the ‘self’.
The findings suggest that spiritual connections provide supportive effects on adolescent mental health. However, the inner connection to the ‘self’ may be an important mediator to developing the full protective effects offered by spiritual health.
The research is published in the journal Preventative Medicine in August 2019.
A recent series of research articles in various sources explored the impact of natural and green spaces as supportive of psychological health.
In a survey of 4,515 participants in England, researchers asked participants to “recall a recent visit in nature.” The researchers found that respondents recalled a greater connection to nature and experience with psychological restoration following visits to rural and coastal locations. The researchers found that connectedness and restoration were strongly linked. However, the recollection from certain environments was interesting in that participants experienced greater effects from them. The research findings suggest that “psychological benefits associated with different types and quality of the environment has implications for human health, environmental management, and conservation.”
The research is reported in the journal Environment and Behavior, Aug 2019.
* * *
Similarly, an unrelated study in New Zealand, researchers hypothesized that pro-environmental behaviors might be associated with a personal relationship with nature. The researchers asked 423 participants from 20 different neighborhoods that varied in their level of “greenness” (the presence of vegetation) to plant trees. The researchers found that the amount of neighborhood vegetation and involvement in tree-planting accounted for a significant relationship in an individual’s connection with nature. They also found that a connection to nature impacted pro-environmental behaviors more than the use of nature for psychological restoration and environmental attitudes.
The research is published in the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, in June 2019
* * *
Researchers in Italy questioned whether built/historical environments might produce beneficial effects similar to natural environments. The researchers asked 125 participants to visit or view different such environments in Rome, natural settings and built/historical environments, and neutral settings. They asked participants to report the subjective restorative effects of these environments.
Researchers found that natural environments produced higher restorative effects than historical/built environments and neutral environments. They also found that participants who visited vs. viewed environments reported higher restorative effects.
The research has implications for Attention Restoration Theory. The theory suggests that individuals concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature. The current findings suggest that while an effect might be produced by viewing environments, physical presence in the environment may be more powerful in asserting the effects suggested by Attention Restoration Theory.
The research is reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in January 2019.
* * *
Finally, in research conducted at the University of Exeter, a survey of 26,000 participants to determine the wellbeing effects of living in coastal areas. After accounting for other risk factors, the study revealed that individuals living less than one kilometer (0.62 miles) from the coast was associated with better mental health for urban adults.
The research used self-reported mental health data from standardized questionnaires, measuring primarily anxiety and depression but not specifically with clinically diagnosed mental health issues. Nevertheless, the self-reported experience of anxiety and/or depression appears to be mediated by proximity to the sea.
The lead researcher, Dr. Joanne Garrett, noted that, “Our research suggests, for the first time, that people in poorer households living close to the coast experience fewer symptoms of mental health disorders. When it comes to mental health, this ‘protective’ zone could play a useful role in helping to level the playing field between those on high and low income.”
The research is published in the journal Health and Place, October 2019.