According to the paper from the Harvard-affiliated institution, stress-related illnesses like depression and anxiety are the third biggest cause of health expenditures in the country, behind only cancer and heart disease – which also happen to be affected by stress.
The researchers examined the impact that mind-body interventions such as meditation, yoga, and prayer can have on health care services. They examined data from more than 4,000 people who participated in the Benson-Henry Relaxation Resiliency Program (3RP) between 2006 and 2014 and compared it to a demographically matched group of control patients. After examining the number of health care visits during the period, including lab tests and procedures, they found that those who had participated in the 3RP program had a 43 percent average reduction in health care services during the year that followed their participation.
The areas in which the program led to the biggest drop in health care services utilization were gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, neurologic, and cardiovascular. The researchers say that programs that can train people to relax are useful tools for promoting wellness and easing the burden on health care services with no risk and very little cost.
One of the study’s co-authors was Herbert Benson, an original founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. Benson commented that their goal was enhancing people’s well-being and health by counteracting stress. The next challenge, he says, is spreading the word about how useful these alternative approaches can be as he feels the benefits to insurance companies and policy makers will be significant.
The study’s lead author, James E. Stahl, commented: “There are many gates to wellness, but not everyone is ready to walk through a particular gate at a given time. From a public health perspective, it is better to be prepared to offer these tools to people in their customary settings than to wait for them to seek out these interventions.”
He added that mind-body interventions are low-cost and virtually without risk, so he feels they should become a part of regular preventive care.
For being such a simple act, meditation can be surprisingly effective. In fact, a recent study showed that just one hour-long session of mindful meditation was enough to undo the mental and physical effects stress has on the body. Not only did people’s anxiety scores go down, but the researchers also found a significant improvement in the stiffness of their blood vessel walls. It has also been linked to lower inflammation, better focus, reduced pain, and a stronger immune system.
The power of prayer has also been illustrated in studies. For example, a major study with more than 44,000 participants that was printed in the journal Cancer found that people with cancer who were more religious or spiritual in their beliefs had less severe symptoms and improved physical function than those who did not.
Yoga, meanwhile, is so good for stress that China has started a yoga campaign to help fight depression and anxiety among university students. Yoga boosts levels of the amino acid GABA in the brain, which is essential for brain and central nervous system health. It’s known to promote feelings of relaxation and peace, while low levels have been linked to anxiety and depression.
All of these techniques are easy for people to learn and implement, but sadly, few people are aware just how much of a difference they can make.
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