Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program

I mentioned research-supported findings about how stress affects physical health and well being in my last post “Worried about my telemers.” Since then, I have attended and completed an anxiety study at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and I’ve learned a few interesting things. It was an interesting experience as well.

The study (about which I learned from an ad on the subway) is titled “Stress Reduction Techniques and Anxiety: Therapeutic and Neuroendocrine Effects,” and it is sponsored by the National Institute of Health, and is conducted by the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital. I believe they are still accepting “subjects.” As the Center’s website says, the study is “testing the effectiveness of two types of stress management courses for the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders.”

I was in the “meditation” class, and our teacher came from the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. Apparently, studies show that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction offers “reductions in medical and psychological symptoms across a wide range of medical diagnoses,” as UMass Medical Center’s page on research boasts, so now the MGH study is comparing the effects of MBSR to another stress management course.

Because we were “lab rats” so to speak, we did not have to pay tuition for the class, which normally is around $500 at the UMass Medical Center, although the center’s page does say: “Our goal is to the make the Stress Reduction Program available to those who can benefit without regard to ability to pay. Alternative payment options may be considered.”

Incidentally, my health insurance company, Harvard Pilgrim, offers a 15% discount off a mindfulness class at UMass Medical, but I also found that it offers a six-week class for only $150, which is a much better deal. Too bad Harvard Pilgrim offers it in only one location. Harvard Pilgrim’s site also has a page about mindfulness, together with free MP3 meditation downloads.

During the first class I asked our meditation teacher about the difference between the MBSR program and the programs at MGH’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. She said that there is an important difference, but I never got to hear what it is, because we were interrupted. I got to hear Dr. Benson speak once about his program, and it sounded fascinating. By the way, the Benson-Henry Institute is the only place in Massachusetts I found that offers a six-week stress management class specifically for parents of “behaviorally challenging children.”

Worried about my telemers

I had never heard about telemers until I watched “Stress: Portrait of a killer” on DVD.

Sure, I knew before that stress is not good for my physical health, after reading Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, by Joan Borysenko, but I had no idea that stress in a way damages our DNA (if I understand the process correctly). Yet that’s what Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel, two guest scientists on the show, were claiming.

Fascinated by their research, I looked for more information and what I found first freaked me out completely.

Apparently, chronic stress experienced by parents who have children with special needs or disabilities is very dangerous as it “may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases.” (Elissa S. Epel, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Jue Lin, Firdaus S. Dhabhar, Nancy E. Adler, Jason D. Morrow, Richard M. Cawthon (2004) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 101, No. 49 (Dec. 7, 2004), pp. 17312-17315.)

But when I dug some more, there seems to be a glimmer of hope –further research seems to suggest that “comprehensive lifestyle changes” which include “moderate aerobic exercise […]; stress management[…], and a 1-h group support session once per week” were “significantly associated with increases in cellular telomerase activity and telomere maintenance capacity in human immune system cells.” (Dean Ornish, Jue Lin, Jennifer Daubenmier, Gerdi Weidner, Elissa Epel, Colleen Kemp, Mark Jesus M Magbanua, Ruth Marlin, Loren Yglecias,Peter R Carroll, Elizabeth H Blackburn (2008) Lancet Oncol 2008; 9: 1048–57.)

If I get it right then, I’m on a fast lane to developing age-related diseases, unless I exercise, meditate, and create a good support network for myself. I better get cracking!