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Could Meditation One Day be Prescribed by Doctors?

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Imagine walking into your doctor’s office and leaving with a prescription to attend an art class, debt management program, gardening project, or meditation session. With growing concern within the medical profession (and beyond) that health services currently fail to address the holistic picture of social, economic, and wellbeing factors that contribute to a person’s health, it’s a prospect that is becoming more likely across the world.

Across Europe and Canada, healthcare professionals are already exploring the emerging field of social prescribing to treat many conditions through the use of patients’ local communities. For mental health issues, in particular, social prescribing has been seen as a way to relieve the problems which pharmaceutical options can’t address – such as loneliness, chronic stress, or lack of social support.

With studies showing that meditation can have many positive effects on the state of a person’s body and mind, it may be sooner than you’d think that doctors in the US will begin to prescribe meditative practices to supplement recovery. Here we explain the rationale behind social prescribing and why meditation in particular shows such promise as an adjunct therapy for many mental health conditions.

What is social prescribing?

Social prescribing moves treatment away from a purely chemical solution to get patients involved in community activities designed to boost their wellbeing. It will often be used in combination with conventional medicine. This means that for many conditions and disorders, doctors may soon begin to recommend that social prescriptions, such as guided meditation classes, will help patients overcome their health challenges.

Part of the benefit of social prescribing is that it’s a way to help patients while also reducing strain on the existing healthcare system and lowering healthcare costs. In many countries around the world, particularly in the UK and Europe, doctors are now making use of their local communities and recommending patients to see other professionals (with common examples including yoga teachers and art instructors) who can support their recovery in new ways.

For patients across the United States – for whom the cost of medical treatment is an ongoing and often urgent concern – meditation classes and other community resources could be a more cost-effective way of receiving treatment than opting for a purely pharmacological solution. Doctors are often acutely aware that they can’t, due to lack of time and resources, fully support many vulnerable people in their care, and social prescribing lifts a little of that burden.

The conventional, medicine-only approach to treatment often does little to consider patients as a whole – addressing their physical symptoms but not considering individuals’ distinct needs and personalities. Why only give patients antacids for their stomach if the main reason for their gastric issues is the stress they experience in their daily lives?

Sometimes, the current medical approach can lead doctors to treat only the symptoms without ever resolving the cause. Social prescribing allows the doctor to acknowledge this and take a more holistic approach, supplementing patients’ medicine with other community services and resources to support their mental wellbeing.

Treating medical conditions with meditation

Unlike a purely medicinal approach to treating a condition, there are no side effects of social prescription. You can also meet new people and feel that you are being active, not passive, in your mental health recovery. While people with severe symptoms may not be able to engage in these activities, for many, social prescription can be a helpful way to resolve some underlying stresses in their lives. This can have a protective effect on mental health going forward.

Meditation, in particular, is effective in reducing the impact that mental and physical health issues have on people’s lives. While more research is needed, studies suggest people living with mental health problems such as anxiety and mood disorders demonstrate an improvement in symptoms after a program of meditation. It is theorized that meditation achieves this through its effect on our stress response.

Meditation for long term stress

Stress can be indicated in various physiological factors, and one often identified in studies is cortisol. Cortisol is a natural product of the human body. It’s the stress hormone that triggers fight or flight, and it kicks in when we are in danger – whether real or imagined. In controlled amounts, it is very necessary. However, it is also present in elevated levels associated with certain health conditions, including depression.

When people wake up in the morning, their cortisol starts to rise. This is normal, and it’s called the cortisol awakening response (CAR). In people who are not depressed, the level of cortisol in the bloodstream peaks in the morning then decreases as the day progresses. However, in roughly half of the people who live with depression, cortisol peaks earlier in the morning and does not level off or decrease in the afternoon or evening.

Elevated cortisol levels have also been associated with what we think of as lifestyle influences, such as loneliness, and are also apparent in those who live with chronic pain. In addition to this, the stress of living with physical health problems (such as cancer, diabetes, or life-changing injury) makes anxiety and depression common comorbidities in those who are already unwell.

Meditation can help to lower cortisol in two ways. Firstly, in a group or guided meditation setting, patients can gain peer support from people who are experiencing similar difficulties to themselves. This reduces feelings of loneliness and gives patients a chance to socialize and build their sense of community, which is a key aim of social prescription.

Secondly, meditation reduces stress by lessening activity in the sympathetic nervous system (which governs “fight or flight” mode) and easing people into another physiological response known as “rest and repair.” This appears to normalize daily cortisol curves and may even have an impact on our brain chemistry. Studies by Sara Lazar of Harvard University demonstrate that meditation may even change our brain structure in ways helpful to those with mental illness.

One study concluded that, as meditation had lowered blood cortisol levels in its subjects, the practice should be used in combination with standard treatment for illnesses worsened by stress such as psychiatric disorder, peptic ulcers, and migraines. Another study author, having also observed a drop in cortisol after a meditation program, theorized that “training the mind to focus on immediate experience may reduce the propensity to ruminate about the past or worry about the future, thought processes that have been linked to cortisol release.”

Many medical conditions seem to be exacerbated or even caused by chronic stress – which means that a social prescription of meditation could be extremely beneficial to individuals living with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. With this in mind, it seems intuitively obvious that prescribing a program of guided meditation to help patients with many common mental health disorders can only be a good thing.

Social prescribing for meditation is already being discussed in the United States. With the benefits to mind and body clear, the impact it could have on currently overstretched healthcare resources would be enormous – and therefore extremely beneficial to society as a whole.



About the Author: This post was written by Will Williams, meditation expert, author, and founder of Beeja Meditation. Will became interested in the use of meditation for depression and other health issues after finding the practice had a transformative effect on his own chronic stress and insomnia. He works as a Program Director for One Giant Mind, a global charity dedicated to promoting all forms of meditation and researching their effects on individuals and society. Will is also the wellbeing advisor to the OECD for the Education 2030 project, an initiative that aims to help countries find what knowledge, skills, and values are needed to help today’s students thrive.

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios only.

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