The benefits of mindfulness are plentiful for people with Parkinson’s.
By now, you know that exercise is one of the cheapest, most effective medicines for slowing down the progression of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Well, think of mindfulness meditation as exercise for the brain.
It helps the mind shed unhealthy thought patterns and builds mental muscle that can make it easier to cope with the unpredictability of life with PD. And, like regular physical activity, mindfulness meditation can serve as the cornerstone for self-care that people with PD can use to manage their symptoms.
The practice involves using breathing or other techniques to bring deliberate (but nonjudgmental) attention to the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations of the present moment.
With regular practice, people become more aware of the human tendency to quickly judge our everyday experiences and respond with negative, unhelpful patterns of thinking. Combining awareness with acceptance of experiences provides a wider, calmer perspective on stressful situations and helps squash negative emotions before they can take hold.
Studies have shown that meditation can help improve anxiety, stress, fatigue and sleep disturbances. It lowers heart rate and levels of cortisol (a hormone released during stress) and ups sensations of relaxation and well-being.
Scientists have observed so many benefits of mindfulness meditation that it’s being used for everything from boosting employee performance to improving the “military resilience” of soldiers in the U.S. Army. Research has also found some specific, significant benefits of the practice for people with Parkinson’s.
What the science says about meditation and Parkinson’s
Several randomized controlled trials of mindfulness meditation programs for people with PD show instruction in the practice can lower anxiety and depression, as well as improve motor symptoms of the disease.
In a 2015 trial published in the journal Parkinson’s Disease, an eight-week mindfulness meditation program improved both motor and non-motor motor activities of daily living; patients also reported less pain.
Similarly, a 2016 investigation of six sessions of mindfulness training for people with PD found significant reductions in anxiety, depression and distress about symptoms, along with improvements in memory and verbal fluency.
The effects seem long-lasting. A trial published in 2016 in BMC Neurology showed that people with PD who participated in once-weekly sessions of mindfulness meditation for at least six weeks were still having an easier time managing their stress and going about their daily activities six months after the program ended.
What’s behind the benefits? Scientists don’t yet have a complete answer, but they believe the practice changes the structure of the brain itself, according to a study that used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to look at the brains of people with PD before and after an eight-week mindfulness meditation program.
The investigators, who published their findings in Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery in 2013, saw an increase in grey matter density in the area of the brain thought to play an important role in the motor symptoms of PD.
Ready to try? We’ll show you how
Mindfulness meditation plays a major role in self-care for people with chronic medical conditions like PD, as well as those who want to live and age more healthfully. High demand means there are almost endless options for learning the practice.
You can start by trying a simple practice at home, following these steps:
1. Take a seat in a comfortable position in a place that is quiet and calm.
2. Set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes if you’re new to the practice.
3. Begin to notice your body and make sure you’re in a comfortable position that you can stay in for awhile.
4. Feel your breath and follow the sensation of breathing in and out.
5. Notice when your mind wanders and bring it back to focusing on the movement of your breath.
Remember that the goal isn’t to clear your mind but rather to notice when your mind wanders and without judgment, bring it back to the breath.
Other resources to try mindfulness meditation
Ask your doctor about options. Many medical centers are helping their patients calm depression and anxiety with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs. Many studies suggest group learning makes starting a meditation practice easier and more fun. The University of Massachusetts Medical School, which has been offering a MBSR program since 1979, also offers online courses.
Use google to check for local options. Meditation workshops and classes are everywhere. Yoga studios, fitness and community centers, and health food stores are just of the few of the venues where people are learning to be more mindful.
Try guided meditation at home. Many YouTube videos and apps introduce the basics—and more—of mindfulness meditation. Headspace, for example, offers progressive sessions and themed instruction for specific issues such as sleep, as well as bite-sized meditations for busy schedules. Check out our list of our favorite free and paid meditation resources on our website.
By Emily Delzell