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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sitting alone

Loneliness hurts -- not just psychologically.  Elders who report feeling lonely have an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and depression.


Researchers at UCLA say that an eight-week mindfulness meditation program reduced not only feelings of loneliness in older adults but also significantly reduced expression of inflammatory genes.

Science Daily reports that in the current online edition of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, senior study author Steve Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry and a member of the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, and colleagues report that the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program reduced the feelings of loneliness among study participants. (MBSR is a secular meditation program developed by Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn.**)

For more on how the study was done, read the Science Daily article here. For an article with fewer technical details, read this CNN piece.

This is one of those things that just make sense to me. Loneliness is stressful. Stress puts your body on alert. Alertness means tense muscles, internal chemistry going into overdrive. It's bound to have physical consequences.

It also makes sense to me that mindfulness meditation eases feelings of loneliness, even if you're sitting alone in your room doing it. Being alone is not a problem in the moment. It's all the thoughts that go along with it ... Why am I alone? Nobody loves me. They're not answering my calls because they know it's me. I have always been alone. I will always be alone. (John Welwood describes this as "the mood of unlove -- a deep-seated suspicion most of us harbor within ourselves that we cannot be loved, that we are not truly lovable for who we are.")

If you stay in the moment and don't board that train of thought, you avoid the stress. What's more, you can notice what's right about the moment -- the light, the sounds, the temperature, the sheer joy of being able to breathe.

Calm your mind and calm your body.

The benefits may not be tied only to mindfulness. The Science Daily article also notes that Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and a Cousins Center member, published a study showing that a form of yogic meditation involving chanting also reduced inflammatory gene expression, as well as stress levels, among individuals who care for patients with Alzheimer's disease.