UMN researchers add meditation to recovery toolbox

Preliminary research looked to meditation strategies to help patients recover from heart attacks, heart surgeries and other cardiac events.

Emma Dill

University of Minnesota professors are looking to meditation as a tool for patients recovering from heart attacks or cardiac surgeries.

Though in its preliminary stages, the research found abnormally high participant retention rates. The participants, who were patients recovering from cardiac events, used stress-reduction strategies and meditation to recover.

The research, led by Prabhjot S. Nijjar, an assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine, and Susan Everson-Rose, Ph.D., an associate professor of internal medicine, used Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction — called MBSR — in the study. The MBSR meditation program is taught at the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

“We feel that one thing that is really lacking is a way to address stress … that comes as a result of undergoing such an event,” Nijjar said of recovering cardiac patients. “That’s some of the rationale for adding a stress-reduction program like meditation for these patients.”

Everson-Rose said this research was a pilot study, but the two researchers hope to perform a larger study with nearly 300 cardiac patients. The pair recently applied for a $3.6 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

The study divided 47 cardiac patients into two groups. The first group received standard care, and the second group received MBSR instruction in addition to standard care.

Throughout the study, researchers monitored heart rate variability along with each participant’s anxiety, depression and stress levels, sleep and quality of life.

Although the study involved eight weeks of “fairly intensive” MBSR training on top of each patient’s numerous doctor’s appointments, researchers recruited participants quickly, Nijjar said. 

He said participants also remained engaged throughout the nine months of research. The study’s retention rate was 95 percent, while the national average for participant retention is 50 percent.

A previous study by Kelvin Lim, a psychiatry professor at the University, suggests further benefits of meditation.

Lim led a study in 2014 examining meditation’s effect on veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In Lim’s study, he found MBSR users’ symptoms had improved more than those of the users participating in group therapy alone.

Both studies partnered with the Center for Spirituality and Healing. Although the center teaches various forms of meditation, researchers used MBSR for several reasons.

MBSR gives patients a range of stress reduction techniques, unlike other forms of meditation. Patients learn body scanning, walking and sitting meditation, yoga poses, stretching positions and lifestyle practices like mindful eating, Lim said.

MBSR is designed for all patients, Nijjar said. Even those with physical limitations can do it. The meditation techniques are also designed to fit into patients’ daily lives. 

“It’s not something that you have to go away for a couple of hours [to do],” Nijjar said. 

Though Everson-Rose said she was more cautious to draw conclusions about enhanced engagement, Lim and Nijjar said they see MBSR as a way to keep patients engaged in treatment and recovery. 

“The problem is not stress because you can’t eliminate stress. This issue is how we process the stress,” Lim said. “How we process the stress determines what impact it has on our health.”