News & Perspectives

Bringing the Best of the East to the West

Stanford University Complementary Medicine Clinic

It's a peculiar sight: A line of people milling slowly through the halls of Stanford's hospital, completely silent, absorbed in thought, seemingly unaware of the hurried bustle around them. It's not a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Rather, it's part of a new program at the Stanford Complementary Medicine Clinic that brings meditation and other alternative health techniques to the high-tech medical center.

Meditation as medication
The group is part of a meditation class led by Dr. Mark Abramson, a dentist from nearby Redwood City, California, who specializes in pain management. The technique he uses is called mindfulness and is based on the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, as well as on ancient Buddhist practices. Through workshops and tapes, participants learn stress-reducing exercises that help restore a sense of balance and control. The sessions are proving increasingly popular with medical staff and patients alike.

A central aim of mindfulness is to bring people into the present moment, so that they no longer fret needlessly about past or future events. A typical exercise: Focus on breathing. Sit or lie quietly in a room, eyes closed, and feel your breath moving in and out. Thoughts may wander, but return them to the simple act of breathing. Try this for ten minutes a day. "We breathe all the time, but we're usually on automatic pilot and don't take the time to be aware," says Dr. Abramson. The patients who are initially most skeptical, he says, are often those who get the most out of it.

Mindfulness can aid not just the stressed-out "walking wounded" but also those coping with chronic pain or illness. In a study last year, psoriasis sufferers who listened to mindfulness tapes during treatment for skin flare-ups healed more quickly than those who didn't (Psychosomatic Medicine, Sept./Oct., 1998). And other forms of meditation have proved useful for treating everything from heart disease to depression.

Mind-body healing
Patients at Stanford may also be referred for yoga, acupuncture, and tai chi (which, like meditation, are all based on Eastern healing arts), as well as massage, biofeedback, and other therapies. "We aim to help people with serious medical illness cope better with that illness, using a variety of complementary therapies that have been shown to be effective," says David Spiegel, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the clinic's medical director.

Dr. Spiegel is himself a pioneer in mind-body medicine. In a landmark 10-year study of women with terminal breast cancer, he discovered that women who attended support groups in addition to undergoing chemotherapy lived an average of 18 months longer than those who received chemotherapy alone. He teaches patients self-hypnosis techniques that can lessen pain and anxiety or reduce treatment side effects, such as nausea.

Emerging Research
Other studies also support the importance of "mind over illness." Cancer patients who face their fears, vent negative thoughts, and show a fighting spirit, for example, tend to do better than those who maintain a relentlessly upbeat attitude.

Even writing about past traumas seems to be good for you. In one study, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers were asked to write about "the most stressful experience in their life" for 20 minutes on three consecutive days. At a four-month follow-up, those who had written about their traumas fared better than those who merely jotted down a list of things to do that day (Journal of the American Medical Association, 4/14/99).

Building on the promising results to date, researchers at Stanford are studying the effects of group support on disease progression in patients with HIV and cancer; the anxiety-diminishing effects of meditation on people waiting for organ transplants; and patient responses to acupuncture, massage, and other interventions. Today, cancer patients routinely attend classes in exercise and nutrition; that wasn't the case 10 years ago. In the years ahead, additional alternative techniques will likely move into the mainstream as knowledge of them advances.

For more information:
Stanford Complementary Medicine Clinic, 1101 Welch Road, Building A, Suite 6, Palo Alto, CA; (650) 498-5566.

Further reading & listening:
Two classic books on mindfulness are Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living (Delta, 1990) and Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam, 1992). Helpful audiotapes include Belleruth Naparstek's Health Journeys series, targeted at specific conditions, such as pain, stress, stroke, and headaches.

Date Published: 04/19/2001
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