Heartfulness Meditation Shown to Reduce Anxiety in Healthcare Students
Research by Drs. Robyn Gisbert and Margaret Schenkman shows promising resultsApr 11, 2023
Heartfulness meditation is a form of meditation that is free and accessible to all, and helps its practitioners connect with the universality of human existence as well as what is natural and healthy for us as individuals. This heightened awareness creates a flow state with the world. We go from focusing on me and mine, to focusing on friends and community, understanding community in a larger sense and our place in something much bigger than any of us. Often, people focus too much on themselves and their own experiences; they take things personally, and that personalization can create internal stress. People may view themselves in competition with others, especially in academia. When people expand their awareness a bit, they begin to see people around them as having a different point of view, but it doesn’t have to divide us. As they go further in understanding, they recognize a whole world point of view that is different from the subjective. For example, two people raised in different countries will have a different lens of the world. Two people raised in the same country, but of different racial or ethnic heritages will also have a different lens, even if they were brought up in the same location. Through Heartfulness Meditation, we begin to remove those subjective lenses and start to see our own interconnectedness and all the ways in which we are in fact the same beings.
Dr. Robyn Gisbert, assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado, and Dr. Margaret Schenkman, professor emerita at the University of Colorado, have advocated for this form of expanded consciousness for many years. Throughout the last 17 years, they have been concerned about student well-being. Current students in graduate-level programs show anxiety and stress levels that are much higher than the general population. They began to hypothesize that students who engaged in Heartfulness Meditation would have reduced levels of both anxiety and depression and increased resilience.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, they began to recruit 47 students from a variety of programs at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus including the Physical Therapy and CHA/PA Programs, as well as current MD and graduate students, to test this hypothesis with a mixed method (qualitative and quantitative) 90-day study. This cohort of students was divided into a randomized control group and a group that practiced heartful meditation virtually with a certified trainer. These eighteen certified trainers were located across the globe, with the majority located within the United States. After the study was completed, the students in the control group were offered the opportunity to participate in 90 days of heartful meditation, to thank them for their participation and provide them with the benefits of the practice.
Drs. Gisbert and Schenkman had several aims for this study. First was to determine feasibility and acceptability of the study. Second, was to examine how resilience, anxiety, and depression changed over the course of the 90-day program; and third, to examine the relationship between the amount of meditation to changes in resilience, anxiety, and depression scores. To answer these questions, they compared those who meditated immediately to those who waited 90 days before meditating. They looked at these changes at 45 days and 90 days. For this study, Drs. Gisbert and Schenkman utilized a validated tool known as the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS), to measure student levels of anxiety, stress, depression, and resiliency. In addition, they examined data from all students who meditated, including those who waited because they were randomized to the control group. This is what they learned:
Overall, participants in the study had anxiety scores that were high enough to be of concern. After 45 days, the meditating group was significantly and substantially improved compared to the group that waited to meditate. At 90 days, their anxiety was even more improved. The improvements moved the meditating students to an acceptable level of anxiety.
Second, even the depression scores improved for those who meditated. The participants had very low (good) depression to begin with, so the change (though statistically significant) was not very meaningful from a real-life perspective.
Third, the scores for resilience did not show statistical improvement for the students who meditated compared with the control students, although they were moving in the right direction. The number of participants was insufficient to detect significant change. This issue should be studied in a larger group of students.
Fourth, with respect to feasibility of the study, the findings were mixed. About 81.25% of the participants stayed in the study for the whole 90 days. That’s a very high retention rate. And of those who stayed in the study, the meditators completed about 81.2% of 13 one-on-one sessions with the trainers which met the expectation. In contrast, it turned out that the participants had difficulty completing the expected number of Zoom group meditation sessions and completing their individual daily practice. Drs. Gisbert and Schenkman are still working on those data. They will be looking at how the changes in resilience, depression, and anxiety relate to how many sessions the participants completed. They are working on the manuscript for publication.
In addition, Dr. Gisbert interviewed the participants at 45 days and 90 days to find out what they liked and did not like about the study and to learn whether they found the study made useful changes for them. Together, Schenkman and Gisbert are working with faculty resident Dr. Carissa Wengrovius to analyze the qualitative portion of the study. Participants were asked why they are meditating, what they hope to change personally and academically, and any impacts they felt about their abilities and mood. They believe these interviews will add breadth to the study. They plan to publish this research once they have pieced together the qualitative portion of the study. One thing the students consistently reported was their appreciation for the one-on-one meditations that trainers provided.
In addition, Dr. Schenkman is working on an epigenetic study, in partnership with Dr. Shrikant Mane, Director of the Genetics Laboratory at Yale University, where they are studying four generations across twenty families near Hyderabad, India to understand the genetic impact and lived benefits of meditation.