The Psychology of Meditation and Health Recovery

by Shanti Shanti Kaur Khalsa, Ph.D.

Ruby was an energetic career track executive with a television production company when she was diagnosed with colon cancer at age thirty-four. “Who gets colon cancer at my age? I was devastated.

No one I knew had faced anything like this and many of my friends and family members were more afraid of my being ill than I was. In my field you’re not supposed to get sick.

Looking good is as important as working hard. I was terrified of losing my job or not getting promoted if anyone at work found out.

There were few people I could confide in. I felt so alone and helpless. I attended a meditation class for people with cancer out of sheer desperation.”

Receiving a diagnosis of a chronic or life-threatening illness is one of life’s biggest shocks. Such news stops us right in our tracks and jolts us from the automatic pilot we most often operate from.

Time itself takes on a whole new meaning.

Even with the best medical care, people with illness find they struggle with depression, despair, fear, anxiety, anger, confusion about treatment decisions, and uncertainty about the future.

In addition, clients and their family members tell me that often it seems that the treatment is as destablizing to them as the illness itself.

Practice of Meditation

Meditation practice has long been known to address the emotional aspects of being human, to improve physical health and well being in people with cancer, heart disease and pain patients, to tap our inner strengths, and help us find meaning in our lives.

It makes sense that people with illness find it helpful during medical treatment and recovery.

Ruby continues, “Meditation practice gave me more than the relief from anxiety that I had sought. It awakened in me the understanding that there is something more to be healthy for than just my career.
The cancer diagnosis gave me a kick in the behind, yet it was the meditation practice that woke me up to the true value of my life. I could have just gone through the treatment protocol and removed the cancer.

If I had done only that, then I would still be anxious and depressed and driven to keep measuring my self worth by my career advancements. Instead, practicing meditation unlocked my real gifts, gave me the vitality to create a new future, and helped me garner the inner support to sustain it. It opened in me a deep desire to change how I had been living my life.”

As early as 1964, UCLA researcher Dr. George Solomon found evidence that emotions play an important role in physical disease associated with the immune system. The term psychoneuroimmunology, coined by Dr. Solomon, refers to the psychological influences of experience, stress, emotions, beliefs, traits, and coping on immune function and on the onset and course of a wide variety of diseases.

The relationship between health, psychology, and meditation practice has been of increasing interest among medical researchers over the past forty years and as a result there is in progress a shift in the perspective on the role of meditation practice and health recovery.

Evidence suggests that the health and well being of individuals affected by HIV are not solely dependent on the achievements of the biomedical approach. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Doctors George Solomon and Lydia Temoshok found that long term survivors of AIDS had certain psychological traits in common, including what health psychologists call “self-efficacy”, the belief that what you do makes a difference. Later, Dr. Robert Ramien from Columbia University in New York found that long term non-progressors–people living with HIV infection but not showing symptoms–had strong self efficacy profiles. Other researchers have shown that self-efficacy plays a pivotal role in the enhancement of the immune system, in health behavior, and in quality of life in cancer patients.

The good news? The practice of meditation improves self-efficacy. Clinically I have seen evidence of this in hundreds of clients with a variety of medical conditions, and have conducted a study demonstrating meditation practice improves self-efficacy in people living with HIV.

Film maker Carolyn Speranza had been struggling with stress related health problems for years before she started to practice meditation. She found that as her anxiety lessened, her self-efficacy strengthened, and her health improved. Encouraged by her own experiences, she made a film about the effects of meditation called Sight of Stillness which asks the question of meditators, “What do you see when you close your eyes?” For the premier screening of the film she hosted a meditation symposium at the Carnege Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and invited me to share with participants what people with illness see when they meditate. I asked a dozen or more clients how meditation has helped them in recovering from illness and they replied that it gave them….

Hope for a return to health.

A sense of what is possible, from this, I can explore what is available to me.

Connection, support. I know and feel that I am not alone in this.

Peacefulness, freedom from worry or uncertainty about the future.

Joy to be alive right now.

Calm, to just be in the present moment.

Clarity to make decisions.

Confidence to carry them out.

Energy to enjoy life.

Self-efficacy to take action. I believe in myself now.

Self-trust to be comfortable in the face of uncertainty.

Inner guidance to know what is my path.

Sacredness to meet life and death with joy and peace.

What do I see when I close my eyes to meditate? My future.