Experts urge full integration of stress reduction into care, research

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Researchers from the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and from UC Davis Health call for broader use of mind-body practices, according to a new perspective published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In a time when meditation, yoga, and mindfulness increase in popularity for general wellbeing, the piece emphasizes the necessity of fully integrating these stress-reduction practices into patient treatment plans and medical research.

Stress exacerbates anxiety and depression and plays a role in conditions such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches and chronic pain, according to lead author Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH, of the University of California, Davis Medical Center.

"By reducing the body's stress response, mind-body practices can be a powerful adjunct in medicine by helping to decrease patients' symptoms and improving their quality of life," said Dossett, a physician and researcher with BHI when the perspective was written, who also noted that mind-body practices can be helpful in reducing stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite its recent rise in popularity among the general public, mind-body medicine isn't new. Researchers at BHI have been integrating the field of mind-body medicine into MGH's clinical care, research, and training programs since 2006.

Early research on the advantages of such techniques dates back 40 or more years, when the institute's founder and perspective senior author, Herbert Benson, MD, became one of the first Western physicians to bring spirituality and healing into medicine and is most famously known for his work with the Relaxation Response. The Relaxation Response is an inborn, anti-stress capacity that transcends the differences that separate mind from body, science from spirituality and one culture from another, according to Benson.

At BHI, mind-body medicine is widely recognized as the third leg of a three-legged stool: the first leg is surgery, the second is pharmaceuticals, and the third is self-care, in which patients learn techniques to improve their own health through mind-body medicine, nutrition, and exercise.

The article also addresses skeptical patients' preconceived notions of mind-body medicine as well as the anticipated barriers of service coverage and clinician education on the appropriate use of these tools. These challenges further reinforce the need for continued research and investment into the development and implementation of personalized practices to maximize their public health potential.