Soon after Heidi Nass was diagnosed with HIV in 1996, she began practicing meditation. “A bout of depression taught me that the brain can be both friend and foe,” she says. Her job directing education, outreach and advocacy for the University of Wisconsin’s HIV/AIDS program in Madison keeps her busy, but she still finds time to meditate. “It makes me feel blessed,” she says. It also makes her feel healthier, and one new study may suggest why.
Past research has shown that meditation can decrease blood pressure, relieve anxiety and depression, and improve immune function. Now, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) say their small study suggests that mindfulness meditation (one type of meditation) may slow CD4 cell loss in people with HIV.
The researchers aren’t sure how meditation does this, but they have some ideas. “We know that people who are stressed seem to have accelerated declines in immune system function,” says David Creswell, PhD, lead author of the study, “so meditation’s ability to alleviate stress could improve the body’s ability to produce CD4 cells.”
Designing a rigorous study of any behavior is notoriously difficult, and this one has its doubters. But it is beyond doubt that people with HIV have been benefiting from meditation for years. As Claudia Medina of Toronto wrote to POZ, “I’ve been HIV positive for 15 years. Of course I meditate!”
Meditation can provide a sense of control over your well-being. In life with HIV, where it can be hard to feel in control, meditation can complement your meds—and it needn’t cost a thing.
If you don’t see yourself sitting cross-legged in a dark room chanting and burning incense, don’t fret. Meditation takes many forms, so it’s likely you can find one that suits you. But first, what exactly is it?
“Meditation involves focusing the mind’s energy,” says Robert Schmehr of the Integrative Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “Normally we focus outward,” he says, “but in meditation we learn to focus our awareness inward, finding new options for self-regulation.” Types of meditation include: