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TUESDAY, Dec. 20 (HealthDay News) -- A small study finds that mindfulness training, which teaches people to push away troublesome thoughts, helped improve well-being in people with rheumatoid arthritis and similar diseases.
"Yes, they still have pain, but they are able to manage their pain in more constructive ways," said study author Heidi Zangi, a graduate student at the National Resource Center for Rehabilitation in Rheumatology at Diakonhjemmet Hospital in Oslo.
Mindfulness training teaches people to "stay in the here and now," explained Stefan G. Hofmann, a professor of psychology at Boston University. "It keeps people in the present moment. The instructions are often to focus on breathing or present-moment awareness. As thoughts come into the mind, you just let them come and go without hanging on to them, without focusing on the future, without ruminating about the past."
Mindfulness isn't meditation, but the two are linked, Hofmann said, since "it's impossible to do meditation without doing mindfulness."
Zangi said there's only been limited research into how mindfulness affects people's abilities to cope with pain.
In the new study, researchers recruited 73 people aged 20 to 70 who suffered from inflammatory rheumatic joint diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Some participants took part in 10 group sessions, each 4.5 hours, that focused on teaching mindfulness; they got a booster session after six months. "Through exercises such as guided imagery, drawing, moving to music and use of poetry, participants are invited to process and express their emotions, releasing the energy that has been used to avoid or suppress them," Zangi said.
The other participants were given compact discs with training about mindfulness, but it was up to them to decide whether they would listen to them.
After a year, the researchers followed-up with 67 of the participants to see how they were doing.
The study, published in the Dec. 20 online edition of the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, found that those who took part in the in-person training reported better coping and overall well-being than the others.
Kendrin Sonneville, a clinical nutrition specialist at Children's Hospital, Boston, who's studying mindfulness and eating, said the study is strong. It adds to previous research that suggests mindfulness is most effective for mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and binge-eating disorder, plus pain syndromes and musculoskeletal diseases, Sonneville said.
Hofmann said one next step is to better understand how mindfulness takes people's minds off their pain. It might be a matter of distraction, he said, or general relaxation.
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