People who have multiple sclerosis (MS) deal with more than just physical problems—the disease also causes emotional and cognitive problems. Now, thanks to a new study, there may be an easy way for MS patients to improve both their mental and emotional health. Bonus: It costs nothing and is drug-free.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurodegenerative disease that damages the central nervous system. It affects nearly one million Americans, causing among other symptoms, unsteady gait, slurred speech, numbness, tingling, cognitive changes that make it take longer to understand and complete mental tasks and emotion dysregulation—difficulty managing negative emotions such as depression and anxiety. In fact, up to half of people with MS experience some type of psychiatric disorder.

In a small pilot study, researchers at The Ohio State University looked at whether people with MS would benefit from mindfulness meditation. This kind of meditation, which is known to help with depression and anxiety, focuses perception on awareness and acceptance of the present moment.

Study: Three groups of people with MS (61 total) received four weeks of either mindfulness meditation training…or adaptive cognitive training…or they were placed on a wait list and received no training (the control group). All participants had their cognitive impairment and self-reported emotional control evaluated before and after the four-week intervention.

  • Mindfulness training consisted of two hours of in-person training each week, plus 40-minutes of daily exercises to perform at home—such as breathing awareness, body scanning, sitting meditation and focusing on thoughts, emotions and sensations.
  • Adaptive cognitive training also included two hours weekly of in-person training plus 40-minutes of different daily exercises to perform at home—reading and video games focused on processing speed (time it takes to understand and react to information), attention, working memory (capacity for retaining information short-term in order to perform mental operations using the information) and executive function.

Results: At the end of four weeks, participants in the mindfulness meditation group were significantly better able to manage negative emotions than the participants of other two groups.

An additional analysis looked at processing speed and working memory. While working memory was unchanged for all three groups, the researchers were surprised to find that the meditation group showed significant improvement in processing speed—surpassing adaptive cognitive training, currently a common and considered effective therapy for MS-caused cognitive impairment.

Since this research involved only a small number of participants, the researchers are hoping to do a larger study to test their findings. Meanwhile, results of the current study are encouraging. Mindfulness meditation is easy to learn and practice—and shows potential to be an important tool to improve the quality of life for people with MS.

Source: Studies titled “Mindfulness training for emotion dysregulation in multiple sclerosis: A pilot randomized controlled trial,” published in Rehabilitation Psychology…and “Effects of 4-week mindfulness training versus adaptive cognitive training on processing speed and working memory in multiple sclerosis,” published in Neuropsychology, both by researchers at The Ohio State University, Columbus.