Mantras can help with stress reduction, new research shows.

Mantras, or mantrams, are a word or phrase with spiritual meaning, write Jill Bormann, PhD, RN, and colleagues in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

The researchers studied 30 veterans and 36 hospital workers at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, where Bormann is a research nurse scientist. In a five-week class, participants chose a mantra and learned to use it to manage stress.

The study shows that the majority of participants used their mantras to help them cope with a wide range of problems, including anxiety, stress from traffic and work, insomnia, and unwanted thoughts.

Researcher's Comments

"We found this to be a very valuable tool for people that they can use," Bormann tells WebMD.

"It's like a pause button for the mind."

Bormann stresses that while the technique "is actually a very ancient tradition that's been used in every spiritual practice," it's not just for religious people. "It's nonsectarian," Bormann says.

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"It's personal, portable, and invisible. It's immediately available, inexpensive, nonpharmacological, and nontoxic," she continues. Using mantras can be a "stress-reduction technique for our modern day and age, when people say they don't have time for stress-management techniques," Bormann says.

Choosing a Mantra

Bormann's team gave participants a list of suggested mantras that included major faith traditions. Participants were also free to choose a mantra without religious underpinnings.

Here are some of the mantras that were on the list:

Buddhism: Om mani padme hum

  • Hinduism: Rama rama (Mahatma Gandhi's mantra, Bormann says)
  • Judaism: Shalom (peace)
  • Islam: Allah
  • Native American tradition: O waken tanka (o great spirit)
  • Christianity: "Lord Jesus, have mercy on me," or "Hail Mary," or "maranatha" (a word from the ancient Aramaic language meaning "Lord of the heart")

"Sweet harmony" and "take it easy" were examples of mantras not tied to any particular tradition.

Spiritual Element

A few participants wanted to use mantras that didn't quite fit the goal.

"We had one guy who said he wanted to know why he couldn't choose 'cheeseburger,'" Bormann says. "When he eats cheeseburgers, it makes him happy. So he thought that if he walked around and said cheeseburger all day that would make him happy."

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Another man wanted to use the golf terms "greens and fairways" for similar reasons.

A word like cheeseburger keeps people on the surface level of consciousness, while a mantra has the potential to go deeper and tap inner spiritual resources, Bormann explains, adding that the cheeseburger fan switched to a different mantra.

Using the Mantra

Participants were instructed to repeat their mantra silently throughout the day or night. They could use the mantra during stressful moments or during calmer times.

"You could say your mantram once or twice, or you could say it for 20 minutes. Most people use it several times throughout the day," Bormann says.

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Bormann adapted the approach from the late spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran, who founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Tomales , Calif. Bormann says she's been to the Blue Mountain Center and has practiced the technique for 18 years.

"It helps me live in the present moment. It helps me slow down. I feel that I'm much more compassionate, and I have a better ability to concentrate on whatever it is I'm doing," Bormann says.

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"Sometimes, the biggest roadblock in people coming to this program, I think, is the word 'mantram,'" Bormann says. "And so, sometimes we call it a rapid-focus tool or we call it a comfort word, or for people who are particularly religious ... we say it's a prayer word."

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Bormann says her work makes the assumption that "human beings are spiritual beings."

"We believe that human beings have a mind, a body, and a spirit, whether we're aware of it or not," Bormann says. "We believe the way you can become aware of those inner spiritual resources is to quiet your mind and one way to do that is with a mantram."

Not Just Distraction

Bormann says the effect isn't just about distracting people from stress.

"If I walk around all day and am calling on a name of God or something that is the highest ideal of what I could become, that's very different than if I'm just trying to distract myself," Bormann says, adding that it can take time and practice for the technique to have an effect, which may be subtle.

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Bormann is also studying mantra use in a variety of other groups, including parents and caregivers for Alzheimer's patients.

She notes that her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the Veterans Affairs Research and Development Office.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Bormann, J. Journal of Advanced Nursing, March 2006; vol 53: pp 502-512. Jill Bormann, PhD, RN, research nurse scientist, Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System. News release, Journal of Advanced Nursing.