Using Meditation to Help People with Aphasia

 6 min read

Close your eyes. Breathe in deeply. Exhale slowly. Focus on your breath. Open your eyes. Congratulations, you’ve just meditated!

Effects of meditation

Relaxation training is any technique or task that helps calm a person, including meditation. Some evidence shows relaxation training may help improve dysarthria caused by Parkinson’s, cognitive deficits caused by multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury, and memory issues due to Alzheimer’s disease when paired with more traditional treatments.

Research over the last few decades has examined effects of meditation on mental and physical health. The National Institutes of Health report it can reduce stress and insomnia, decrease depression and anxiety, and even help relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. It also lowers blood pressure, a key factor in stroke prevention.

So, it may not be surprising to hear that Harvard researchers have found meditation can actually change the brain. After just eight weeks in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, people experienced volume changes in different regions of the brain, including thickening of the posterior cingulate (linked to attention and memory), hippocampus (helps cognition, memory, learning, and emotional regulation), temporoparietal junction (involved in perspective taking and empathy), and the pons (houses production of regulatory transmitters). On the other hand, the amygdala, which hosts the fight or flight response system, got smaller after eight weeks of meditation – indicating decreased stress levels.

Meditation for aphasia: language and cognitive gains

What about using meditation for aphasia specifically? While only a limited number of studies have looked at meditation for aphasia patients, current research is promising.

One recent case study showed mindfulness meditation in a person with aphasia resulted in physiological changes (e.g., heart rate), language gains (word productivity, phrase length, word generation), decreased impulsivity, and increased attention. Moreover, mindfulness meditation for aphasia patients may benefit reaction time and task completion. It has also resulted in gains in confrontation naming tasks and reduced anxiety.

Another case study that used relaxation training via progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery resulted in spoken language gains in a patient with moderate chronic nonfluent aphasia. Other researchers found that unilateral forced nostril breathing, a technique used in some types of yoga, may help with language production and functional communication in people with aphasia.

Some speech-language pathologists have advocated mindfulness-based stress reduction for their patients with aphasia to increase language production as well as attention, a cognitive skill needed to improve auditory comprehension.

Meditation for aphasia: improved mental health

Even without the potential language benefits, meditation for aphasia patients can help support increased attention and relaxation, while lowering depression and anxiety. According to the American Stroke Association, at least one-third of people suffer from depression after a stroke, and anxiety affects about 20% of stroke survivors.

Of course, it can be difficult to determine whether or not anxiety and depression are present in individuals who have trouble communicating. In fact, anxiety often goes undetected in the aphasia population. This means it is crucial for caregivers and therapists to diligently monitor for signs of distress in patients with aphasia and actively work to alleviate these issues, which can affect communication.

Learn more about the under-recognized connection between aphasia and depression.

Meditation for aphasia therapy

The potential for using meditation for aphasia therapy is great. Meditation is readily available to anyone willing to learn about it. It’s also free or low-cost, safe, and easy to implement.

So how do you or a loved one with aphasia get started? There are many ways to meditate, so there’s no one “right” way. It only takes a few minutes a day to begin. Here are some tools that can help:

1) Try an app

There are many free and paid apps that offer guided meditation routines. Some user favorites are:

  • Headspace (Free with in-app subscription) – Choose themed meditations for specific topics or get into a daily habit. The clean, simple platform offers non-busy visuals with guided instruction (from calming voices, of course). It offers quick (one to three minute) guides or “minis” that walk users through body scanning, breathing, focusing, and more. Also on Google Play for Android.
  • Calm (Free with in-app subscription) – Pick a visual. Pick a song. Get started. Or pick a pre-sorted routine (e.g. seven days of happiness, 21 days of calm, breaking habits, emergency calm). Meditations come with words on the screen instructing users when to breathe in, hold, and exhale. Also on Google Play for Android.
  • Simple Habit (Free with in-app subscription) – Select five-minute meditations with a focus on your specific goals (e.g., finding happiness, reducing stress, improving relationships, sleeping better). Use pre-designed daily programs to help you get into a routine or select based on what you’re doing.  It also allows meditation with friends by using contacts and engaging in “challenges” that help users stick to their meditation routine. Also on Google Play for Android.
  • Buddhify ($4.99 USD) – Select what’s happening in your life, what you want to achieve, and a guided meditation will play to address your need. The one-time purchase makes this app perfect for those who only meditate periodically or who don’t want to be tied to a subscription. Also on Google Play for Android.
  • Breathing Zone ($3.99 USD) – This app detects your breathing rate and figures out what your rate should actually be. After setting a target rate, the user simply watches the animated breathing guide and adjusts their breathing to its rate. This biofeedback tool encourages self-monitoring and provides a quick assist in slowing down your breath. The nearly language-free interface relies on sound and visuals, making this a very aphasia-friendly app. Check out this video demo to see how it works. Also on Google Play for Android.

Many meditation apps offer features allowing automatic reminders on your phone when it’s time to meditate throughout the week.

Be sure to add some speech therapy apps to that device for even greater improvement! Use the Tactus Therapy App Finder to see which apps are right for you at this stage in your recovery.

2) Use online meditations for aphasia therapy

The University of California, Los Angeles has free and fast meditations available for download in English and Spanish, ranging from three to 19 minutes.

Psychologist and meditation expert Tara Brach offers a multitude of free meditation options on iTunesYouTube, and her website.

The New York Times offers interactive “meditation journeys” on their website (or available as an app on Apple and Google devices). If ocean, forest, or sunset videos sound calming to you – they’ve got you covered.

3) Join a meditation group (or start your own)

Finally, if an app or website isn’t going to cut it for you, join a group in your area or start your own meditation for aphasia group. If you join a class, it may help to also supplement with at-home practice using your own meditation routines. Surf the Internet for soothing stimuli – whether it’s the sound of crashing waves or the sight of a breezy meadow – or use closed eyes and silence to hone your focus.

If you struggle with stroke recovery that only focuses on your physical health, you’ll love the book Healing the Broken Brain: Leading Experts Answer 100 Questions About Stroke Recovery. It looks at the impact of stroke on your whole life and shows you how to keep recovery going.

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Stephanie Westendorf, MS, CCC-SLP, works at a pediatric clinic in Central Florida & through teletherapy.  She is a graduate of the University of Redlands and has worked with people with aphasia at the Truesdail Center for Communicative Disorders & Lee Health Rehabilitation Hospital.  Stephanie has a background in AAC.