Can meditation improve my mental health?

Benson Kung, Prairie Health

A version of this article was originally posted on the Prairie Health blog.

Meditation is skyrocketing in popularity [1]. Given the number of uses of meditation, this trend makes sense. People meditate for personal development, stress management, and relaxation [2]. And more than ever, people are also meditating for their mental health.

It’s important to note that the Federal Drug Administration has not reviewed meditation as a psychiatric treatment. It’s better to view meditation as a complement to your mental healthcare, not a replacement.

That said, there is an emerging body of clinical evidence that shows that meditation is effective [3]. For this article, we’ll talk about what meditation is and why we should consider meditating.

What is meditation?

Meditation generally refers to a mental exercise that involves focus. However, there are many different types of meditation. We’ll be focusing on mindfulness meditation, which is backed by the best clinical evidence relative to other types [4]. (The clinical studies referenced in this article all refer to mindfulness meditation.)

Mindfulness is characterized by paying attention to the present. For example, one way to be mindful is by focusing on how you currently feel, instead of lingering on how you felt in the past.

The goal of mindfulness meditation is to build this attention. To practice a basic exercise, you can read this article published by Mindful, a non-profit organization. (Mindful is advised in part by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., who was one of the first to incorporate mindfulness meditation into clinical practice.)

Why should I meditate?

A number of different studies have explored the benefits of meditation. Some potential benefits include improvements in memory [5], focus [6], and pain relief [7]. Several clinical analyses have also shown that meditation is effective in improving mental health outcomes. Two separate analyses have validated meditation’s ability to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety [4][8]. Another analysis validated its ability to reduce stress [9].

Meditation also has been shown to prevent relapses in depression [10], especially for people that have experienced multiple episodes. For some people, it can be as effective as medication in preventing relapses.

These benefits are moderate—meditation is not the be-all end-all for mental health care. However, it could be a viable alternative for patients who do not want to see a therapist or take medications. And it’s not either-or; meditating can be a great addition to your mental health care routine.

Meditation has already influenced clinical practice. For example, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a type of talk therapy, incorporates practices related to meditation.

All that being said, just like other treatments, meditation may not be for everyone. One study reported that some meditators had at least one unpleasant experience while meditating, such as increased anxiety [11].

How can I start meditating?

Ultimately, there is no single “right” way to meditate. However, one easy way to start is by using apps, which frequently offer guided meditations. Another option is to incorporate small meditation practices into your daily life. To learn more, see some suggestions by the Mayo Clinic and Stanford Medicine.

Whatever you choose, we hope that you find a meditation practice that works for you.

References

  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2018). National Health Interview Survey 2017. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017
  2. Sedlmeier & Theumer. (2020). Why Do People Begin to Meditate and Why Do They Continue?. Mindfulness 11, pp. 1527–1545. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-020-01367-w#Sec9
  3. Smith et al. (2018). 10 Things We Know About the Science of Meditation. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/10-things-we-know-about-the-science-of-meditation/
  4. Goyal et al. (2013). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine 174(3), pp. 357-368. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1809754
  5. Jha et al. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion 10(1), pp. 54-64. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2010-01983-011
  6. Moore & Malinowski. (2008). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition 18(1), pp. 176-186. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810008001967
  7. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016). Meditation: In Depth. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth
  8. Hofmann et al. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 78(2), pp. 169–183. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0018555
  9. Chiesa & Serretti. (2009). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Stress Management in Healthy People: A Review and Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 15(5). Retrieved from https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2008.0495
  10. Piet & Hougaard. (2011). The effect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for prevention of relapse in recurrent major depressive disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review 31(6), pp. 1032-1040. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735811000973
  11. Schlosser et al. (2019). Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PLoS ONE 14(5). Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0216643