Meditation And Mental Health

Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress

My mom began meditating decades ago, long before the mind-calming practice had entered the wider public consciousness. She liked to quote sayings from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk known for his practice of mindful meditation, or “present-focused awareness.”

Although meditation still isn’t exactly mainstream, many people practice it, hoping to stave off stress and stress-related health problems. Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has become more popular in recent years. The practice of mindful meditation involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. (Or, as my mom would say, “Don’t rehearse tragedies. Don’t borrow trouble.”)

But, as is true for a number of other alternative therapies, much of the evidence to support meditation’s effectiveness in promoting mental or physical health isn’t quite up to snuff. Why? First, many studies don’t include a good control treatment to compare with mindful meditation. Second, the people most likely to volunteer for a meditation study are often already sold on meditation’s benefits and so are more likely to report positive effects.

But when researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD sifted through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, they found 47 trials that addressed those issues and met their criteria for well-designed studies. Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.”

“If you have unproductive worries,” says Dr. Hoge, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently. “You might think ‘I’m late, I might lose my job if I don’t get there on time, and it will be a disaster!’ Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that—a thought, and not a part of my core self,’” says Dr. Hoge.

One of her studies (which was included in the JAMA Internal Medicine review) found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability. People in the control group—who also improved, but not as much as those in the meditation group—were taught general stress management techniques. All the participants received similar amounts of time, attention, and group interaction.

To get a sense of mindfulness meditation, you can try one of the guided recordings by Dr. Ronald Siege, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. They are available for free at

Some people find that learning mindfulness meditation techniques and practicing them with a group is especially helpful, says Dr. Hoge. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training, developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA, is now widely available in cities throughout the United States.

Thich Nhat Hahn offers this short mindful meditation in his book Being Peace: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

How Meditation Can Improve Your Mental Health

Meditation is the practice of thinking deeply or focusing one’s mind for a period of time. While there are many forms of meditation, the ultimate goal is a feeling of relaxation and inner peace, which can improve mental health. And there’s a growing body of research to support that.

In a review published in March 2014 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers reviewed more than 18,000 scientific studies looking at the relationship between meditation and depression and anxiety. Forty-seven trials with data on 3,515 patients met their criteria for well-designed research. The results showed that mindful meditation programs over an eight-week period had moderate evidence in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Another study, published in April 2018 in the journal Psychiatry Review, found that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder who participated in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program had a greater reduction in stress markers than a control group.

If you are interested in mindful-based therapy, speak to your physician about incorporating it into your treatment plan. If you are on antidepressants, it is important not to go off them without speaking to your healthcare provider first.

Bust stress, boost resilience, and improve your well-being by following these expert tips.

Meditation and Regulating Negative Emotions

There’s some research to suggest practicing meditation can help with managing negative emotions, such as anger and fear.

A small study published in February 2016 in the journal Consciousness and Cognition suggested that meditation may help people cope with anger. (3) Furthermore, improvements were seen with just one session of meditation.

For the study, researchers examined 15 people who were new to meditation and 12 who were experienced practitioners. The participants were asked to relive experiences that made them angry. Those who had never practiced meditation before experienced an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, while those with experience in the practice did not have much of a physical reaction to the exercise.

As a second part of the experiment, those who had never meditated before did so for 20 minutes. When asked to relive the anger-inducing episode once more, they had much less of a physical response.

Another small study, published in September 2016 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that meditation helped people manage negative emotions. For the experiment, one group of participants listened to guided meditation while another control group listened to a language-learning presentation. After these sessions, the subjects were shown photos of disturbing scenes, such as a bloody corpse. The researchers recorded their brain activity and found that those who participated in the meditation session had a quicker recovery in the emotional response in their brains after seeing the photos, suggesting meditation helped them manage their negative emotions.

Finally, preliminary research suggests meditation can help lower cancer survivors’ fear of the disease returning. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 60 percent of one-year cancer survivors report moderate to severe concerns about their disease coming back. The fear can be so distressing that it negatively affects mood, relationships, work, medical follow-ups, and overall quality of life.

A study of 222 cancer survivors presented on June 2, 2017 at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (AS-CO) found that fear of cancer recurrence was reduced significantly in patients who had undergone meditation intervention sessions, in which they were taught strategies to control their worry and where they place their attention, as well as helping them focus on what they want to get out of life.

How Meditation Can Help You Handle Stress

In today’s modern world, stress seems to be a normal part of everyday life. But a number of adverse health effects have been associated with stress, including an increased risk of headaches, muscle pain or tension, fatigue, changes in sex drive, gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety, and sleep difficulty. Uncontrollable stress can also increase the risk of chronic health problems, like heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.

According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 8 in 10 Americans report being frequently stressed or sometimes stressed in their daily lives. In contrast, 17 percent say they rarely feel stressed and 4 percent say they never do.

Managing stress is important for overall health. One way to do this is to practice meditation.

A study published in April 2018 in the journal Psychiatry Research found that patients with generalized anxiety disorder who took a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, where they learned several different strategies to manage stress, had lower stress-related hormonal and inflammatory levels than people who did not practice mindfulness.

Furthermore, research suggests even brief meditation sessions can make a difference in managing stress — and it can begin to help rather quickly. A study published in June 2014 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology studied a group of people divided into two groups: one that participated in three consecutive days of 25-minute mindful meditation training sessions, and another that was taught to analyze poetry as a method to improve critical thinking skills.

At the end of the training session, all the participants were faced with the stressful tasks of completing speech and math tests in front of “stern-faced evaluators.” Those who had undergone the mindfulness training sessions reported feeling less stress than the poetry group.

The many benefits of meditation

When we sit to meditate, we are looking after ourselves in ways that might not at first seem obvious. The benefits of meditation are numerous and varied, and supported by science. Many people start meditating to manage stress, reduce anxiety, and to cultivate peace of mind. But there are thousands of studies documenting other less-known mindfulness meditation benefits, which can have a positive impact on mental, physical, and emotional health. Read on to find out more about the many health benefits of meditation you may experience when you establish a practice and repeat it consistently.Try for free

Most people are likely familiar with the positive side effects of meditation associated with mental health: increased awareness, clarity, compassion, and a sense of calm. Improved focus is another benefit commonly associated with meditation. In fact, one study showed that 4 weeks of using the Headspace app can increase focus by 14%, while another showed that just a single session cuts mind-wandering by 22%.

But there are even more ways meditation can benefit the mind. In a study that did not use the Headspace app, researchers from John Hopkins University found general meditation programs helped ease psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain related to stress. A published study conducted at Google and Roche, in which employees used Headspace for 8 weeks, had similar results: participants reported a 46% reduction in depression and a 31% reduction in anxiety.

That’s not all: Another study showed that 30 days of Headspace resulted in an 11% increase in mental resilience. What’s more, people who used the Headspace app for just 10 days experienced a 7.5% increase in satisfaction with life. It’s clear that regularly setting aside a few minutes — even one minute — to let go, breathe, and recharge, can go a long way to improve health.

To appreciate the profound physical benefits of meditation, it’s important to understand how chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body.

Stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, causing a surge of natural stress hormones (think: epinephrine and cortisol) in the bloodstream, which can negatively affect the body. For example, too much epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes; too much cortisol can increase blood sugar levels, suppress the immune system, and constrict blood vessels. Eventually, chronic spikes in stress hormones can lead to an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels, disrupting immunity, energy levels, and sleep.

When the body and mind are relaxed, however — whether through meditation practice or other techniques — the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, causing the body to stop releasing stress hormones. Many people who meditate regularly have learned to condition their body to relax on demand, and, according to research, can more effectively manage stress. According to research from the University of California, Davis, people who used generalized meditations programs (not specifically Headspace) have lower levels of cortisol. A 2018 study found that medical students who used Headspace for just 10 days had a 12% decrease in stress; and a separate study found that people who used Headspace for 30 days reduced stress by a third.

Why is stress reduction so important? It lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption, which results in higher energy levels and better immunity and sleep. Plus, stress reduction is key for diminishing the physical symptoms of many health conditions.

Take inflammation, for example, which is linked to stroke, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other serious diseases. According to a Harvard study, meditation not only can dampen the genes involved in the inflammatory response, but also promotes the genes associated with DNA stability.

How might meditation promote wellness and healing from psychiatric illness? How might it contribute to the practice of psychiatry? This review of the literature attempts to answer these questions. Meditation is the consciously willed practice of two actions, attending and abstaining, that all people spontaneously perform to a greater or lesser degree. Psychological health may correlate in part with the degree to which we naturally perform these actions. This review analyzes the nature of meditation and its therapeutic benefits. It then concludes with a summary of the issues pertinent to the adjudicative use of meditation in psychiatric care.Keywords: med


Meditation-which come in many variations-has long been acknowledged as a tool to master the mind and cope with stress.

Meditation-which come in many variations-has long been acknowledged as a tool to master the mind and cope with stress. Science is increasingly validating those claims, especially for depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Over 600 research studies on one form of meditation, Transcendental Meditation, indicate the positive effects of this stress reducing technique.

Yoga and meditation are described separately, but it should be recognized that meditation is an integral part of yoga and difficult to separate out.

Mental Health Implications

Meditation is especially beneficial for reducing stress. Studies show it can also reduce depression and anxiety, and help people manage chronic pain.

This brief summary highlights the material covered in our full analysis on meditation, available here.

Side Effects

Meditation can be difficult for people with anxiety or stress.


Breathing and relaxation are good for almost everyone. Meditation can benefit people who have mental health conditions, as well as those who do not.

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