Meditation is skyrocketing in popularity. In 2017, 14 percent of Americans said they meditated within the last year, compared to 4 percent just five years earlier.
Given the multiple benefits associated with meditation, this trend makes sense. People meditate for personal development, stress management, and relaxation. More than ever, people are also meditating for their mental health.
Before we delve deeper into meditation, it is important to note that the Federal Drug Administration has not reviewed meditation as a formal psychiatric treatment. This is to say that it is better to view meditation as a complement to your mental healthcare, not a substitute.
That being said, there is an emerging body of clinical evidence that shows that meditation is associated with many beneficial necessities including reducing anxiety and depression . For this article, we discuss what meditation is and how it can help.
What is Meditation?
Meditation generally refers to the mental practice of becoming an observer of your thoughts and feelings without needing to resist them, release them or react to them. It is simply being aware of them and allowing them and realizing that your thoughts and feelings do not control you. . However, there are many different types of meditation; we’ll be focusing on mindfulness meditation, which is backed by more compelling clinical evidence than other types. Just to make this article easier to read, we will simply refer to “mindfulness meditation” as “meditation”.
Mindfulness is characterized by taking note of what’s happening in the present including self awareness of your emotions, thoughts, impulses and habits that affect your mental well-being. 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.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to your five physical senses. The goal of 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 meditation into clinical practice.
Why Should We Meditate?
A number of different studies have explored the benefits of meditation. Some potential benefits include improvements in brain functioning, metabolism for weight loss, immune systems, attention span, sleep, cardiovascular health and overall happiness and appreciation for life.
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. Another analysis validated its ability to reduce stress. Meditation is also able to help prevent relapses in depression.
Meditation has been found to alter certain brain regions associated with depression and anxiety. One of these regions is called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) which has been shown to be hyperactive in depressed individuals. The mPFC is responsible for processing information about yourself including ruminating about the past and worrying about the future which are two common triggers for depression and anxiety, respectively.
Another brain region associated with depression and anxiety is the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for the “flight or fight” response. When this response is activated in response to fear and perceived threat, it triggers the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol. These two brain brains work off each other to trigger depression and anxiety. Research has found that meditation can help break the connection between these two brain regions and thus disrupting the self-perpetuating cycle once activated.
These benefits are moderate, which is to say that meditation is not the be-all end-all for mental healthcare. However, meditation is on par with other treatments like therapy, and could be a viable alternative for patients who do not want to see a therapist or take medications.
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.
Meditation has already influenced clinical practice. For example, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a type of talk therapy, incorporates practices related to meditation.
How Can We Start Meditating?
Ultimately, just like other mental health treatments, there is no “right” way to meditate. However, one easy way to start is by using apps, which frequently offer guided meditations. Two popular apps include Headspace and Calm. However, both require a subscription to have access to all of their services. For a free option, UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center recently released their content in an app.
Whatever you choose, we hope that you find a meditation practice that works for you.