Using Meditation for Anxiety and Stress

by Emma Thomas

Medical researchers spend much time and effort studying physical threats to the body’s health. Given the pervasiveness of problems like heart disease and cancer, this is certainly a worthwhile undertaking. Mental problems, however, also affect millions of Americans each and every year. While medications are typically used to treat anxiety and depression, the practice of meditation might also prove useful to those struggling with these conditions.

Focusing the Mind

Could meditation help alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms? Believe it or not, a new study argues that the answer could be “yes.” Authored by researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, this report examined the effects of meditation on 3,515 participants in 47 clinical trials. The research team studied how meditative techniques impacted symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, diabetes and cancer.

For this study, the authors focused on a practice known as mindfulness meditation. In short, this technique involves being cognizant of the thoughts that enter the mind without becoming overly focused on them. Based largely on Buddhist philosophy, the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to direct one’s focus on the present, without passing judgment on the thoughts that appear.

Meditative Techniques and Mental Health

After reviewing all of this data, the authors found that people with anxiety, depression and pain benefitted from mindfulness meditation. In most cases, these individuals practiced meditation techniques for an eight week period. When compared to subjects engaged in other activities, those who meditated enjoyed a five to ten percent reduction in anxiety symptoms.

Likewise, the study noted that depressed individuals exhibited a 10 to 20 percent improvement in symptoms after practicing mindfulness meditation.  Conversely, there was only low-quality evidence that meditation benefitted those struggling with stress. The researchers could not connect meditative techniques to improvements in attitude, sleep patterns, body weight, substance use or temperament.

Leading the study was Madhav Goyal, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of medicine. In a press release describing the report’s findings, Goyal stated that “meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.” Though this research did indicate that medication could have a positive impact on mental health, Goyal noted that the evidence establishing this relationship was of moderate quality. Furthermore, additional studies will be needed for researchers to better understand how meditation affects the body.

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