In the last thirty years, there has been a lot of research on the effects of meditation on the human body, as well as on the physical and mental health of an individual. There is plenty of evidence that meditation is a positive practice with many benefits. Meditation was shown to slow down aging, to encourage physical health among other things, but in this article we will examine the positive effects that the regular practice of meditation has on anxiety and depression.
Both anxiety and depression are common issues that many people have to deal with on a daily basis. They have emotional components, such as fear and sadness, cognitive components, like negative thoughts, and behavioral components, like avoiding specific situations or isolating oneself. In short, they can seriously affect a person’s life.
Meditation is believed to reduce and improve symptoms of anxiety and of depression. Some studies have found that the relief found from this practice could be as much as from antidepressants, however, the people who were participating in the study did not have severe forms of anxiety and depression. In general, researchers found a significant improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms without any negative side effects that could be attributed to meditation.
According to the studies, the effects of meditation were not due to a placebo effect, that is, where the person improved a little because of the belief that meditation could help, but rather due to a genuine effect of the meditation.
The research also showed that meditation worked best when practiced thirty or forty minutes every day regularly over a period of time. However, there were also positive results if meditation was practiced around 2.5 hours per week consistently.
In another study, it was seen that meditation helped the person immediately after therapy and also helped them maintain positive results for at least three months after the therapy was done.
So meditation can provide a significant relief for symptoms of anxiety and depression. It has been suggested that meditation is best applied as a complement for a therapeutic process, working as an asset for the person.
In relation to anxiety, the effects of meditation on the brain that lead to anxiety relief have been identified. When the person begins meditating, specific areas of the brain are activated. These areas are those involved with the control of worrying and with executive or higher function.
When this areas of the brain, related to thinking and emotion, are activated, anxiety decreases, because the person is able to use the mechanisms in place to regulate the thinking process.
Meditation activates those areas of the brain that help an individual look more logically on a situation and do so with a sense of balance. It prevents automatic behaviors and throughts, for example, blaming oneself or having other negative automatic thoughts. Meditation helps avoid rumiation – an important aspect of both anxiety and depression, a situation in which the person repeats the same negative thoughts over and over again, experiencing the same negative emotions.
Meditation also has a positive effect on the brain areas responsible for automatic emotional responses and for reaction to situations that are seen as dangerous. Meditation can help these responses be more adequate to the situation and to “turn off” the alarm when the situation is not really dangerous, but is perceived so, like speaking in public or doing a test.
Meditation, in general, helps us achieve a more balanced and rational perspective on events. It helps reduce rumination and negative thinking. It connects us more to our needs and desires. It also helps us reduce negative emotions and experiences of acute stress that is disproportionate to the situation. It fosters inner peace and calmness, while offering more control over our thoughts and inner state of mind.
Meditation, as mentioned, is considered to be a safe practice for most people and it doesn’t require additional expenses. It’s also not physically exhausting, so even people who don’t have a lot of energy or who have physical limitations can engage in the practice. However, there have been several isolated cases where meditation had a negative effect on people with psychiatric problems, so it’s important to practice it carefully and with attention to one’s needs. If there are any negative reactions, it’s worth consulting with a specialist on this matter.
There are many different types of meditation. However, research mostly supports the effectiveness of two approaches – mindfulness meditation and loving kindness meditation.
Mindfulness is the awareness of everything going on around us in the moment and how we are perceiving it – what we think, feel, taste, see, smell and so on. This is a very popular approach right now and it has been found useful for many problems, including depression and anxiety. Mindfulness meditation helps cultivate this practice and increase one’s awareness of the moment. It is a technique with proven effectiveness.
Loving kindness meditation is somewhat less researched, but also useful. It is a practice where the focus is on cultivating kindness, gratitude and love for oneself and for others, helping develop compassion. It has also many positive effects on physical and mental health, being useful for depression and anxiety issues.
These two types of meditation have proven benefits for anxiety and depression, as well as for other mental health issues. They are widely practiced and are proven to have an effect on the problem on different levels, starting with the positive biological effects on the brain and continuing on to positive emotions and positive thought patterns.
- Arkowitz, H. & Lilenfeld, S.O. (2014). Is Mindfulness Good Medicine? Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-mindfulness-good-medicine/
- Gladding, R. (2013). This is Your Brain on Meditation. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation
- Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2014 Jan. (Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, No. 124. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK180102/
- Zeidan, F., Martucci, K., Kraft, R.A., McHaffie, J.G. & Coghill, R.C. (2014). Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief. Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9 (6), 751-759.