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. (1) 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. (2)
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.
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. (4) 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. (5) 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 (ASCO) 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. (6)
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. (7)
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. (8)
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. (9)
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. (10)
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.