Last week in Part 2 of the Meditation Feature Series, I highlighted some recent scientific findings showing that meditation practise appears to have significant effects on our physiology, including blood pressure, inflammation, and brain activity and structure. These sorts of changes seem to go hand-in-hand with improvements in psychological well-being, and as I’ll discuss today, meditation is associated with reducing many symptoms of psychological distress and mental illnesses, particularly depression and anxiety disorders. A recent meta-analysis showed that mindfulness-based meditation courses seem to have a moderate effect on reducing symptoms of these disorders.
For example, those Chinese nursing students I talked about in the last meditation article not only showed reduction in blood pressure after a week of meditation, but also had less self-reported anxiety symptoms after their meditation intervention, as well.
Mindfulness-based therapy also appears to reduce depression relapse in several studies, according to this review paper.
Finally, although not as widely investigated as depression and anxiety, addiction may also be a target for mindfulness meditation treatment. One study of substance-addicted prisoners found that those that undertook a meditation course in jail used much less alcohol and drugs once released from jail, compared to prisoners that did another type of conventional treatment for substance addiction.
What appears to be best for treatment in these types of mental disorders is not just meditation on its own, but meditation combined with therapy from a mental health professional. In fact, recently, new behavioural therapies termed Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) have become more and more popular as treatments for depression and anxiety.
A lot more work using randomised control studies needs to be done before we can be sure that these types of therapies are really working (and if they are the best type of therapy), and the main problem seems to be that these types of mindfulness interventions are not really standardised yet – which makes it hard to assess and compare the treatments scientifically. One review also suggests that adherence to the meditation programs (in other words, how often they actually do it) hasn’t always been properly assessed in all studies. I can also imagine that this type of therapy would work best for some people but not so great for other types of people – so studies need to do a better job of measuring effects of individual differences like gender and personality. But it is a new area of research and one that deserves future investigation (and more funding!).