Meditation May Help Depression, Anxiety, Pain

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Meditation May Help Depression, Anxiety, Pain

News Review From Harvard Medical School

January 8, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Meditation May Help Depression, Anxiety, Pain

Meditation may help relieve depression, anxiety and pain. That's the conclusion of a new review of research in the field. Researchers looked at 47 studies. They included a total of 3,515 people. The studies looked at the effects of meditation on a variety of conditions. Besides mental health, they included eating habits, sleep and weight control. The studies showed moderately strong evidence of benefit for depression, anxiety and pain. Improvements were about 5% to 10% in anxiety symptoms, compared with a "control" group. This group did some other activity that was used as a placebo, or non-treatment. Symptoms of depression improved 10% to 20% compared with placebo. The effects on pain varied depending on the type of pain. Researchers found there was not enough good evidence of benefit from meditation for any other conditions. Meditation did not provide more benefit than current treatments. The type of meditation that appeared to help was mindfulness meditation. This involves accepting your thoughts and feelings without judgment. No effect was seen for other popular forms, such as transcendental meditation. The journal JAMA Internal Medicine published the study online. HealthDay News wrote about it January 6.


By Reena L. Pande, M.D.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Depression, anxiety and chronic pain can be challenging to treat. While there are many ways to manage these conditions, a new study suggests that meditation may be of some benefit.  

Researchers compiled information from 47 prior studies. All of them looked at the effect of meditation on various conditions and measures of mental well-being. Though there are different types, the most information was available for mindfulness-based meditation. People who practice this form of meditation learn to be more aware of their thoughts and what they are feeling physically and mentally.

Meditation was linked to modest benefits for depression, anxiety and pain. The findings were less clear for other conditions studied.  For example, this study did not see significant improvements in sleep, substance abuse, eating habits, weight, stress or overall quality of life.

Unfortunately, the studies and the total meditation training time were short. The studies typically lasted 4 to 12 weeks. They included total training time of 30 to 40 hours. It is possible that greater benefits would be seen for other conditions with longer training or therapy.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

Many have long suspected that mindfulness, relaxation and meditation may improve well-being. But the results here are mixed when it comes to medical benefits. Research has shown improvements in some conditions and no change for others. Importantly, this study showed no obvious harm. So what does this mean for you?

Step 1: Consider meditation. It may not have any effect on some conditions. But research does suggest that relaxation techniques such as meditation can improve depression and anxiety. It also may help people cope with pain. Other research has actually shown improvements in metabolism and blood pressure as well. That research was not included in this study.

Step 2: Try one of these meditation techniques and see if one feels right to you:

  • Mindfulness -- This involves being aware of your surroundings, your feelings and what you find uncomfortable.
  • Yoga -- There are many demonstrated benefits to yoga, which some consider a form of meditation.
  • Saying prayers or mantras -- It helps some people to repeat a phrase or prayer to calm themselves or prevent distractions.
  • Guided meditation -- This type of meditation uses a teacher or guide to help find a calming or relaxing state. Look for classes in your community.

Step 3: Consider other methods to improve awareness, relaxation and mindfulness. Meditation may help some, but may be challenging for others. That's OK. Try some other mindfulness techniques, such as:

  • Writing
  • Observing emotions and thoughts
  • Talking with others about your feelings


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

These data suggest some modest benefits of meditation for a few conditions in which mindfulness and relaxation may be of particular importance. We also need to distinguish between benefits seen from a medical and academic viewpoint and psychological benefits a person might feel. Meditation will not prove to be a cure-all, but it certainly does no harm.

More rigorous studies in the future will help us understand if the real medical benefits may be broader than those seen here. For now, I see no harm in finding a quiet spot, closing your eyes and observing your thoughts and feelings with the hope that you find calm and peace. Whether this translates into long-term medical benefits remains to be seen.

Last updated January 08, 2014

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