Over 50 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some time in their life. Fortunately, there is an effective, safe, and inexpensive way to improve mental health: meditation.
Susan Gentile, a nurse practitioner from New Jersey, highly recommends meditation as a therapy for people suffering from substance abuse and mental issues.
A patient of hers in his mid-30s used to be depressed and addicted to alcohol. After two years, he sought treatment and was advised to start practicing meditation. To Gentile’s surprise, positive effects started to appear within the first two weeks. After that, whenever the patient had the urge to drink, he started to meditate and would feel very calm. Meditation became his favorite therapy.
Meditation can improve our mental health in different ways. It improves psychological health, increases life satisfaction and vitality, and regulates emotions.
Is Meditation Good for Depression?
A study published in JAMA Psychiatry discovered that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, of which meditation is a component, could achieve a 73 percent decrease in depressive relapse than placebo among depression patients in remission.
The neurotransmitter serotonin is a major mood regulator in our bodies, and its deficiency can lead to depression. According to a study, the level of serotonin metabolites in the meditators’ urine samples increased after meditation, and the meditators had a sustained serotonin level well above that of those who didn’t meditate.
Meditation’s beneficial effects on depression symptoms may also be attributed to its ability to alter certain brain regions linked to depression. For example, the medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala work together to cause depression, but meditation can break the connection between these two brain regions.
Furthermore, a review examined 47 trials and discovered that meditation had a small to moderate effect on improving depression, anxiety, and physical pain.
Another systematic review examined 18 studies and found that meditation helped reduce symptoms of depression for patients suffering from clinical depressive disorders.
Can Meditation Reduce Anxiety?
A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on transcendental meditation examined 16 studies and discovered that meditation could reduce anxiety, and the greatest effect was achieved with those with the highest levels of anxiety.
Another meta-analysis showed that meditation is associated with decreased symptoms of anxiety.
According to a study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) who participated in a Mindful-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program had significantly more reduction in anxiety than those who participated in a stress-management education program.
Practicing meditation can also improve insomnia, which may increase anxiety. In one study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, participants who practiced meditation for six weeks, two hours per week, experienced fewer insomnia symptoms or daytime fatigue than those in the control group. Another journal article in Sleep suggests that meditation can be a treatment option for people suffering from chronic insomnia.
How Meditation Helps Fight Other Mental Diseases
Meditation has been proven to be effective at neutralizing bipolar disorder, which is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings with emotional highs and lows. It may cause impairments in cognition.
According to one study, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may be a bipolar disorder treatment option as an adjunct to medication, as it can improve patients’ cognitive functioning and memory.
The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, and there’s some evidence that the imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain—like serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine—can be a cause. As aforementioned, meditation can increase serotonin levels. It can also help release more endorphins and increase dopamine release by 65 percent.
Furthermore, meditators have thicker brain regions—the prefrontal cortex—associated with attention and sensory processing. In one postmortem study, reductions in neuronal and glial density of the prefrontal cortex were found in bipolar disorder patients.
Posttraumatic stress disorder
A patient with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been directly or indirectly affected by a traumatic event. It is a debilitating mental disorder affecting 7 to 8 percent of American adults, including many military veterans.
According to a study published in the journal Military Medicine, transcendental meditation can help military personnel suffering from PTSD improve their symptoms. And after one month of practicing meditation, 83.7 percent of the participants reduced or even eliminated their use of psychotropic medications to treat PTSD. Among the study participants who didn’t meditate, only 59.4 percent reduced or stopped their prescriptions, and 40.5 percent of them even increased their use of psychotropic medications.
Research has shown that meditation can help with schizophrenia. A study shows meditation leads to better psychosocial functioning and improved symptoms in schizophrenic patients.
Specifically, five patients with a history of severe schizophrenia for over two decades experienced significantly reduced hallucination and delusion symptoms after eight months of meditation practice.
The researchers also proposed several mechanisms for the meditation’s beneficial effects, including brain oscillation changes that can lead to better brain network integration and reduced abnormal brain activities.
Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that result in unhealthy eating habits. Common eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Fortunately, meditation can help improve the symptoms of all these conditions.
In one study, surveys regarding complementary medicines were distributed to a preexisting cohort of 100 community women to investigate their perception of these approaches’ effectiveness. The most common complementary medicines were massage, yoga, vitamins, meditation, relaxation, and minerals, which were all found to be very helpful by the survey respondents. In the surveys, a vignette of a 28-year-old female anorexia patient named Jill was featured, and the community women regarded meditation as the second most helpful approach (i.e., 82 percent) for her.
In another study, six young women with bulimia undertook mindfulness-based eating disorder treatment, which included meditation training, for eight weeks. After that, they became more optimistic, self-appreciating, and self-aware; their self-images greatly improved.
In a third study, 18 obese women with binge eating disorder participated in a six-week meditation program. After they completed the program, their average number of binges decreased from 4.02 per week to 1.57 per week, with 50 percent of the participants reducing their binges to less than once per week. The severity of their binges also reduced.
In addition, the women’s symptoms of depression and anxiety also improved, as well as their sense of eating control and awareness of satiety cues.
How Meditation Reduces Stress Level
Psychological stress can cause the level of the “stress hormone” cortisol to increase, which can lead to increased activation of inﬂammatory cytokines over time.
According to a study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, an MBSR program was more effective at reducing the inflammatory response caused by stress than a well-matched control condition, in which the participants trained in an active control intervention to promote well-being.
In another study, MBSR program participants with generalized anxiety disorder increased their reductions in stress markers.
Researchers at Cleveland Clinic conducted a study among people who worked in a busy environment. After using a web-based stress management program mainly based on mindfulness meditation for a year, participants’ stress levels were reduced by 31 percent.
Even short meditation sessions can help individuals cope with stress. In one study, participants were divided into either a meditation group or a poetry study group. They completed a social-evaluative stress challenge task after three days of 75-minute meditation and poetry study sessions. As it turned out, the meditation group reported feeling less psychological stress.