People who meditate regularly say it reduces stress and improves well-being, among other mental, physical, and spiritual benefits. And doctors often recommend meditation to help treat chronic pain, anxiety, high blood pressure, and many other conditions. How it works is not fully understood, though research is accumulating—and encouraging.
Meditation helps you draw attention inward and calm the mind. It comes in many forms, which typically involve combinations of postures, breathing, sound, visualizations, or movement (for example, walking meditation). One of the most popular and best-studied is mindfulness meditation, which comes out of the Zen Buddhist tradition. You practice being aware of the present moment by observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, without making judgments or allowing yourself to think about the past or the future.
Subjecting meditation to scientific testing is a challenge, in part because states of mind are hard to measure. But research over the past 30 years suggests that mindfulness meditation may be a helpful tool in treating a diverse array of conditions, including chronic pain, hot flashes, insomnia, psoriasis, and fibromyalgia, as well as certain psychiatric disorders. It has been shown to alter aspects of the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems and produce changes in areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, and emotion.
Among the recent research findings, all from 2015:
Brain health. In a preliminary study in Frontiers in Psychology, long-time meditators showed less-pronounced age-related atrophy in gray matter on MRI brain scans, compared with non-meditators. And the affected area was less extensive in the meditators. (On the other hand, meditators may simply have healthier lifestyles overall, which can have positive effects on the brain.)
Depression. In a British study in the Lancet, involving 424 people with recurrent major depression who were in remission, an 8-week program of mindfulness-based therapy was as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapses over the next two years.
Pain: A meditation program was found to decrease pain better after eight weeks than a home-based exercise program in a study of people (mostly women) with chronic neck pain, published in the Journal of Pain. Meditation may have worked in part by reducing stress, which is often implicated in neck pain. In addition, anticipating more pain makes current pain worse; being attentive to the present helps prevent this, earlier research has shown.
Sleep: In a study in JAMA Internal Medicine, people with moderate sleep disturbances followed either a mindfulness meditation program or a sleep education program. After six weeks, benefits were seen in both groups, but the meditators reported greater improvements in sleep quality and less daytime fatigue and depression.
Just say “om”
To get the most from mindfulness meditation, you should practice it regularly. You can learn the basics at programs offered at many medical clinics and community centers. Free guided meditations are available for download from the UC Berkeley Greater Good in Action center (select “Mindfulness”). You can also purchase books, audiotapes, or DVDs; or check out YouTube videos of Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, who founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts and is largely considered the pioneer of mindfulness in the West.