The ancient Eastern practice of meditation has become increasingly popular in Western culture over the last 30 years – notably recently, with meditation classes being introduced to some workplaces, schools and hospitals. According to 47 studies analyzed in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, meditation helps to manage anxiety and depression – as well as other problems, including substance abuse, sleep and weight issues.
Authors of the review combed through thousands of earlier studies on meditation, arriving at a small number of randomized clinical trials (the gold standard in science) for use in the analysis. The research found that mindfulness meditation is just as effective as antidepressants in easing the symptoms of depression.
“A lot of people use meditation, but it’s not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything,” says Madhav Goyal, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the research. “But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.”
The team looked back over almost 18,000 earlier studies – and ultimately arrived at 47 randomized clinical trials, which together assigned over 3,500 participants to practice meditation (either mindfulness or mantra) or to enroll in another treatment, like exercise.
Goyal and his colleagues found that mindfulness meditation also showed promise in alleviating some pain symptoms as well as stress. The findings held even as the researchers controlled for the possibility of the placebo effect, in which subjects in a study feel better even if they receive no active treatment because they perceive they are getting help for what ails them.
Mindfulness meditation is typically practiced for 20 to 30 minutes a day. And entails paying attention to one’s internal processes (thoughts and/or bodily sensations) in a curious, but non-judgmental, way.
“A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” said Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
Another study conducted by a team from Carnegie Mellon University states that practicing mindfulness meditation for 25 minutes per session for three consecutive days can alleviate psychological stress.
And in a 2010 meta-analysis (quantitative review), psychologist Stefan Hofmann of Boston University and his colleagues examined studies that tested both forms of mindfulness meditation as a remedy for anxiety disorders and depression. They found that the meditation sessions led to significant improvements in both conditions immediately after therapy, as well as approximately three months later.
There was also a 2013 meta-analysis review done by psychologist Bassam Khoury, then at the University of Montreal, and his colleagues, which found that both types of mindfulness-based therapies were effective for depression and anxiety disorders.
One clear benefit of meditation is that it does not carry the side effects that can accompany drug treatments.
“Also relevant for physicians and patients is that there is no known major harm from meditating, and meditation doesn’t come with any known side effects,” said Goyal. “One can also practice meditation along with other treatments one is already receiving.”