Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that meditating daily may help people reduce anxiety, depression and even pain.
Using data from 47 studies done previously with 3515 participants, researchers found measurable evidence to support the use of mindfulness meditation to treat common mental health conditions. Although, meditation didn’t seem to affect mood, sleep or substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight. Researchers also noted they found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment.
“Clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that meditation programs could have in addressing psychological stress, particularly when symptoms are mild,” said Dr. Madhav Goyal, Professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
After going through the data, Goyal said his team found between a 5 and 10 percent improvement in anxiety symptoms among people who took part in mindfulness meditation, compared to those who did another activity.
There was also about a 10 to 20 percent improvement in symptoms of depression among those who practiced mindfulness meditation, compared to the other group. “This is similar to the effects that other studies have found for the use of antidepressants in similar populations,” Goyal said.
“Many people have the idea that meditation means just sitting quietly and doing nothing,” wrote Dr. Madhav Goyal in an email to Reuters Health. “That is not true. It is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine suggests after eight weeks of treatment, improvement in anxiety, depression, pain, and stress was noticeable.
“For example, the effect size for the effect on depression was 0.3, which is what would be expected with the use of an anti-depressant,” the researchers said.
Goyal said people should remember that meditation was not conceived to treat any particular health problem. “Rather, it is a path we travel on to increase our awareness and gain insight into our lives,” he wrote. “The best reason to meditate is to gain this insight. Improvements in health conditions are really a side benefit, and it’s best to think of them that way.”
The researchers also noted that one strength of their study was that it was limited to randomized clinical trials, “which should give clinicians greater confidence” in the reported benefits.
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 9 percent of people in the U.S. reported meditating in 2007 and about 1 percent said they use meditation as some sort of treatment or medicine.
Researchers did say that stronger study designs would be needed to really determine whether or not meditation was beneficial for health.
Since meditation methods, lengths, times of day and reasons why someone practices all differ, it’s hard to decide if it helps or not. No harm ever comes out of meditating, according to Goyal.
“So, we don’t know if more meditation practice would result in larger benefits, and this needs to be tested in future research,” Goyal said.
Susan Smalley, founding director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, agreed with the authors that more study was needed.
“What works best for each individual differs, and factors such as cost, time, need for a trainer or clinician, make certain practices easier for some than others,” she said in an email to LA Times. “Since adherence – or sticking with the practice – is important, finding meditation (a free and easy-to-learn practice) effective for depression, anxiety, and pain, even if small or moderate in size, in this systematic investigation is promising.”