Meditation and mental health

In recent years, meditation and mindfulness practice have become fully mainstream with apps, group classes, and online guides offering guidance to developing mindfulness in the 21st century. While there has long been a divide between conventional Western medicine and Eastern medical and spiritual practices—including meditation—that pre-date the emergence of Western medicine, researchers and medical practitioners have begun exploring these practices over the last few decades to determine their benefits and potential utility in conventional treatment regimens1,2.

What are mindfulness and meditation, and are they the same thing?

Two terms that have become popular in self-managed wellness spaces are mindfulness and meditation. Some practitioners believe these concepts are two aspects of the same entity while others swear that they are distinct and should be treated as such.

Mindfulness is the state of awareness that arises upon purposefully directing one’s attention toward an aspect of their internal life or a part of the external world. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche refers to this as “nowness,” or a focus on the present. Mindfulness can also include focusing on our feelings or experiences relating to the past or future, but it is always about how those experience emerge in the moment.

Meditation is a blanket term for a set of practices undertaken to self-regulate attention, develop awareness, and attain a clearer, calmer, and more stable mental state. A common understanding of meditation is that it focuses on “emptying” one’s mind; however, this is typically not the primary goal of meditative practices. Instead, many teachers and practitioners focus on “quieting” the mind, thus training it to develop greater focus and clarity. More skilled practitioners may be able to achieve an “empty” mind by achieving this level of clarity through consistent practice.

How does meditation affect the brain and impact mental health?

An increasing number of studies have been conducted exploring claims that meditation can positively affect depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, dementia, and many other mental and neurological conditions in additional to normal stress.Meditation has been found to have positive effects primarily on somatization—the physical expression of symptoms considered to be associated with stress and emotional dysregulation—and anxiety3,4,5 although some results indicate benefits for overall mental well-being, neurological decline disorders, and depression6,7,8. In fact, some neuroimaging studies have even found notable changes in brain function following meditation practices9.

Meditative practices have also been found to have potential in improving sleep quality and associated daytime functioning10,11.

 Although it would be incorrect to say that meditation can treat the root causes of most mental disorders, it can be an effective tool for managing symptoms and improving overall well-being, thus making certain disorders and conditions much less disruptive to daily functioning.

Because anxiety and stress can be central factors in overall mental health12, active practices that can alleviate them without waiting for medication to kick in or for an appointment with a therapist has felt life-changing to many people.

The importance of mindfulness and being present

Simply put, maintaining a sense of presence and grounding can inhibit negative physical and emotional responses to stress as well as depression or anxiety triggers by focusing on what is actually happening—not what you worry may happen. By focusing on and being able to identify what is impermanent and what is permanent, it becomes easier to acknowledge and let go of triggers, stressors, and negative evaluations of ourselves and others.

The basics

Another positive attribute of meditative practices is that they are very easy to begin practicing at home. The following practices serve as the foundation for most mindfulness and meditation regimens while allowing for further adaptation and development. To develop a routine, you only need to start with 5 minutes of practice each day.

Breath awareness

Focusing on breathing is critical for developing focused awareness and letting go of distracting or harmful thoughts. Try these steps to cultivate calmness and focus using breath awareness:

For some, using words or numbers to help focus attention on each breath or phase of breathing can be helpful.

STOP practice

STOP refers to stopping, taking a breath, observing, and proceeding with a specific action. This kind of mindfulness activity can be implemented in nearly any situation and is a great way to manage stress or anxiety responses in public when you cannot just disengage and meditate. By consciously engaging in the following steps, you can experience your reactions to stressful situation in a moderated, healthy way.

Body scan

This method is widely implemented in beginner-friendly meditation and mindfulness guidance because of the ease with which it can be implemented in morning or night routines. During body scans, you move your attention from one part of the body to the next—typically in a sequential, upward or downward flow—to identify feelings in that part of the body and attempt to relax it. There are several ways to do this, but the following steps can be a good foundation for finding what works for you.

While much research has been conducted on the effects of mindfulness/meditation on mental health, few concrete conclusions have been drawn due to lack of data in comparison to other treatment regimens. However, the majority of researchers and clinicians who have studied this agree that even in the absence of large pools of concrete data, there have been no observed drawbacks but many observed benefits to these practices. Developing these skills is a good first step toward actively engaging yourself in promoting your own well-being.

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