Can Meditation Help With Anxiety?

As Westerners grope for meaning and attempt to alleviate stress in the hustle and bustle of their busy schedules, some have turned to various New Age practices based, to varying degrees, on non-Western religions. Far from being mere fads, however, meditation techniques developed in Buddhism may offer valuable health benefits.

For those not religiously inclined, a secularized form of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness has begun to be practiced and taught by psychologists and physicians.  

Meditation Rather Than Only Medication  

According to 47 studies examined in JAMA Internal Medicine, meditation helps reduce depression, pain and anxiety. It does not, however, affect weight, sleep or substance abuse. The conclusions scientists have reached on meditation are therefore mixed. While the benefit meditation has on anxiety, pain and depression is modest, studies consistently report the presence of these benefits.   

Measurable affects of meditation

Indeed, modest though they were, only 2.5 hours of meditation per week consistently produced measurable effects. Some studies even found that meditation was more effective than either psychotropic medication or non-medical attempts to improve mental health, such as exercise. Unlike medication, furthermore, meditation carries with it no risk of troubling side effects.  

Rather than focusing only on those directly and immediately affected by high amounts of stress, anxiety or depression, studies also targeted those who struggled with certain anxiety-producing health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and breast cancer. One study involved 163 participants with either stage 1 or stage 2 breast cancer. These women underwent an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction class. MBSR appeared to have produced psychosocial adjustment in the patients receiving radiotherapy. This suggests that MBSR may be helpful in oncological practice.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Some have begun to practice Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as a kind of secularized version of Buddhism. The practitioner attempts to focus on the present, bound neither to the past nor the present. Those who engage in this practice focus on using visualization in order to change their way of thinking to avoid anxiety-producing preoccupations.  

This technique was originally developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The purpose of MBSR is to develop a keener awareness of the unity between mind and body in order to improve psychological health. Its practitioners may also benefit from yoga to help offset the harmful effects of our primarily sedentary lifestyle.

Programs based around its teachings are offered in approximately 200 medical centers, clinics and hospitals from around the globe. They are taught, not only by psychologists, but physicians. An offshoot of this form of therapy, known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) includes cognitive therapy-based activities which examine the link between thought patterns and emotion.