Although meditation and mindfulness are classic health practices in Chinese medicine, lately, they’ve become buzzwords in regards to addressing mental health in Western medicine. Even people who have always been skeptical of holistic practices like meditation are climbing on board, interested in trying it out. But is there any actual scientific merit behind meditation and mindfulness?
The science has spoken, and the gurus were right: a regular meditation practice goes a long way in improving our mental health, and can even help us fight addiction.
What is Meditation?
Meditation refers to a category of techniques that are used to achieve a heightened sense of awareness, focus, and compassion. For spiritual practitioners, it’s also often a way to reach enlightenment.
Although meditation is most commonly associated with Eastern spiritual practices like Buddhism and Hinduism, other religions have historically used meditation as well. For example, meditation, or reflecting on Jesus, is an important part of the Catholic rosary. Many non-religious groups also practice secular meditation.
Mindfulness meditation¹, a practice with its roots in Buddhism, invites the practitioner to pay close attention to the present moment, usually by anchoring focus on the in-breath and the out-breath. Some meditation practitioners focus on something else, like external sounds or a mantra.
You may find that your mind wanders while you’re meditating, and that’s okay; when practicing mindfulness meditation, you are invited to notice your thoughts and let them go, instead of trying to banish them altogether. Through this practice, we can reap the enormous benefits of meditation for both our physical and mental health.
How Does Meditation Affect Mental Health?
The scientific research proves what spiritual teachers have been saying for centuries: a regular meditation practice greatly improves overall well-being. Not only have scientists found that there are all kinds of physical benefits that people experience when they meditate, but this ancient practice can also help improve our mental health.
Here are five specific ways that meditation can improve your mental health and lead to a happier life.
Concentration and Focus
A common image that arises in our minds when we think about a meditator is that of an old monk, isolated from society and never breaking their intense concentration on their breathing, not even for a second. This focus is the brain benefit that most people probably first think of when they think of meditation.
In reality, that’s not usually what meditation looks like. An experienced meditator might be able to sit for hours at a time without breaking focus, but we’re human; it’s natural for our brains to wander. The practice of meditation is noticing when our thoughts go off the rails and bringing them back to the present moment.
In practicing mindfulness meditation, we develop better focus overall. Even brief daily meditation has been shown to improve executive attention² and helps us to maintain focus on tasks for longer periods of time.
Anxiety is the most common mental illness³ seen in the U.S. population, and around 20 percent of Americans are estimated to suffer from anxiety disorders in any given year. While more severe cases of anxiety may require additional treatment like psychiatric medications, meditation has helped thousands of people with mild to moderate anxiety feel less stressed.
Even people with severe anxiety have reported a lessening of their symptoms with a daily meditation practice. Meditation, especially deep breathing techniques, regulates the physical effects of anxiety; it reduces the levels of cortisol and catecholamine in the brain⁴ – chemicals that cause anxiety symptoms, and promotes mood-boosting chemicals, like dopamine. On top of that, a regular practice can help us to think more clearly, and give stressful situations in our lives less importance.
One of the many benefits of psychotherapy is that it comes with the opportunity to get to know oneself on a deeper level. This self-awareness can lead to better choices that are more in line with our needs and wants; research⁵ shows that higher levels of self-awareness lead to better self-esteem and increased productivity.
Meditation involves long periods of sitting with yourself and your deepest thoughts … with no outside distractions. As a result, those who regularly practice mindfulness meditation start to understand their true nature much more deeply. Regular meditators experience more self-awareness and increased self-esteem in comparison with the general population.
Better Quality Sleep
Sleep is a vital part of your overall well-being; if you aren’t sleeping well enough or long enough, you put yourself at risk for all kinds of health problems, including heart disease and diabetes. Luckily, meditation can help: research shows that mindfulness meditation improves REM sleep⁶ and leads to less insomnia, fatigue, and depression.
If you find yourself struggling to wind down before bedtime, a relaxation meditation practice may help. If you make it part of your nightly routine, then it’s more likely that you’ll be able to stick to it. With the help of meditation, you’ll start to feel more and more relaxed and be able to consistently get some restful sleep.
Additional Support in Recovery
You might be surprised to hear that meditation also helps to fight substance use disorder. Mindfulness meditation in particular has been shown to have substantial beneficial effects for people battling addiction; research shows that mindfulness training actually works to change the neurological dysregulation associated with addiction, and in some cases, helps to prevent relapse.⁷
Although more research needs to be conducted to be able to call mindfulness meditation an evidence-based substance abuse treatment, it’s worth trying if you’re struggling with relapse, especially considering all of its other mental health benefits.
Meditation at All Points North Lodge
If you’re interested in learning more about meditation and trying it out for yourself, the clinical staff at All Points North Lodge can help. We incorporate holistic health practices, including mindfulness meditation, as part of your treatment plan. With the help of meditation, you can improve your mental health and fight addiction.
- “Mindfulness Definition: What Is Mindfulness.” Greater Good, Greater Good Magazine, greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition.
- Norris, Catherine J et al. “Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by Neuroticism.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 12 315. 6 Aug. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00315
- “Any Anxiety Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.
- Hoge, Elizabeth A et al. “Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity.” The Journal of clinical psychiatry vol. 74,8 (2013): 786-92. doi:10.4088/JCP.12m08083
- Sutton, Anna. “Measuring the Effects of Self-Awareness: Construction of the Self-Awareness Outcomes Questionnaire.” Europe’s journal of psychology vol. 12,4 645-658. 18 Nov. 2016, doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1178
- Corliss, Julie. “Mindfulness Meditation Helps Fight Insomnia, Improves Sleep.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, 15 June 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-helps-fight-insomnia-improves-sleep-201502187726.
- Priddy, Sarah E et al. “Mindfulness meditation in the treatment of substance use disorders and preventing future relapse: neurocognitive mechanisms and clinical implications.” Substance abuse and rehabilitation vol. 9 103-114. 16 Nov. 2018, doi:10.2147/SAR.S145201