By Nicolas Scrutton Alvarado
Even if you’ve never seriously meditated, you already know the basics of the practice. Sitting comfortably, slowly breathe in and breathe out. That counts as one. Breathe in, breathe out. Feel your chest slowly expanding, then deflating. Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the breath as it moves in and out of your lungs, thinking of nothing else. Breathe in, breathe out. That’s all. How is it that such a simple practice can help manage the many mental illnesses that so many struggle with?
Woman meditating at home. Image Credit
The practice of focusing your attention on your breaths, letting distractions fade away, is a type of meditation. Stemming from Buddhist traditions, mindfulness meditation is one of the most popular forms of the practice today. The general concept centers on turning your attention toward experiences and sensations you feel in the moment, noting them without judgment. Some practices call for focused attention on specific things, like your breath, while others call for a stream of consciousness-style awareness of your surroundings. “There are many different kinds of meditation, and they aim to do different things,” said Dr. Jonathan Greenberg, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “The most widely used meditation in the West probably is mindfulness,” he told me.
The benefits touted by those practicing mindfulness meditation are plenty, ranging from increased focus to higher levels of life satisfaction. But what about its effects on disorders like anxiety and depression?
Researchers have been interested in what meditation does to the brain, and our mental health since the early 1970s. Several intervention programs have been developed to improve mental health through concepts found in meditation, such as mindfulness based stress reduction or mindfulness based cognitive therapy. Mindfulness based cognitive therapy, specifically, was developed in the 1990s to treat recurrent depression. “You combine mindfulness skills with cognitive therapy skills, and it has been shown to effectively prevent depressive relapse,” Dr. Greenberg said. Since then, aspects of mindfulness have been integrated as a core component of many mental health therapies, such as standard cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy.
Targeted intervention programs, like mindfulness based cognitive therapy, are meant to serve as a foundation for meditative habits individuals can retain over the course of their lives. Generally, these programs run over a course of 8 weeks and involve a series of supervised and unsupervised meditation sessions. “The more you seed these bits of practice throughout the week, the more available these skills are to you and the more effective meditation can be,” said Dr. Greenberg. One doesn’t have to be a master meditator to begin seeing the benefits – a small effort can go a long way to establishing helpful habits.
Various clinical trials have shown that repeated meditation has proven effective in reducing the symptoms of common disorders, like depression and anxiety. Generally, patients undergoing a mindfulness-based intervention reported lower levels of anxiety and mood symptoms after the program. Researchers found the effects of meditation to be just as good as, if not better, than those of standard antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. Mindfulness in general, not just dedicated programs, appears to help manage the symptoms of mood disorders. The rise of popular meditation apps, like Headspace or Calm, have made guided meditations more accessible to people. While the effect of self-guided meditation programs on mental health has not been extensively looked at, pilot studies have begun to investigate their benefits. For example, researchers from the University of Otago, in New Zealand, studied the effects of mindfulness apps on university students’ mental health. What they found echoed the results of the standardized mindfulness-based interventions – students who regularly used mindfulness apps, in this case Headspace or Smiling Mind, reported lower levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety.
So, meditation seems to work. Why and how it works, however, remains an open question. Part of the problem is that meditation and mindfulness are not simple tasks, and can be influenced by factors impossible to control – how tired people are, when did they last eat, how stressed they are. Meditation alone appears to activate several major brain regions associated with complex emotions like fear, memory, and decision-making – such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, respectively. Some attempts have been made to investigate how these brain regions change in response to meditation, but studies are few and far between. More research will need to be done to determine if and how these changes are a result of meditation.
That being said, a lot of research has been carried out on the functional effects of meditation – how meditation changes your mind, not just your brain. The effects seen can be highly varied, and depend on a lot of factors. What kind of meditation you do, how long you do it for, and how experienced a meditator you are all key factors in reaping the benefits of meditation. “One of the most widely studied effects is stress reduction,” said Dr. Greenberg. Stress is one of the biggest clues we have to how meditation helps reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. “High levels of stress make one more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and a host of medical conditions… by lowering stress levels, meditation can potentially prevent these from occurring or increase our ability to manage them,” said Dr. Greenberg. In addition to stress reduction, meditation appears to enhance emotion regulation, focused attention and alertness, as well self-awareness and self-esteem. There’s some evidence it may even improve sleep quality.
Brain Networks and Associated Brain Regions during Consciousness. Credit: Bremer at al, 2022; Scientific Reports.
The functional changes observed following meditation – increased attention, reduced stress – may be related to changes in how regions of our brain interact with each other. Different areas of our brain communicate with each other at different times, forming functional “brain networks”. Meditation is most often associated with three different brain networks – the default mode network, the fronto-parietal network, and sensory-motor network – which are involved in processes such as emotional regulation, body awareness, and spontaneous thought. Researchers have observed changes in the activation of these networks during meditation, such as a suppressed default mode network, or an activated fronto-parietal network. Some studies suggest that the regions that make up these networks change as individuals enter a meditative state, forming meditation-specific brain networks.
Meditation is an ancient practice, stemming from core Buddhist traditions. Yet, its effects can prove to be useful in managing our mental health today. You already know the basics – breathe in, and breathe out. Why not give it a try?
If you’re interested, check out some of the sources I used in researching this answer! All sources used for this answer are strictly evidence-based.
Interview with Dr. Jonathan Greenberg