A growing number of American doctors are looking East as science seems to confirm that mindfulness meditation can play a role in reducing a need for meds for some patients. A 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, concluded that mindfulness meditation improved sleep quality in older adults, and mounting evidence suggests that a meditation practice can ease stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression and even improve outcomes in treatments for addiction and cancer.
More recent studies have come to similar conclusions. For example, a meta-analysis — a study of studies — published in JAMA Psychiatry in June 2016 found that mindfulness meditation is effective in treating people whose depression has relapsed after trying several antidepressants.
Danielle Hark knows this first-hand. “For years, I suffered from insomnia, anxiety and severe depression — and took multiple medications to address all of those health concerns,” says the 34-year-old professional photographer in Millburn, New Jersey. Then, her doctor told her about mindfulness meditation and its potential to ease her symptoms. She started attending a meditation study group in her area twice a month and listened to short, guided mindfulness meditations every night before bed. And within a few weeks, she was able to stop taking Klonopin (her anti-anxiety medication) as well as reduce her sleeping medication to half doses or skip it entirely.
Check out a discussion of mindfulness meditation and its benefits for many ailments on MedShadow TV.
“I started feeling less anxious as soon as I started attending the meditation group and even more noticeable changes occurred when I started meditating every day at home,” says Hark. “I always thought I couldn’t meditate because it meant I’d have to sit silently on a pillow — and my mind is just too busy for that,” she says. “But as soon as I turned off the TV at night and started listening to 10- or 20-minute guided meditations, I noticed a huge change, and the benefits have stuck.”
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
While the phrase “mindfulness” has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years, touted as a way to help us do everything from lose weight to stress less, mindfulness meditation has been practiced for centuries. According to most definitions, it’s an adaptation of Buddhist breath work, aimed at helping those who do it learn to focus on emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment with full acceptance and without judgment. The simplest way to start practicing mindfulness meditation is as follows: Sit on the floor or a chair with your back straight and get as comfortable as possible; then, focus on your breathing and as thoughts come up, notice that your mind has wandered and simply return your focus to your breaths.
How is this different from any other meditation? While mindfulness meditation trains the mind to be in the present moment and involves passive attention to breathing and any sensations, thoughts and emotions that may surface, basic meditation (sometimes called transcendental meditation) uses a mantra as a vehicle to let the mind settle down naturally and ultimately to transcend thought.
Essentially, the main difference is that the goal of mindfulness meditation is to anchor your thoughts in the present moment, whereas transcendental meditation aims to experience a state of awareness without an object of thought, says Eva Selhub, MD, a clinical instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and a Clinical Associate of the Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Your Health Destiny: How to Unlock Your Natural Ability to Overcome Illness, Feel Better, and Live Longer.
“I like to think of transcendental meditation as vertical meditation, with the goal being to go down as deep into yourself as possible,” says Dr. Selhub. “Whereas mindfulness meditation is horizontal — you’re still having observations and you’re encouraged to use your mind to observe your surroundings nonjudgmentally. In my experience, mindfulness meditation can be much easier to learn and implement right away, making it accessible to everyone and anyone willing to sit quietly even for just a few moments and simply focus on their breath.”
This accessibility and approachability is what led Bill Dinker, a 32-year-old director of a drug and alcohol rehab center in Nashville, to turn to mindfulness meditation 3 years ago, when he felt like he was suffocating under the weight of drug addiction and bipolar disorder.
“Prior to beginning my practice, I was severely addicted to heroin and taking lots of medication for bipolar disorder,” says Dinker. “I was taking so many prescriptions that I gained 60 pounds and finally decided something had to change.” So Dinker sought help for substance abuse and was introduced to mindfulness meditation while in treatment. The benefits of adding mindfulness meditation to other therapeutic treatments he received while in rehab were immediate.
“The first thing I noticed was how relaxed and at ease I felt,” he says. “In fact, the feeling was so foreign to me that at first, I thought something was wrong.” As he continued to practice, Dinker found he was not only able to stay sober and stay off the cocktail of medications he was previously taking, but he was promoted at work and started sleeping better, too.
Conditions Mindfulness Meditation Can Help
An increasing body of scientific research supports mindfulness meditation’s effectiveness in in relieving symptoms and reducing medication for a variety of health conditions. 3 illnesses for which the most solid evidence exists that mindfulness meditation can help include:
Stress, Anxiety and Depression
As Hark learned firsthand, quieting the mind and learning to tune in to the present moment can be a powerful vehicle for reducing anxiety — something that researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, found when they reviewed nearly 19,000 studies on meditation. Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindfulness meditation eases anxiety, depression and pain. Even better, more research indicates that you don’t have to commit a lot of time to the practice. One recent study from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that a brief mindfulness meditation practice — just 25 minutes for 3 consecutive days — helps alleviate psychological stress.
Considering the stress, anxiety and depression a cancer diagnosis can cause, it’s no wonder the research specifically looking at mindfulness meditation as a complement to cancer treatments has shown tremendous benefits. In one study of breast and prostate cancer patients, published in Integrative Cancer Therapies, mindfulness intervention done in a clinic-based group setting showed consistent benefits, including improved psychological functioning, reduction of stress symptoms, enhanced coping mechanisms and overall well-being in cancer outpatients. Another study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, found similar results, showing cancer outpatients who receive mindfulness meditation intervention have significantly more vigor and less total mood disturbance, depression, anxiety, anger and confusion than those cancer outpatients not practicing mindfulness meditation. Still more research (pdf) found that mindfulness meditation significantly improved the quality of sleep in women with breast cancer.
Once again, the power of mindfulness meditation to reduce stress and anxiety comes into play in relation to addiction, as the link between stress and substance is well-documented. Countless studies echo Dinker’s real-life experience: Mindfulness meditation creates a change in one’s relationship to the present moment, creating a “reperceiving” or “attentional control” that can help facilitate more mindful behavioral choices. To wit: Researchers from Yale University found that a 4-week mindfulness meditation training program was more effective as a treatment for smoking cessation than the American Lung Association’s “gold standard” treatment, with participants experiencing a 90% reduction in the number of cigarettes they smoked from 18 a day to 2 a day and 35 percent of participants quitting smoking completely. Other research found that just 5 20-minute sessions of mindfulness meditation prompted increased blood flow to the area of the brain vital to self-control with 11 hours of practice creating actual physical changes in the brain around this area.
Research supporting the benefits of mindfulness meditation when it comes to easing the symptoms of a host of other health conditions, including chronic pain, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure and even HIV/AIDS is still emerging.
“I’m convinced that we’ll continue to see more evidence of the benefits of mindfulness meditation in easing symptoms of a range of health conditions and helping people reduce their medication intake,” says Selhub. “And until that happens, we still have enough proof that starting a meditation practice can only help you get healthier and feel better.”
Getting Started: How to Start a Mindfulness Meditation Now
Maybe you’re suffering from one of the health conditions mentioned in this article and hoping to reduce symptoms and your medication intake. Or perhaps you’re simply intrigued by the power of mindfulness meditation to reduce stress and help you sleep more soundly. Whatever your reasons for wanting to try mindfulness meditation, Martha Hackett, MD, an integrative family physician in Mentor, OH, who teaches group meditation classes, wants you to know it’s easier than you might think to start.
“While you can certainly find a local meditation center to take classes or even consult with an integrative doctor or other practitioner for advice, most of us can quite simply carve out just a few minutes to sit in a quiet space and just breathe,” says Dr. Hackett. If you’re having trouble, relax — frustration and anxiety about not being able to sit for even a short amount of time is very normal. If this happens and you can’t seem to quiet your mind and body enough to sit through a few minutes of mindfulness meditation, you might try a guided meditation online or via an app for your smartphone. “There are so many wonderful sources with free guided meditations that can support you as you start this practice, says Hackett. A couple to try: UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, which has countless guided meditations you can download on iTunes, or HeadSpace, a popular app that offers 10-minute guided meditations.
If you start to wonder whether or not you’re doing it “right” or “wrong” or how good you are at the practice, it’s time to simply quiet those thoughts and bring your attention back to your breath. “The best part about mindfulness meditation is that there truly is no right or wrong way to do it,” says Dr. Selhub. “Simply stay in the present moment, tap in to what you’re sensing rather than what you’re thinking, and drop any judgment about yourself. If you can do that, true healing can happen.”
Like many holistic, alternative and integrative approaches, most insurance companies don’t cover mindfulness meditation classes or groups, says Dr. Hackett, though that may change in the future. “As more research emerges on the health benefits of this practice, I think insurance companies will have no choice but to cover meditation classes,” she says. In the meantime, there are plenty of resources — and scientific proof providing good reason — to give mindfulness meditation a try.
“I truly feel like in a lot of ways, I owe my life to mindfulness meditation,” says Dinker. Hark has similar sentiments. “Mindfulness meditation has helped me live a happier, more balanced life,” she says. “I believe it’s something anyone could try — and everyone could benefit from incorporating into their lives.”
Meghan Rabbitt is a freelance writer whose work is published in national magazines and websites, including Women’s Health, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Prevention, Redbook, Refinery29, LearnVest, Canyon Ranch and more.
For more information:
Brief Summary of Mindfulness Research (pdf) (UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center)
Can meditation top medication? (Boston Globe)
Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances (JAMA)
American Mindfulness Research Association
Guided Mindfulness Meditation Practices with Jon Kabat-Zinn (YouTube)
Insight Meditation Society (Insight Meditation Society)
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center