You’re in an important meeting at work. You can’t concentrate. Your mind is racing, trying to remember if you put your son’s lunch in his backpack. You think so. But did you? Or perhaps you are dealing with a life-changing event. Divorce, or job loss, or you are suffering from a chronic health issue. Life is stressful, and no one is immune. While perhaps in the past, people were expected to ‘take it on the chin’ and just cope, there is now a lot of discussion and awareness around mental health. In fact, a quick Google search for the term “mental health” yields nearly 4.5 billion results. Clearly, we’ve all got mental health on our minds. One of the ancient remedies for health and wellbeing, popular particularly in Eastern cultures, is meditation. Today, scientific research on the benefits of meditation for mental health is beginning to show what has long been known and experienced by those who practice meditation regularly. We’ve put together a list of eighteen benefits of meditation. Your mental health will thank you – the science says so. But first, let’s start with a brief look at what is mental health, what is meditation, and what they both mean for you and your quality of life.
What Is Mental Health?
Throughout history, the connection between the mind and body was understood and accepted as a part of the human condition. In the seventeenth century, however, French philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the concept of “mind-body dualism” – that the mind and body are two disparate entities operating separately – and this became the basis for modern medicine. By the mid twentieth century, Eastern philosophies had penetrated Western academia and popular culture, and the concept of mental health started to gain prominence. The first Mental Health Awareness Month in the US was held in 1949. Based on a wide range of ideas from medicine, psychology, spirituality and philosophy, mental health can be defined as the sum of a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Basically, it’s how we think, feel, and act. Mental health is a lifelong journey, changing during different periods of life, or even from day to day, depending on circumstances and stressors. Think about your mental health right now. Is it good, poor, or somewhere in the “so-so” spectrum?
What Is Meditation?
You probably have an idea of what meditation looks like, or perhaps you already practice meditation. If you have tried meditating, then you’ll know it is much more than just sitting in the lotus position with eyes closed chanting “om”. Meditation is a mind-body technique that trains the individual to focus their attention, observe thoughts without judgment, calm a busy mind and achieve a more relaxed physical and emotional state. Some common meditation techniques include mindful meditation, body scan meditation, loving-kindness meditation, and visualization. Meditation is uniquely personal to the individual, and there is no wrong or right method to choose. It all depends on your goals and the state of your mental health. For some people, meditation might be a calming respite from the regular stress of daily life. For others, it may be part of a broader therapeutic plan to deal with chronic pain or an ongoing emotional problem, such as anxiety or ADHD. No matter your goal, or which technique works for you, by practicing meditation on a regular basis, you will be gaining significant and powerful benefits to your mental health.
How Does Meditation Affect Your Mental Health?
Mental health is a complex mix of many factors in the life of an individual, including physical health, family situation, employment, and financial status, values, and beliefs. A person’s social life is another critical part of mental health. Those who have positive relationships and interactions with others have better mental health overall. Genetics also play a part – some mental health problems, such as depression, may be more likely in those with a family history. The personality of the individual is a factor – some people are naturally more resilient or optimistic than others, and this is an important part of mental health too. The good news is that despite genetics and circumstances, there are many things that people can do to improve their own mental health and positively change their lives. One of these is meditation. Meditation can improve your mental health by enhancing focus and concentration, improving self-awareness and self-esteem, reducing stress, and calming frantic thoughts. But the benefits don’t end there. Keep reading to discover eighteen science-backed mental health benefits of meditation.
18 Benefits of Meditation on Mental Health and the Research That Backs It
#1: Managing Depression
If you struggle with depression, the loss of interest in daily activities and unrelenting sadness can be debilitating – often affecting your relationships, job, or health. Even with treatment such as counseling, lifestyle changes, and medication, depression can linger. Although people have been practicing meditation for thousands of years, the benefits of practicing mindfulness for depression have only been studied in recent years. For example, a scientific study in the Clinical Psychology Review found that mindfulness-based therapy is an effective treatment plan for a variety of psychological problems – especially depression and stress.
#2: Dealing With Anxiety
If you’re like most of us, you have a lot going on. There is almost always something to worry about. Anxiety is when your stress response is overactive, leading to a host of physical and emotional symptoms, such as rapid breathing, dizziness, insomnia, lack of appetite, and increased heart rate. In acute anxiety states, worry becomes so excessive or overwhelming that it negatively impacts your daily life and your ability to handle everyday stressors. To show the mental health benefits of meditation for anxiety, General Hospital Psychiatry published a clinical study that was conducted over 3 years using mindfulness meditation. They found significant improvement and long-term benefits in patients with anxiety and anxiety disorders.
#3: Developing a Natural Stress Stabilizer
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, and stress from foreseen and unforeseen events leads to a steep and sudden rise in cortisol. This activates the autonomic nervous system, preparing your body with the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. While this process is designed to protect you from danger, when you are chronically stressed, it kicks into overdrive, leading to a host of uncomfortable and unnecessary symptoms. In short, your body’s natural threat protection system has become overactive. This study concluded that mindfulness meditation can lower cortisol levels in the blood – suggesting that it can lower stress and have a positive impact on mental health.
#4: Managing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
When you think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it may bring to mind war veterans or victims of serious crime. But anyone can develop PTSD – usually after a highly stressful, frightening or distressing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience. A study by Sage Publications found that meditation helped decrease PTSD symptoms as well as helping patients learn to better manage their PTSD.
#5: Dealing with Addiction, Cravings, and Emotional Eating
Whether addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, or any other ‘drug’, the mechanism is the same – when the craving is satiated, this triggers the production of feel-good chemicals (such as dopamine) in the brain. Once you experience pleasure associated with the increased dopamine, your brain quickly develops a chronic need to experience it again and again. Researchers have found that mindfulness meditation utilizes the part of the brain that can cause these cravings. They also noted that in many instances, meditation strategies brought about an immediate reduction in craving. Similarly, results from a study published in the National Library of Medicine suggest that mindfulness meditation effectively decreases binge eating and emotional eating.
#6: Increasing Mental Strength
Want to focus your effort and energy on the things that matter most? Improve your mental strength. Mental strength helps you better manage your thoughts and emotions, so you can focus better on your true desires and goals, and keep moving forward in a healthy and productive way. Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to adapt and strengthen healthy neural pathways as a result of experience – is a key factor in increasing mental strength. According to scientific data, regular meditation practice is shown to help build neuroplasticity, putting a very powerful capability in your own hands. Another study conducted on US Marines preparing for deployment reported that those who received mindfulness therapy showed greater reactivity and enhanced recovery after stressful training.
#7: Managing Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Research suggests that mindfulness meditation can train the brain to better concentrate and hold focus. This is because meditation has been shown to thicken the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain involved in focus, planning, and impulse control. This study reports a reduction in ADHD symptoms in adults and adolescents while practicing meditation. Of the participants, all reported a decrease in symptoms and 30% reported a significant decrease in symptoms. A study conducted with students aged 11-14 years old in a school setting resulted in a decrease in ADHD symptoms during three months of practicing meditation. They also saw a significant increase in letter fluency and in positive behavior reports by parents.
#8: Minimizing Social Anxiety
Social anxiety can affect your work, school life, and other daily activities. The intense, persistent fear of being judged by others can lead to difficulty in making and keeping friends, resulting in isolation and loneliness. Since mindfulness meditation has been found to help decrease anxiety and self-focus, it can help with confidence and social skills, which can reduce social anxiety over time. In a study published in the National Library of Medicine, the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on the brain in patients with social anxiety disorder showed patients had decreased social anxiety and depression. It also showed an increase in self-esteem. Researchers from this five-week mindfulness meditation trial for children with learning disabilities saw a reduction in social anxiety symptoms.
#9: Decreasing Worry
Those who struggle with worry tend to think about a negative thought over and over. This ‘cements’ the thought and strengthens the neural pathways that create worry and tension, leading to further increased worry. Meditation is a powerful antidote to this vicious cycle. Researchers have found evidence that people who participated in mindfulness-based therapy were better able to focus on the present and less likely to worry. This study found that meditation can activate the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain that regulates blood pressure and heart rate), leading to decreased worrying.
#10: Reducing Feeling of Loneliness
Loneliness is an insidious feeling, hampering one's ability to connect with people and experience joy. A 2019 study in the US found that 61% of Americans say they are lonely, leading some to call it a “loneliness pandemic.” By focusing the mind on neutralizing thoughts, and helping people gain perspective on their place in the universe, meditation can help people feel less lonely and improve mental health. In fact, a review in BMC Psychology of thirteen studies found positive results across the board on the effects of meditation in alleviating loneliness. This eight-week trial in older adults showed that meditation helps to reduce feelings of loneliness – also leading to reduced risk factor for morbidity and mortality in the elderly.
#11: Overcoming Insomnia-Related Issues
If you’ve ever had a sleepless night, tossing and turning till dawn, then you’ll know that insomnia is no fun. What’s more, it can lead to a host of other physical and emotional problems, like chronic drowsiness, brain fog, and depression. Fortunately, there has been growing interest and studies focusing on the effectiveness of meditation for sleep-related issues, and the news is good! Preliminary findings show that mindfulness meditation can be effective in treating some aspects of sleep disturbance. JAMA Internal Medicine published results from a clinical trial showing that mindfulness meditation helped with insomnia. Of those who participated in meditation, they reported less insomnia and better sleep than the group who did not practice meditation.
#12: Controlling Phobias and Fears
Phobias are part of the ‘family’ of anxiety symptoms, and much the same way that meditation can help relieve anxiety, it can also be helpful in overcoming phobias and fear. Some psychologists have begun introducing meditation to their patients as a new way to treat phobias, such as agoraphobia (a fear of going out), fear of flying in a plane, and fear of public speaking. The research is still new, but there is early evidence that meditation can help some patients with their phobias. The results from this study suggest that when mindfulness training is combined with exposure therapy, you may be able to achieve larger and longer-lasting treatment effects.
#13: Managing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders
OCD is another example of an anxiety-related disorder that can have a real and debilitating impact on daily life. For people suffering from OCD, there is a constant search for a treatment or ‘cure’ to let go of obsessions and compulsions, and live an unrestricted life with less overall anxiety and distraction. As meditation works on training the brain to focus and restore calm, it is often recommended to people looking for ways to better manage and deal with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Using meditation for OCD is still being researched, but there is already evidence that shows the scientific benefits of adding meditation to additional techniques for OCD.
#14: Reducing and Changing Negative Self-Image and Beliefs
Having a negative self-image usually begins in childhood, as a result of emotional needs not being met. When a person feels badly about themselves, this can trigger negative reactions and feedback from others. And the vicious cycle of low self esteem becomes stronger. For many people, going into talk therapy to uncover the deep-seated reasons for negative self-beliefs is a crucial part of self-development and a major milestone in the journey to a happier life. Mindfulness meditation can be very helpful in learning to observe negative thoughts with curiosity and without judgment, and neutralize their power, making it an excellent adjunct to therapy, or as a standalone self-help treatment for those struggling with negative self-beliefs. In fact, one study targeting those struggling with mood and anxiety disorders found that mindfulness meditation helped reduce and manage negative self-beliefs.
#15: Developing Healthy Coping Mechanisms
We all struggle with grief, anxiety, or loss at different points in our lives. Whether it be financial worries, relationship issues, or even just a nagging worry about something mundane (is my car going to break down again?), meditation has been found to be very helpful in coping with the day-to-day consequences of life’s difficulties. In this study, researchers found that meditation can be used to improve the coping skills needed to deal with the uncertainty of job security. It was reported that meditation can reduce psychological suffering by reducing the anticipation anxiety experienced by the workers.
#16: Decreasing Habits of Overthinking
Do you find yourself dwelling on the same thought or situation over and over? Do you struggle to make decisions or take action? Human beings are cognitive creatures so it’s completely normal to “get inside your head” now and again. However, when thoughts become chronic, this develops into overthinking (or rumination) and it can negatively impact your life. Instead of living in the moment and working towards your goals, you may find yourself stuck in a thinking loop, contemplating, worrying or obsessing rather than doing and being. Meditation can help with overthinking and improve your productivity. One study showed that meditation is a highly powerful technique to enhance productivity and happiness.
#17: Managing Pregnancy-Related Mood Swings
Pregnancy is a key time to care for your mental health through meditation. Research has shown that women who practice mindfulness meditation during pregnancy have seen decreased anxiety and depression levels compared to those who don’t. A study published in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing concludes that there is evidence that pregnant women have health benefits from mind-body therapies used in conjunction with conventional prenatal care. During pregnancy, it’s not just the physical changes you have to deal with – there are many emotional challenges as well, such as anxiety, concern, stress, and maybe even resentment. And they can show up at any time with no warning. Meditation can help pregnant women cope with these changes through mindfulness, relaxation, and re-centering.
#18: Overcoming Postpartum Depression
Giving birth is one of the most profound and life-changing experiences a person can go through. Most new moms experience some form of the “baby blues” as they adjust and reconfigure their life to accommodate the new infant. This can result in many different symptoms, including mood swings, crying spells, anxiety, and sleep issues. For most women, these symptoms are mild and pass after a short time. Some moms, however, have a more severe, longer-lasting depression. The mental health benefits of meditation when combined with other recommended treatments have been shown to help new moms better cope with and reduce symptoms of postpartum depression.
Start Experiencing the Mental Health Benefits of Meditation
There you go: 18 excellent reasons why you should practice meditation, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be able to get the benefits. Meditation is not a quick fix; it’s something you build into your lifestyle – preferably daily – and with practice, it can actually change the brain and provide excellent support for mental health. And even better, to experience those benefits, you don’t need to do a course or join a group – you can practice meditation in your own home, in your own time, whenever it works for you. Thanks to advancements in biofeedback technology, you can also get information in real-time about how meditation is impacting your physiological and neurological state. Once, you had to go to a clinic or therapist to do biofeedback. Now, there are highly affordable and sophisticated home-based biofeedback devices that can help guide you toward relaxation and understanding the impact of your meditation practice. With the right biofeedback device, you can experience many of the mental health benefits of meditation faster and more effectively than ever before.