To some, it sounds like a hippy-dippy mindfulness method on par with any and every snake oil on the market. On the other hand, the popularity of meditation has steadily grown in recent years simply because so many people swear by its effectiveness in calming the mind and body, relieving them of stress and anxiety that plagues our day-to-day lives. Natural remedies to these common challenges are also growing in popularity as well, and the practice that includes everything from stillness, attention to breath, and visualizations is about as “natural” of a treatment method one can adopt.
But does it really work? There’s certainly little room to argue that dipping your toes into meditation would cause more damage than it could potentially heal. There’s no medication or substances to take — something society’s widely accepted in the form of sometimes-risky prescription drugs —there are no appointments to make with expensive therapists or counselors, and there’s even no baseline of physical fitness one needs in order to start — a major barrier that keeps many from getting the recommended exercise that’s known to help us naturally combat things like depression and anxiety. But still, many of us are left with a need for tangible evidence of meditation’s benefits before giving it a try.
According to Julie Corliss, executive editor of Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Heart Letter, research to either support or refute the idea of meditation’s benefits against anxiety and depression is difficult to conduct. And one of the largest obstacles in executing this research is actually really simple: anybody open to participating in such studies is likely already sold on the practice as a positive experience or at least open to the idea. This alone creates an incredible obstacle to finding true control groups with convincing sample sizes. It is also a challenge for researchers to offer an alternative treatment as a control in their studies, according to Corliss.
Of 19,000 studies on meditation as an alternative therapy, Corliss says researchers at John Hopkins University found 47 trials that addressed these main dilemmas and qualified as well-designed studies, according to their criteria. When they published their findings in JAMA Internal Medicine, they supported the idea that meditation can, in fact, ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.
“People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit. If you have unproductive worries, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently. You might think ‘I’m late, I might lose my job if I don’t get there on time, and it will be a disaster!’ Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that—a thought, and not a part of my core self.’”
In Hoge’s research published in JAMA, participants who battled with general anxiety saw improvement with hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability when given mindfulness-based stress exercises over those who weren’t offered the same practices. However, those who meditated saw greater improvement over all other participants, reinforcing the idea that meditation itself is an actionable step those with anxiety or depression symptoms can adopt.
“What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation,” you might ask? As mentioned earlier, meditation practices can include techniques such as visualizations or simply focusing on and giving awareness to one’s breath. Mindfulness is really a state of awareness to an event, a thought, a feeling, and so on with one key element: all this without judgment.
“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we non-judgmentally pay attention in the present moment. It cultivates access to core aspects of our own minds and bodies that our very sanity depends on,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, from The Unexpected Power of Mindfulness Meditation.“Mindfulness, which includes tenderness and kindness toward ourselves, restores dimensions of our being. These have never actually been missing, just that we have been missing them, we have been absorbed elsewhere. When your mind clarifies and opens, your heart also clarifies and opens.”
To clarify the difference between the two (mindfulness and meditation), according to Lecia Busak, “they’re two sides of the same coin — they complement each other, and they very often overlap. At the same time, each has its own specific definition and purpose.” Here, meditation is a step toward finding a state of mindfulness. Attention to breath and stillness of the mind through regular meditation is treated like daily exercise at the gym, where regular practice builds the muscles that allow a person to be more aware and more easily recognize the thoughts and feelings that trigger anxiety and depression.
According to Medical Daily, one recent study measured mindfulness in its participants, finding that those with a greater degree of mindfulness were better able to motivate themselves to exercise, resist cravings for high-fat and sugary foods, and to stick with beneficial diet regimens that had been recommended by doctors. So in this study, we learned that something as abstract as “mindfulness” has tangible, physical health benefits.
"This study demonstrated a significant association of dispositional mindfulness with glucose regulation and provided novel evidence that obesity and sense of control may serve as potential mediators of this association," study authors wrote. Obesity was found to make about a three percentage point difference between the total 35-percent point risk difference. Meanwhile, a sense of control accounted for another eight percentage points on the effect.
So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and sense those anxiety triggers creeping nearer, consider the positive effects of combining meditation with the pursuit of mindfulness. It may sound like an abstract idea but research certainly supports the idea that pairing the two can have massive physical and emotional benefits to our overall health.