If breathing is good for you (and it is), then paying attention to your breathing is even better. That's the conclusion reached by several studies investigating the benefits of a practice known as mindfulness meditation -- a practice in which you sit quietly for ten minutes while focusing on your breathing and body. You don't judge any thoughts that arise; you merely notice them. The practice helps you to be "be here now," as Dr. Richard Alpert (a.k.a Ram Dass) so succintly described back in the hippie era.
According to a recent article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, mindfulness meditation boosts mood and relieves anxiety. The authors reviewed 39 studies involving 1,140 patients. Their conclusion: mindfulness meditation is especially effective for people suffering from mood problems like generalized anxiety disorder and recurring depression. It also helps those suffering from anxiety related to illnesses like cancer. In fact, a related study just published in the Archives of General Psychiatry concluded that mindfulness meditation is just as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapses of depression. Said researcher Stefan Hoffman, professor of psychology and Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, "I was skeptical at first. I wondered, 'Why on Earth should this work?' But it seems to work quite well."
It's rather surprising that anyone should be surprised at meditation's benefits, given the history of clinical evidence attesting to it. Back in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn started teaching mindfulness meditation to patients to help them cope with pain and stress. Among other things, his research found that the practice sped up eczema healing time by 400 percent. Even earlier, in 1975, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University published The Relaxation Response, based on studies showing profound physical and emotional benefits from what's essentially a meditative breathing technique. .
In the intervening years, there have been many such studies and claims, and they keep rolling in. According to the Transcendental Meditation (TM) website, for instance, just 20 minutes of practice twice a day will reduce stress, improve health, enhance creativity, promote work success, and ultimately, create world peace. TM costs a tad more than simple mindfulness -- $1500 for the first fourth-month course, with recommended advanced courses offered at regular intervals. But then, the meditators haul out the data. "More than 600 scientific studies verifying the wide-ranging benefits of the Transcendental Meditation technique have been conducted at 250 independent universities and medical schools in 33 countries during the past 40 years," says the website.
Unlike mindfulness meditation, TM uses mantra rather than breathing as the focus of attention, but both techniques essentially train the mind to be quiet. In the case of mindfulness meditation, a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2008 showed that the technique prevents relapses of depression as well as maintenance antidepressants do and do a better job of improving quality of life. As an added plus, according to the study, MBCT (minfulness based cognitive therapy) is more cost effective than anti-depressant therapy -- or TM, for that matter. Mindfulness meditation was also shown to reduce fatigue and depression for upwards of six months among MS patients who participated in a Swiss study. Patients reported many areas of improvement after just eight weeks including reduced anxiety, diminshed depression, and significant improvement in quality of life.
Why does meditation work? Some researchers say that by training the mind to focus on the present moment, meditators limit the impact of regrets about the past and worries about the future and this reduces stress. Meditators also increase their ability to keep things in perspective -- whether suffering a debilitating medical condition or dealing with a life crisis. And naturally, such effects show up in the brain's physiology.
In fact, a recent study of changes in brain structure in meditators shows not only that the brain changes because of meditation -- it also gets larger and changes structure. Before and after MRI scans of the brains of 16 people who engaged in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program showed increased grey-matter density in areas associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. At the same time, they showed decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, an area highly correleated to stress and anxiety. Among the control subjects who did not participate in mindfulness meditation, no such changes were found. According to the study's main author, Britta Hölzel, Ph.D., a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany, "Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change."
In spite of its undeniable benefits to mental and emotional health, not everyone suffering from anxiety or depression will benefit from mediation. In the case of severe depression, adjunct therapies may be needed. And for patients afflicted with psychosis, meditation can actually set off episodes, so it needs to be used with care. And then, there are those who sit down to meditate and find themselves instead wriggling about and thinking about monkeys. For them, another possible alternative to medications is neurofeedback, which essentially helps patients to align their brain waves with meditative states. A technician attaches electrodes that measure brain activity to the patient's scalp while the patient watches images on a computer screen. If the brain is producing the desired types of waves, the patient gets pleasing images and sounds. After a while, the patient learns how to alter her brain waves to the desired frequency and this helps reduce stress, increase focus, and improve mood. First developed in the 1960s and 70s, neurofeedback has been found effective in treating conditions including ADHD, depression, autism and anxiety.
The bottom line is that for depression and anxiety -- unless based in psychosis -- there are great alternatives to medication available. Just switch one letter -- the "c" in medication -- to a "t", and you've got one of the best of those alternatives.