Does meditation work?
Meditation is a billion-dollar industry, elevating images supporting this brand of lifestyle only. Unfortunately for the mindfulness empire, studies exist showing meditation is not across-the-board healthy, even for meditation masters. Mindfulness guru and motivational speaker, Leo Guro, informs his following to, 'expect depression, expect suicidal thoughts, expect sometimes to have waves of insanity and madness. It might feel like you're losing your mind, but you actually have this weird energy moving through you... it's almost as if you've been possessed.' Volumes of research (see Epstein & Lief, Lindahl, Shapiro, Lazarus, Burrows, Boyd, and Castillo) reinforce what Guro warns about, and more.
Dr. Britton's 2017 study, documenting negative side-effects meditators experience, followed 60 participants (60% of whom were meditation instructors) over ten years. Each participant had at least 18 years of meditation experience. They were not novices, so the results were staggering. 82% reported anxiety, fear, panic, and paranoia. 57%: depression, dysphoria, or grief. 47%: illogical, paranormal, or delusional experiences. 30%: increased anger, aggression, or rage. 27%: sleeping disorders. 25%: self-conscious thoughts and insecurity. 18%: suicidality, and 17% required hospitalization. The list of effects continues, including agitation, headaches, and fatigue. 88% of the participants reported these experiences impacted their daily lives, even after the session was over.
Treleaven's 2018 study found mindfulness meditation to 'exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress [as trauma] survivors can experience flashbacks, dissociation, and even retraumatization.' A 2007 study found meditation to induce psychosis 'in patients without a psychiatric history.' So given these risks, does meditation “work”? Not always toward the marketed outcome. Acknowledging the intense physical and emotional harm meditation does to its participants is, simply put, bad advertising.
Meditation offers a myriad of mental health benefits. It cultivates mindfulness, bettering our ability to identify, express, and regulate emotions, thus improving relationships and mood. Meditating reduces stress and anxiety (especially at their highest levels), combats depression, and promotes positive, prosocial emotions and behaviors. It provides lasting gains in body appreciation and self-compassion while decreasing automatic age and race biases, fostering greater acceptance and less judgment towards others. More welcome mental side effects include boosted cognition, memory, focus, and creativity.
Physically, immune strengthening, pain reduction, and benefits to cardiovascular health are just a few of meditation's upsides. Our brains' gray matter is increased with meditation, and its atrophy offset in those with degenerative disease. Adults suffering from primary headaches (migraine, cluster, tension) had less intense pain following meditation intervention. Fibromyalgia patients who meditated showed improved physical symptoms as well. Meditation doesn't just reduce our perception of pain, it also improves our neurological response to it.
Insomnia sufferers find effective relief through meditation. It's even a useful tool in the recovery of addicts and alcoholics. Unsurprisingly, many stress-related health conditions benefit from meditation. Research shows reduced blood pressure in hypertensive adults, less extreme physical post-stress responses in those with chronic inflammatory disease, and improved life quality for cancer patients.
Among the most popular complementary and alternative medicines, growing in popularity since 46 million US adults reported regular meditation for a host of various ailments in 2017, the abundance of evidence speaks for itself. Meditation is a powerful, dynamic force.
- To ‘meditate’ is to “engage in contemplation or reflection” or “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one's breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness” according to Merriam-Webster.
- PositivePsychology.com offers a succinct timeline of meditation’s long history: Indian wall art documents the oldest evidence for meditation practice between 5,000-3,500 BC; Indian religious texts (the Hindu Vedas) first mention meditation in 1500 BC; 6-5th century BC, meditation further develops in China under Buddhism. Eastern mediation is primarily focused on reaching ‘enlightenment,’ ‘self-discovery’ and/or oneness with the universe.
- Judeo-Christian meditation is not primarily focused on emptying one’s mind or attaining self-discovery/oneness, but to fill the mind with biblical scripture. The original Hebrew word for mediation, hagah, means most basically to “mutter, speak, ponder” and is used in reference to delighting in the “law of the Lord, and on his law [to meditate] day and night” (Psalm 1:2).
- A 2018 Pew Research poll reports how meditation, while rooted in Eastern spirituality, is common across many religious groups, as 49% of Protestants, 40% of Catholics, 60% of Mormons, 77% of Jehovah’s Witnesses say they meditate at least once a weak along with Buddhists and Hindus.