Lead author Dr Madhav Goyal, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says in a statement: "A lot of people use meditation, but it's not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything. But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants."
To conduct their review, the investigators looked at evidence from 47 clinical trials involving a total of 3,515 participants that involved meditation and various mental and physical health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, substance use, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and chronic pain.
They found moderate evidence of improvement in symptoms of anxiety, depression and pain after participants underwent what was typically an 8-week training program in mindfulness meditation.
However, there was minimal evidence that mindfulness meditation helped with stress or quality of life.
The researchers were able to confirm that none of the participants had been harmed by meditating. They also conclude that more research is warranted on the subject.
Meditation, Dr Goyal notes, has a long history in Eastern traditions, and it has been growing in popularity over the last 30 years in Western culture. "A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing," he says. "But that's not true.
Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways."
The research is published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
A 'robust analysis'
Commenting on the study in an emailed statement, Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, the mental health charity, says: "This robust meta-analysis highlights that mindfulness-type meditation could be a viable treatment option for people displaying symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. We welcome any research which looks at alternatives to prescription drugs, which are not always effective in treating symptoms and may cause adverse side effects.
"For the majority of people with mental health problems, a combination of treatments is most effective for managing their condition – this might include medication, but should also encompass talking therapies and alternative therapies such as arts therapies, ecotherapy [ psychotherapy in an outdoors setting] and/or meditation.
"We would like to see people being offered a wider range of treatment options, so they can access the support that is right for them."
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