Meditation for Anxiety, Depression, Insomnia
Overview of meditation as an alternative treatment for anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic pain and other mental health and health conditions.
Meditation of one style or another can be found in most of the major religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Generally, Eastern religions have tended to concentrate on meditation as a means of realizing spiritual enlightenment. This has usually also included many health promoting practices. In the West, meditation has been embraced for both reasons, too, although many people know it most as a self-help tool for promoting good health and for stress management.
Many forms of meditation result in the clearing of one's mind and this promotes a sense of calm and heightened awareness. During meditation, the brain's activity, as mapped by a device called an electroencephalograph (EEG), alters significantly. The most well-known brain waves evident during many kinds of meditation are called alpha waves. These brain waves accompany relaxation of the entire nervous system. Gamma, delta and theta brain waves accompany other types of meditation and are associated with various altered states of consciousness. Scientific studies show that the regular practice of meditation can be a powerful healing tool.
A range of disorders
Regular meditation can be used to help to treat a range of disorders, including:
- Chronic pain
- High blood pressure
- Life threatening illnesses.
Soothing the nervous system
Resting the mind has a dramatic effect on brain activity. When the brain moves into an alpha wave state, many physiological changes occur, starting with the autonomic nervous system. One of the main roles of the autonomic nervous system is to regulate glands and organs without any effort from our conscious minds. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts, called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. These systems act in opposite yet complementary ways; the sympathetic nervous system 'revs' the body, while the parasympathetic calms it down. Chronic stress or burnout can occur when the sympathetic nervous system dominates for too long. During an alpha wave state, the parasympathetic half of the autonomic nervous system comes to the fore. This results in lowered blood pressure and heart rate, a reduction in stress hormones, and slowed metabolism. If meditation is practiced regularly, these beneficial changes become relatively permanent.
Different types of meditation
Meditation has evolved out of many different religions and philosophies, which means there are a number of different techniques to choose from. Some examples include:
Concentrating on the breath - consciously noticing the movement of air in and out of your nostrils, or counting the breath in variety of ways.
Emptying the mind - allowing the mind to clear and 'float', gently pushing aside any stray thoughts, or allowing thoughts to float in and out of awareness.
Looking at an object - focusing your attention, but not necessarily your thoughts, on the shape, sound and texture of an object, such as a tree or a candle flame.
Movement - using a physical technique like yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi to still the mind by coordinating the breath and the body with gentle movement.
Using a mantra - repeating a word or phrase over and over, either out loud or silently, to focus the attention, perhaps timed with the breath.
Whatever your preferred technique, it helps in the beginning to have a quiet place, a comfortable sitting position and around five minutes to half an hour without outside distractions. Set an alarm if you don't want to lose track of time. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to sit cross-legged on the floor in order to meditate. You can sit in a chair, or sit up in bed. You might just fall asleep, however, if you try to meditate lying down, which defeats the purpose of doing it.
Meditating every day at around the same time can help to develop a regular habit and make it easier and quicker to slip into deeply meditative states. Although you can master meditation by yourself, some people prefer to attend classes and learn in a group from an experienced teacher.
Trying too hard
Trying to meditate is a lot like trying to sleep - attempting to force it often makes it more difficult. Thinking of a meditation session as a chance to relax rather than as a discipline you have to master can make a great difference. If your attention wanders, practice acceptance and avoid getting annoyed with yourself. Simply direct your attention back to what you are doing and experience the moment.
In the instance of serious mental illness, meditation should be used with caution, if at all.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi teachers
- Meditation teachers.
Things to remember
Meditation is the deliberate focusing of attention to bring about feelings of calm, heightened energy and awareness.
Regular meditation offers many health benefits, such as reduced stress and blood pressure.
There are many different ways to meditate, such as using a mantra, looking at an object or focusing on the breath.
Last Updated: 10 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD