Most people think of meditation in its traditional context: as a religious practice, most frequently associated with faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism. But over the past several decades, both cognitive scientists and non-religious lay people have discovered that mindfulness, a type of meditation with roots in Buddhism, has secular mental health applications too: it can help alleviate depression and anxiety.
The scientific literature supporting this idea has grown more robust in recent years. Several meta-analyses — academic papers that use statistics to reconcile the findings of large numbers of individual research studies — have emerged recently that endorse mindfulness meditation as a method for controlling anxiety, stress, and the blues.
For example, this March 2014 Johns Hopkins meta-analysis looked at 47 studies on meditation of two chief types: mindfulness, and mantra-based meditation. It found moderate evidence that mindfulness programs produce positive effects on anxiety, depression, and pain after 3-6 months, and somewhat weaker evidence that mindfulness can help with stress and improve overall psychological quality of life. In the words of the authors:
"Our review indicates that meditation programs can reduce the negative dimensions of psychological stress. Mindfulness meditation programs, in particular, show small improvements in anxiety, depression, and pain with moderate evidence and small improvements in stress/distress and the mental health component of health-related quality of life with low evidence when compared with nonspecific active controls...Anxiety, depression, and stress/distress are different components of negative affect. When we combined each component of negative affect, we saw a small and consistent signal that any domain of negative affect is improved in mindfulness programs when compared with a nonspecific active control."
The study found no comparable evidence that mantra-based meditation is effective, but notes that very few studies on mantra meditation were included in their analysis for quality reasons. It also points out that the positive effects of mindfulness don't appear to be greater than those associated with regular exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy, or medication.
Chances are that if you're feeling down or anxious, mindfulness meditation won't completely resolve your problems — but it may be of great help to you in conjunction with other tactics that improve your mental well-being. For instance, try our Savoring App for a quick mood boost. Or, if you'd like to learn more about the evidence in favor of mindfulness as a mental health aid, take a look at some of these other recent meta-analyses:
The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation: A Meta-Analysis
Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis
Mindfulness Interventions with Youth: A Meta-Analysis
Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis
Mindfulness-Based Interventions for People Diagnosed with a Current Episode of an Anxiety or Depressive Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials