My own story and relationship with the effects of meditation on mental health date back to 2006 when I was introduced to the wonderful practice of Reiki through my spiritual guide, the late Sunil Rathod. At the same time, Sunil provided me with meditation training inspired by the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the famous text, ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’. I started to practice meditation regularly, which would over time have the effect of reducing anxiety, especially when I learnt how to practice mindfulness, through the teachings of Jon-Kabat Zinn.
Over the past few years, there has been a significant rise in awareness when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. Along with this, we’ve seen a surge in popularity in meditation practices as a psychobehavioural therapy. But how good is meditation for your mind, really? That’s what we’ll be taking a look at here, both the positive and negative effects of mindfulness and meditation on mental health, more generally.
As well as this, we’ll discuss the considerations that should be made before embarking on a journey with meditation and also suggest alternative wellbeing practices for you. After all, meditation isn’t for everyone!
The benefits of meditation
Before we get into the heavier stuff, let’s take a look at the number of benefits of meditation that a regular practice can offer. First and foremost, meditation is a practice that is generally associated with increased awareness, clarity, compassion, and a sense of calm, overall improving mental health and the easing of psychological symptoms such as depression, stress and anxiety.
In addition, research has revealed that a consistent meditation practice can also have a number of positive effects on a person’s physical health including a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, inflammation, and even chronic pain, all as a direct result of reduced stress levels. Combining the numerous mental benefits with the physical, it’s easy to see why so many people are in love with this practice!
Like with any practice, whether that be yoga, swimming, weightlifting, the more you repeat the exercise, the better and stronger you will become at it. After all, the mind is just like a muscle – the more you work on your meditation practice, and the more regularly you engage with it, the stronger it will become and the deeper you will go into states of relaxation and healing.
A recent study conducted on the psychobehavioural effects on meditation looked at 48 people, divided into 3 groups of 16, who were either practising Zazen meditation (seated meditation), Tai Chi (meditation in motion), or in the non-meditating control group, to record the effects of meditation on their mental wellbeing. The study found that the groups practising Zazen and Tai Chi showed significantly more openness to experience and therefore improved strategies for coping with stress. It also showed that these groups had improved mood compared with the control group. The conclusion of this study reads that meditation is:
“conducive to mental health by improving the general well-being, counteracting stress, and leading to a better vigor of spirit.”
These findings clearly resonate with the millions of people around the world who practice meditation on a regular basis and dub the practice “life-changing”. For me personally, meditation has now become an important part of my life, and I reap many benefits from it.
However, I do understand that this isn’t a wellbeing practice for everyone, and there are things to consider when embarking on a journey with meditation…
The darker side of meditation
Unfortunately, some who practise meditation and mindfulness meditation, experience adverse effects to their mental health such as increased anxiety and even episodes of depression.
According to a recent article by New Scientist, a survey conducted by Marco Schlosser at University College London and colleagues found that of the 1232 people surveyed who had meditated at least once a week for at least two months, 25 per cent experienced negative mental states as a result, including increased anxiety and fear.
So, the big question here is, “WHY?”
Well, most of the commonly practised forms of meditation require you to bring a focus to the present moment, allowing thoughts and feelings to enter the mind and then vacate. For many, this can be a highly positive experience and a way of relaxing and focusing the mind. However, for some, particularly those with an existing anxiety disorder, when these thoughts, worries and stresses enter the mind during meditation, they are being put under a spotlight, and don’t just “drift” in and out. This can, unfortunately, lead to an ineffective attempt to control the mind and these thoughts, which in turn can result in heightened anxiety and even episodes of depression.
If you have embarked on a journey with meditation on your own, and don’t have any training, it is likely that you are lacking guidance, and the silence of your lone practice is causing thoughts to run wild in your mind. The deafening silence of meditation can sometimes cause suppressed emotions and memories from the past to rise up again causing you to feel fear, anxiety, and even paranoia.
This is why, when entering into the world of meditation, I always recommend starting off with a guided meditation program or class led by a qualified practitioner, whether that be in a studio, or through live online sessions. My own training in mindfulness meditation was with Cyndi Lee, a highly experienced yoga teacher & Buddhist chaplain, who provided a very nurturing and calm-abiding approach to her teachings of mindfulness meditation.
In such classes, you are given clear instructions as to how to meditate and to manage the experience of meditating. This helps to reduce feelings of overwhelm and gives structure and purpose to the meditation, for a more positive experience and outcome.
Summary: meditation and mental health
So, what have we discovered? Like with most things in life, meditation isn’t for everyone. If you’ve never practised mindfulness or meditation before, I would highly recommend researching into the different types to gauge which one might be best suited to you. It is also important to realise the personal factors that mean that meditation may not be for you. For example, if you currently or have previously suffered from moderate to severe episodes of anxiety, depression or paranoia, you may wish to proceed with caution.
However, if meditation is something that you benefit from, I encourage you to continue on your journey and perhaps even expand your practice with different types of meditation. If you’ve tried out meditation once or twice and are resonating more with the negative aspects mentioned in this article, then please do consider the many other wellbeing options that are open to you such as yoga nidra, sound healing or perhaps breathwork. Even gentle hatha yoga, purely as a movement meditation in itself could be a nice alternative.
Whatever you find that works for you, stick with it and you’ll reap the rewards. After all, it’s all about being consistent with your practise in the end.