Meditation for Troubled Minds: Can the Mind Heal the Mind?

Alternative_Medicine.jpgCan the mind cure the mind, working on itself? Well, although the entire self-help psychology industry survives on an assumption that it does — with various techniques, young and old, aimed at self-therapy, scientific research on the subject is still in its early stage.

Mindfulness meditation, or more commonly known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in psychiatric parlance, has been used “successfully” for years in individuals with a variety of medical disorders, including stress, chronic pain, depression, fibromyalgia, and eating disorders. Yet for any treatment protocol to enter mainstream medical practice, studies must establish a reliable, reproducible effect on a variety of scenarios, beyond statistical doubt.

A recent systematic review published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry looked at 15 studies on the use of MBSR in anxiety and mood disorders worldwide. The results, described as equivocal, indicate that at the current state of research, meditation can be at best considered an adjunctive therapy when it comes to treating anxiety and mood disorders — most studies failed to demonstrate it as a reliable primary method of treating these conditions. However the risk of relapse of successfully treated clinical depression was lowered when MBSR was utilized in maintenance programs.

Although the results may appear disappointing for meditation enthusiasts, a historical perspective may be illuminating. Meditation routines were first developed in ancient cultures, particularly Eastern, solely as a spiritual practice. Mindfulness meditation , as defined by the eminent mind-body researcher Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness, is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention to purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the experience of unfolding, moment by moment.” Awareness, in eastern cultures is the process of shifting your world-view, from earthly mundane matters, through progressive levels of detachment to gain a supra-ordinal view, where we see the wholeness and inter-connectedness of things.

Expecting it to work for curing psycho-social disorders, in my view, is detracting from the very basis of meditation — transcendence. If you meditated solely with the aim to get rid of depression or anxiety, it represents a desire to ‘escape’ from the problem, rather than work at the roots which give rise to it in first place — a biochemical imbalance in the brain, or social stressors as a causative or contributing factor. In the end it’s a ‘troubled’ mind trying to grapple with its own problems, looking for a technique not designed for a cure.

It is quite possible though, that if we look upon stress and anxiety as a warning signal from our mind and body that a change in the way we look at life and things in general is needed, and we view meditation as only a part of a whole series of measures to modify our current paradigms of living, it is likely to be far more successful in its originally intended role. MBSR research into illnesses could therefore be an incorrect way to approach the whole process of meditation in itself.


Toneatto T, Nguyen L. Does Mindfulness Meditation Improve Anxiety and Mood Symptoms? A Review of the Controlled Research. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, (April 2007), 52 : 4, pp 260-66.

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  • Tom

    The recent meditation study cited here was seriously flawed. If the same standards were used for all scientific research, there would be NO research studies showing that cigarette smoking is harmful, or that diet and exercise have any benefits for your health. For example, how can you do a do a double-blind study on Transcendental Meditation without the people meditation KNOWING that they are practicing TM? How could you study smoking without the smokers knowing they are smoking a pack a day? Here is a link to an article just published addressing the flaws of this study:

  • Tom

    Top researchers criticize new meditation and health study

    A controversial new government-funded report, which found that meditation does not improve health, is methodologically flawed, incomplete, and should be retracted.

    “Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research” was a health technology assessment report conducted at the University of Alberta and sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the NIH-National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The report was released earlier this month.

    Professor Harald Walach of the University of Northampton and School of Social Sciences and the Samueli Institute for Information Biology in England reviewed the paper before its release and strongly urged the authors to withhold publication. “When I looked carefully into the details of the study, the whole analytical strategy looked rather haphazard and ad hoc” Walach said.

    Robert Schneider, M.D., F.A.C.C., is one of the leading researchers on the health effects of meditation in the nation. Dr. Schneider has been the recipient of more than $22 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health over the past 20 years for his research on the effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique and natural medicine on cardiovascular disease. He says that relevant findings were excluded from the report, including peer-reviewed studies on the effects of this meditation technique on hypertension, cardiovascular disease, myocardial ischemia, atherosclerosis, changes to physiology, and improvements to mental and physical health.

    Dr. Schneider cited two studies published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2005, which demonstrated that individuals with high blood pressure who were randomly assigned to TM groups had a 30% lower risk for mortality than controls. These studies should have been included in the AHRQ report, Dr. Schneider said, but were inexplicably excluded. In addition, 75 published studies were overlooked, even though these were sent to the authors by one of the reviewers.

    Dr. Schneider said the AHRQ report incorrectly analyzed studies and incorrectly rated the quality of the studies while applying statistical methods poorly, arbitrarily, and unsystematically. The report also included errors in collecting data from research studies, in recording data from papers, and in classifying studies. Several peer-reviewers pointed out major errors and inadequacies in the report prior to publication. However, these critiques by outside reviewers were largely ignored. (For critiques of the report, see

    Dr. Schneider also cited a study published in the American Medical Association’s journal Archives of Internal Medicine in 2006 — one year after the AHRQ review ended in 2005 — which confirmed that the Transcendental Meditation technique lowers high blood pressure in heart disease patients. The study was conducted at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and was funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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  • Craig

    Dr. Schneider cited two studies published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2005, which demonstrated that individuals with high blood pressure who were randomly assigned to TM groups had a 30% lower risk for mortality than controls. These studies should have been included in the AHRQ report, Dr. Schneider said, but were inexplicably excluded.

    Inexplicably? This was a study about the effects of meditation on anxiety and depression, so it seems perfectly appropriate to exclude a study about blood pressure. Honestly! Don’t they teach kids the fundamentals of meta-analysis these days 😉

  • Tom

    Dear Craig and Everyone, Thank you for this opportunity to post a response to the above remarks on meditation research. Actually, the ill-thought study referred to above was NOT just on anxiety and depression, it alleged to consider the general health-effects of meditation and drew sweeping, unfounded conclusions. Scientists around the world are calling for a retraction of the misleading study, which used protocols that were inapplicable and excluded pertinent data. As an emergent science of consciousness, certain theoretical and practical aspects of the Transcendental Meditation program can appear, at least initially, to challenge the established scientific world view. The old test-tube egghead folk science does not predict or explain that a person could sit down, close their eyes and in effect do nothing, resulting in a broad range of immediate and measurable physiological outcomes and health benefits, such as growth of EEG brainwave coherence, reduced anxiety and depression, development of IQ and learning ability in children AND adults, reduced substance abuse, reduced hypertension, 70% drop in the need for medical care, and younger biological age — all of which have been borne out in the hundreds of scientific studies on TM, published in peer-reviewed scientific and academic journals (and conducted at Harvard, Yale, UCLA Medical School, Stanford, etc.). When resistance to the TM research arises within ostensibly objective-minded people, I have noticed that the opposition has little to do with the actual scientific data, but is rather about the old superstitions of materialism clashing with an emerging body of data that the opponents perceive as inconsistent with their beliefs. Thomas Kuhn says that in the course of scientific revolutions, there are stages of reaction to a new paradigm: First the anomalous data is ignored, then it is laughed at and ridiculed, then it is criticized, then it is violently attacked and becomes intensely controversial. (“It is very hard for a man to desert a tradition.”…the ignorance of the old paradigm being their tradition.) Only when the old codgers die off, says Kuhn, can the revolution in knowledge create a new world view. (Kuhn is usually credited for coining the phrase “paradigm shift.”) Indications are that the science of TM seem to be entering the final, argumentative stage of acceptance. In the spirit of science, anyone can know the truth about Transcendental Meditation by examining the data with an open mind. The vast and accumulating body of research validating the effects of TM may be seem anomalous in the context of the antiquated paradigm based on classical “billiard ball” physics (which still pervades our culture), but anyone who directly experiences the unified field at the source of their thinking process through TM knows that a new paradigm is on the rise: one that sees consciousness as the most fundamental element in the universe; to such a scientist, human awareness is as a field of limitless possibilities, where the vast range of benefits of TM are second nature and easy to accept because they are an everyday experience.

  • Craig


    Read the abstract . “Our review included any study that was published in a peer-reviewed journal, used a control group, and reported outcomes related to changes in depression and anxiety”

    This was not about cardiovascular outcomes. If they had been studying that topic then the study you mention would have been included, subject to meeting the inclusion criteria. As both a meditator and a scientist, this just looks like good review technique to me.

  • From personal experience, meditation really does help with anxiety but it shouldn’t be a primary cure. I believe it’s an excellent tool for preventing mental illness as well. It keeps things in balance as well as in perspective. I thoroughly enjoy it!

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  • Olga

    Meditation is indeed a great way to reach the level of seeing the

    wholeness and inter-connectedness of things”

    as you have so nicely explained it in you article. I also agree that by trying to use meditation as a direct cure, one somewhat lowers the aim of meditation and the results are probably not so good as those which come when really using meditation in the spirit of reaching the highest possible spiritual goals.

  • Steve

    One of the basics of Buddhism is that there is suffering. In my experience depression is suffering. While meditation is not a cure for depression, I am changing the the way I think and how I live. It’s all happening too slowly for me so I assume it’s happening to slowly to to be considered a successful treatment but I’m not quitting.

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  • Alick NEwman

    I refer you to vipassana meditation, not a religion or belief system, but a simple, easy to learn and difficult to practice technique, said to be the only thing the Buddah taught and passed on. A way of ending suffering. May not be suitable for anyone with a diagnosed mental condition, but certainly useful if you have the balls to pracrice it. I don’t.

  • Tom

    Craig, we’re talking about two different Canadian studies. You’re right.

  • Sonia Gallagher

    I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for a few months now to manage my stress level. I have been a lawyer for over five years and owned my own Firm for the past two years. The stress got so bad I’d get migraines and back pains almost every day. My massage therapist introduced me to meditation and my life has completely changed since then.

    Meditating made me realize I was in the wrong profession and that life was too short to waste away doing the wrong thing. I closed my Firm in February and now dedicate myself to online publishing about the benefits of meditation to people like me; overstressed, overworked, personality type A.

    I am a firm advocate of meditation being beneficial to reduce anxiety and depression because it has had that effect on me personally. Each day that passes, I become more calm and compassionate and overall a better person.

  • kscastings68

    This was a study about the effects of meditation on anxiety and depression, so it seems perfectly appropriate to exclude a study about blood pressure.

  • Hello All,

    Anybody read what Sharon Begley wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Buddhist meditators and neuroplasticity?
    I wonder where HeartMath heart rate variability biofeedback would fit? Mike

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.

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