Meditation can help calm the mind and reduce anxiety, providing various emotional and even physical benefits.
There are many types of meditation. While certain practices are sometimes associated with unscientific claims, almost all types of meditation have been shown to positively affect practitioners. Meditation is not a replacement for medical treatment, but it can often be a good supplemental treatment. (Learn More — Meditation)
There are many health benefits linked to meditation, such as helping people better control their emotions, gain personal insight, and diminish stress and anxiety. There can also be physical benefits, including a decrease in blood pressure. (Learn More — Health Benefits of Meditation)
One study revealed some practitioners might experience negative side effects, but the study was extremely small; even the researchers acknowledged its limitations. While it is worth studying further, it is likely that the majority of people practicing meditation will not experience any serious downsides.
People who are limited physically should not practice some types of meditation without first talking to a doctor. (Learn More — Downside of Meditation)
The practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years. It is meant to achieve a tranquil mind and a state of deep relaxation.
While it is occasionally assigned mystical or religious significance, research and science have shown that meditation can help us calm our minds and reduce anxiety, which can have many health benefits.
While there are myriad ways to meditate, some common methods include:
- Guided meditation. This type of meditation is led by a guide or teacher who encourages practitioners to imagine a situation that is calming, using as many senses as possible.
- Mantra meditation. This form of meditation requires practitioners to silently repeat a calming word or phrase, which can help them to put distracting thoughts aside.
- Mindfulness meditation. With this type of meditation, practitioners focus on being aware of and accepting what is happening in the moment. The goal is to observe thoughts and feelings as though you are outside your own body, letting them pass without judgment.
- Yoga. Along with similar practices like qi gong and tai chi, yoga is a type of meditative practice that combines meditation with physical activity, such as stretches and poses. There are many types of yoga and similar activities for all levels of physical ability.
It’s worth noting that some claims that are associated with certain practices, such as qi gong, are not entirely based in science. For example, the idea of certain energies (qi) flowing through the body is poorly defined scientifically. At the same time, research has shown these practices remain positive for overall health.
Meditation is not a replacement for traditional medical treatment. If you are ill, meditation should only be used to supplement the treatments prescribed by your doctor. There may be some downsides to meditation, although the practice is likely very safe for the majority of practitioners.
Health Benefits of Meditation
Meditation’s primary benefits have to do with mental well-being. These benefits can manifest in a number of ways. Meditation can:
- Reduce stress.
- Develop skills to manage stress when it does occur.
- Increase self-awareness and one’s capacity for introspection.
- Lessen negative emotions, like anger and hatred.
- Improve one’s ability to imagine and create.
- Encourage patience.
Likely due to its ability to reduce stress and other negative feelings, meditation can help you physically as well. Meditation has been shown to:
- Reduce blood pressure.
- Lessen symptoms and flare-ups of irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.
- Alleviate depression.
- Help people with insomnia to sleep better.
At least among older people, meditation has been found to decrease the risk of acute respiratory infections. This result is very interesting because no other acute respiratory prevention strategy has been proven by science, apart from handwashing.
There is mixed data on whether meditation is an effective pain management strategy, although at least some research suggests it can help to combine mindfulness meditation with traditional pain medication. When reviewing such information, bear in mind that not all meditation will necessarily achieve the exact same results.
Some research suggests that meditation can help with smoking cessation, although studies are limited. More research needs to be done before solid conclusions can be drawn. If you are attempting to stop smoking, meditation may help, but it is not a guarantee.
There is early research suggesting meditation can help with menopausal symptoms. While few conclusions can presently be drawn, using meditation in this way has a good safety record, so you may wish to try it if you are struggling with your symptoms.
Downside of Meditation
When discussing the downsides of meditation, data seems to suggest the practice is largely safe. Most people will see benefits with no significant drawbacks, besides the time commitment.
The exception to the rule relates to those with physical limitations. If certain physical activities may be dangerous for you, talk to your doctor before engaging in meditation practices that include a physical component.
Meditation is becoming very popular, but there is some evidence that a small segment of meditation practitioners experience negative outcomes from meditating. One study interviewed 60 people, 32% of whom had a history of at least one psychiatric disorder. Many respondents had negative experiences associated with meditation.
It is important to note that this study was very specific. It focused on people from Western countries who meditated in one of three Buddhist traditions and had negative experiences related to meditation. Buddhist meditation often has religious elements; the meditation is not necessarily purely focused on bettering mental health. Certain other goals, such as furthering one’s religious experience and going on a spiritual journey, are largely unrelated to health.
Because some of the participants experienced feelings of depression and even suicidal thoughts, this is an important factor to consider. If you feel such emotions after meditating, see a doctor. Consider stopping meditation or at least changing your practice.
This study was limited to the degree that its conclusions should not be widely applied. The researchers who ran the study more or less openly say as much. Further research studies are warranted to draw a proper conclusion.
Meditation: In Depth. (January 2, 2019). The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress. (September 18, 2019). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).
Meditation or Exercise May Help Acute Respiratory Infections, Study Finds. (July 9, 2012). The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Menopausal Symptoms: In Depth. (March 27, 2018). The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Stress Symptoms: Effects on Your Body and Behavior. (April 4, 2019). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).
Does Meditation Carry a Risk of Harmful Side Effects? (May 26, 2017). UK National Healthcare Service (NHS).
A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi. (July 1, 2011). The American Journal of Health Promotion (AJHP).