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  • Writer's picturePatrick Foley

Meditation and Mental Health

Psychology Today. - Samoon Ahmad M.D. - July 17 2019
Does the science support the hype?

Fittingly, it turns out that this focus on breath may be just what the doctor ordered.

Meditation, particularly mindful meditation, teaches those who practice it to focus on the present moment, breath by breath. Suzanne Westbrook, a retired internal medicine doctor at Harvard, describes it as a means of “noticing what happens moment to moment, the easy and the difficult, and the painful and the joyful. It’s about building a muscle to be present and awake in your life.”

While meditation has been practiced by individuals from all over the world for thousands of years, it has only become a popular topic among practitioners of conventional medicine in recent years, largely because research has shown that meditation does not merely make one feel better or less stressed. There are physical benefits that appear to be backed up by clinical evidence. According to these studies, meditation can help individuals sleep better, cope with some symptoms associated with mental disorders like depression and anxiety, reduce some of the psychological difficulties associated with chronic pain, and even improve some cognitive and behavioral functions.


Sleep disturbances are extremely common, particularly among older Americans. Roughly half of all Americans over the age of 55 have difficulties either initiating or maintaining sleep, which can lead to fatigue, disturbed mood, and reduced quality of life. Younger Americans also have difficulties sleeping, though the problem is not as pronounced.

To see if meditation could be used as an effective tool to improve sleep, a team of researchers in California conducted a randomized clinical trial on 42 middle-aged and older adults during the entire calendar year of 2012. Half of the participants received training in mindful awareness practices (MAPS), which include mindful exercises such as “mindful sitting meditation, mindful eating, appreciation meditation, friendly or loving-kindness meditation, mindful walking, and mindful movement.” The other half received sleep hygiene education (SHE), which does not include meditation training.

While both were effective at improving sleep, the MAPS program “resulted in improvement in sleep quality at post-intervention relative to a highly active and standardized SHE program,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015. These numbers were quantified by relying on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, a 19-item self-report questionnaire of sleep disturbances. Those involved within the MAPS program saw an improved mean of 2.8, while the SHE group only saw a mean decrease of 1.1 (the range of the global score is 0-21, with higher scores indicating worse sleep quality).

More research into the correlation between meditation and sleep will be needed to corroborate these claims, but the initial findings are promising. “Mindfulness meditation appears to have a role in addressing the prevalent burden of sleep problems among older adults by remediating their moderate sleep disturbances and deficits in daytime functioning,” the paper’s authors wrote, “with short-term effect sizes commensurate with the status quo of clinical treatment approaches for sleep problems.” More clinical studies will need to take place to determine if these same tools can be used to address long-term sleep problems and if they are as effective for younger individuals.

The article continues to discuss Depression and Anxiety, Chronic Pain and Brain function.

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