Mindfulness meditation is a frequently studied, complementary tool for managing anxiety, depression, and ill health. Its roots can be traced to Buddhist practices that began centuries ago. Its use as a contemporary clinical intervention began in the 1980s. There are now affordable mindfulness meditation applications for smartphones and computers that provide a variety of guided meditation exercises which are easy to use on a daily basis. One such web-based meditation source is www.calm.com.
It was during my first year of medical school that I was introduced to the benefits of meditation for reduction of anxiety. My father was experiencing some serious health issues and I found myself constantly worried. This worrying began to affect my school experience. I began to notice excessive levels of anxiety every day and was soon experiencing near panic before written and practical exams. A wonderful psychiatry professor had mentioned a book during one of his lectures titled The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson. I purchased it and began to learn the power of meditation.
I have used meditation ever since to reduce worry and stress, improve my focus and sleep, and clear my mind during busy and challenging days at work. I have recommended this book and the practice of meditation to many patients over the years. Many types of meditation techniques are addressed, including guided, mantra, mindfulness, transcendental, and active types like yoga, tai chi, and Qi gong.
Meditation can be practiced by anyone. It requires no expensive equipment and can be done in a variety of settings: in the comfort of your home, while away on business, while commuting on the bus or train, and even during a hectic workday. The basic process involves sitting in a comfortable and upright position with the arms relaxed, to allow for ease of breath movement in and out of the body.
Mindfulness meditation guides a person to focus on the breath as it travels in and out of the lungs to deepen relaxation of areas of the body that are tense or in pain. It helps to ease the constant flow of thoughts in the mind that tend to cause stress, sadness, or pain. Meditation helps reset perspective, improve self-awareness, reduce negative self-judgment, and reduce worry about things that might happen in the future. By focusing on the present, it provides a calmer sense of general wellbeing. There is no wrong way to meditate, and it may not feel perfect every time. Techniques of meditation can be adapted to serve an individual’s particular needs. As with most activities, mindfulness meditation becomes more effective with practice over time.
There is a multitude of literature available on the subject of meditation and its potential benefits for a variety of medical conditions. Some examples for which mindfulness meditation has shown efficacy is in symptom severity reduction for asthma, hypertension, heart disease, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disturbance, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, eating disorders, obesity, substance abuse, and attention disorders. It has been shown, when added to standard care, to reduce symptoms of pain, fatigue, depression, and deficits in concentration and memory in veterans diagnosed with Gulf War Illness.
As is true for most interventions, the medical community continues to work toward designing methodologically sound studies regarding the use of mindfulness meditation as a complement to standard treatments. Care must always be taken when recommending the practice of meditation to patients for there have been some reports of adverse events, such as the occurrence of traumatic flashbacks or panic attacks during certain types of meditation. However, engaging in a regular practice of mindfulness meditation is likely to give our minds the break we need and to help us view and react to situations in a more accepting and nonjudgmental manner, to develop a kinder and less critical perception of ourselves, and to take time to nurture our health and experience greater overall happiness.