When Meditation Helps Mental Illness — And When It Hinders

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It can help smokers as they quit, but meditation may not have the same benefits for some mental illnesses as it does for addictions.

Meditation is well known for its ability to relax and calm the mind, and in recent years, studies document that such mindfulness can also curb the cravings associated with addictions. In the latest study investigating the effects of meditation on smoking cessation, researchers found that smokers who meditated were 60% less likely to smoke than those who were simply taught to relax various part of the body. The meditation involved listening to music and focusing just on the present moment. Both groups took classes nightly for half an hour over the course of 10 days.

While the study involved only 27 smokers, these participants did not join the study with the intent of kicking their habit. And the smokers were unaware of how much they had cut back — they reported smoking the same amount, but breath measures showed that they actually used fewer cigarettes.  When questioned, they realized that they had indeed lit up less — some found more cigarettes left in their packs than they thought they had.

“The study suggests that something is going on in the training that caused this implicit lessening of craving that results in people smoking less without even noticing it,” says Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the University of California Davis Center for Mind and Brain, who was not involved in the research.

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And this study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, isn’t the first to show such an effect. Another study involving people who were trying to quit found that meditation actually weakened the connection between craving and cigarettes.  While higher craving is usually linked to higher risk of relapse, that wasn’t the case for those who meditated the most—the more smokers meditated, the less they indulged in their cravings.

“One of the core pieces of knowledge that you can gain from practicing mindfulness meditation is that your behavior doesn’t have to immediately follow from your feelings,” Saron says. If you feel the urge to scratch an itch but resist it, the desire to scratch increases but eventually wanes. In the same way, being aware of how cravings come and go can enhance your ability to resist them.

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That may be why meditation-based methods could be especially helpful in treating addictions, since other forms of treatment tend to focus on trying to control— rather than accept— the reality of cravings.

“Traditional treatment [tells] people how [craving and addiction] work,” says Sarah Bowen, acting assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington, who has studied meditation in treating alcohol and illegal drug addictions. “The [mindfulness] approach is teaching clients how to observe what happens after being triggered so they can see for themselves what leads to what.”

Traditional antismoking and addiction care can also become self-defeating when it asks addicts to suppress their cravings, which generally only heightens their feelings of desire. “What that does is make that thought increase and the same is true for emotions,” Bowen says, “Trying to suppress any experience is rarely effective.”

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The same effects may not be as helpful for other mental illnesses that often lead to addictions. People with depression or past experiences of trauma, for example, may find themselves feeling increasingly anxious during  meditation, no matter how much they try to focus on the moment. Or they may be plagued by intrusive thoughts, feelings and images of the past during their mindfulness exercises.

That’s why Bowen suggests that people with depression or trauma issues who want to benefit from meditation should try it with expert guidance.  “If you get stuck in ruts like rumination, there are ways to work with that,” she says, “It’s important to have teachers who are very familiar with meditation to guide you as you are learning.”  Experts can let people know what to expect and offer emotional support to help them through rough patches.

As researchers learn more about meditation— and test its role in treating conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder — figuring out how meditation affects the thought processes, and where it can go wrong will be important in determining where it can help, and where it may harm.

18 comments
jusroc777
jusroc777

I suffer from Generalized anxiety disorder.

This anxiety conditon was also exuberated by other conditions that i was not aware of.

Firstly I had Testosterone deficiency (Hypogonadism), B12 Anemia, HypoCalcemia, Vitamin D deficiency and Iron Deficiency. All conditions that make a person tired, slightly retard cognitive functioning, and induce stress.

Curing these underlining conditions reduced my anxiety.

During this time I suffered from Intrusive thoughts, which were very disturbing, so I started to read up on intrusive thoughts and started to practice meditation.

Intrusive thoughts, according to psychologists are very normal and most people have them. The content of these intrusive thoughts can range from irrelevant to very distrubing and in some cases personal.

However, if you do meditation and learn to identify these thoughts as intrusive in nature, you can learn to not take them seriously and learn to let go of them. Imagine them as coming from a naughty child who is going out their way to be nasty. Dont worry about them, learn to let go. 

Meditation, in the long term is all about learning to let go of  almost anything that is thrown at you, without your mind flinching. You watch your mind and observe the temporary nature of the content, watch the thoughts dissappear as quick as they appear, without reacting to them.

This is the power of meditation. Meditation can be used to overcome some mental illness.

I recommend it to everyone. Although, in order to get it to work for you, you have to do it regularly and keep doing it.

If you can, make your life less busy. Then you shall know the freedom and bliss of not suffering.

doctorlily
doctorlily

I meditate. I work with folks with PTSD. I like meditation as a tool to manage anxiety. I think if you work with a mental health professional trained in meditation and PTSD you will understand how your trauma triggers work and meditation can be a great tool in helping you manage the triggers. There is room for both types of learning, meditation training and Mental Health psychoeducation. 

JanetSinger
JanetSinger

Interesting article. Meditation can mean so many different things. It's true that for those with OCD,  intrusive thoughts might be an issue. However the goal for OCD sufferers, as well as sufferers of anxiety disorders, is not toget rid of the intrusive thoughts, it's about not assigning any importance to them, letting them "float by," if you will. Meditation also deals with just accepting thoughts as they come and living in the moment. As suggested though, it's best to get started under the supervision of a professional. For those who suffer from OCD, I talk about anything and everything to do with the disorder at: www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com.

JenniferSexton
JenniferSexton

I wish to comment on the adverse experiences some people have when they start meditation. Presumably when you take up meditation you are looking to improve your quality of life in some way,or find something out about yourself. When you start meditating, all that doesn't align with where you are going will surface in order to be reconciled, hence the importance of acceptance and being still. This is the cathartic process. So it's quite normal for anxiety to come up initially, or so called intrusive thoughts and memories. They are coming up in order to be reconciled. Meditation gives us a process through which we can manage ourselves better and gain insight and understanding.

joeleojoeleoj
joeleojoeleoj

I have to say this is an interesting article with some interesting assumptions. Meditation is a practice. Meditation is not something exotic, like a designer drug. It is not something external to yourself. It is just becoming acquainted with your mind. Now, there are some (many, I suppose you could say) that treat it with dogma, as though it is something special and outside of the self; something "to be sought." If you treat it as though it is something special and "out there," you will never get "in here." 

Also, there are many different types. Mindfulness is meant to be the part of meditation that you "carry with you," in everyday life. It is just focused attention. It is not voodoo. It is not about forcing the mind into submission. It is not about stopping thoughts. It is about becoming ok with the fact that we have spontaneous thoughts and through that acceptance gaining a necessary distance in our thinking process. In that distance we eventually find the space and clarity we inevitably find we always sought through thinking (where we dont have to identify with every thought we have). They are just options, artifacts even (and the key word is "eventually"). It is about acceptance, not change. Slowing down is hurrying up here.. 

If you have thoughts that won't stop, meditation is not the problem. It's the nature of the mind. In fact, this is precisely what meditation acknowledges and works with. Meditation is not about controlling the mind. Don't think of a white bear.

 What did you just think of? That's the human condition. We shouldn't treat it as though it isn't. Trying to control our mind is a sure way to madness, because it is acting as though the mind is something separate from ourselves (hint: it isn't). 

This is a part of mind/body duality that has plagued western thought since Descartes. 

And btw, I have/had PTSD and came to meditation on my own. I won't blow it up and act like it saved my life, for there were many other things that I did and people that came into my life that helped me. But it certainly helped me understand the nature of my mind in a way that I never would have through traditional western conditioning. 

Is it harmful for mental illness? I guess it depends on what you term mental illness and meditation, and how you approach both. But more so it comes down to what assumptions you have about meditation and about mental illness. 


FrancisMulhare
FrancisMulhare

I have to agree with the conclusion here. I suffer  PTSD from childhood trauma along with anxiety and depression. I attended a meditation retreat and basically had to leave after a few days because the anxiety triggered by the practice was unbearable. The moderators, who will discuss process only but not content, were completely useless in helping me deal with this. Later I developed a routine of Vipassana practice that I managed to endure for 1 year despite persistent agitation and anxiety. Eventually I gave up since it was clearly not helping. The only non-drug activities that I have found helpful for these issues are running and cycling. If you suffer from mental health issues be very careful with meditation..it can be dangerous and make your situation worse not better. It is said that,  traditionally, meditation masters would not accept students for training if they exhibited psychological difficulties...perhaps modern teachers need to resume that practice.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

To meditate , why do you have to sit crossed legs with arms in the air ?

Erick Wicks
Erick Wicks

I was a bit thrown off. The article does not match the title on the Time magazine "The Childfree Life". I would assume meditation helps a mental illness though. But I have no idea. But I would say if you have a mental illness its probably not a good idea to have kids nor them around (till you get help, depending on what the problem is).

bozhe
bozhe

This article does a disservice to people with depression, anxiety and other similar mental illnesses that feature intrusive thoughts. A casual reader will think that mindfulness meditation won't work for them (even though it does states that a person should have a meditation guide to help them overcome obstacles...).

 I had panic disorder and suffered from anxiety, depression and intrusive thoughts. A high dose of ant-anxiety medication barely controlled my issues. I had reached the end of my rope and wanted to enter a psych unit. Instead , to get me through my crisis, my doctor first first sent me to a 2-week outpatient program. Then My doctor sent me to  learn MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), developed by DR. .Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This program was an 8-week program meeting once a week where you learn mindfulness meditation (as well as mindful yoga and mindful body-scan) You commit yourself to 45-minutes a day of either meditation, yoga or the body scan, whichever works the best for you The program was originally developed for people to control intense chronic pain. it was then discovered to help people with anxiety,and depression as well.  I now have absolutely no panic attacks, I'm off the high dose of anti-anxiety drugs that I was on before MBSR and my depression is minor if not non-existent. I used to feel"I can't believe the rest of my life will be filled with intense anxiety depression with no way out". Now I feel that I have my life back The key for this program and for mindfulness meditation is to not  expect anything (not that it will work , not that it won't work) but to to be simply open to the possibility that it will work. Try it, without any expectations whatsoever.

TedArnold
TedArnold

It is a pervasive problem in the media and among scientific researchers that 'meditation' is coextensive with mindfulness meditation, which comes from Buddhism.  In fact, mindfulness meditation is a sliver of 'meditation' in Buddhism, and much of what counts in the tradition is cognitive in nature.  That basic problem in view, mindfulness meditation should not be expected to have much effect on mental illness at all - it does not address anything but attention, really.  It is that larger body of practices aimed at affect and cognition that would have any impact on mental illness, and that is where research should be focused.  The potential for studying those practices are virtually limitless

deligoer
deligoer

In order for a trauma or PTSD survivor to meditate a different approach is needed - one not so free form as that mentioned in the study.  By combining gentle and relaxing music, a sit up straight pose, and visualization techniques, I am able to enjoy meditation as a seriously relaxing modality.  The visualization is the most important factor here.  And yes, I would recommend it with an expert who can help walk the student through their visualization a few times before trying it on your own.  Good article!

bryon.mckinney
bryon.mckinney

I can relate to what you are saying. Aside from using forgiveness/self-forgiveness do you have any suggestions to dissolve these thoughts?

joeleojoeleoj
joeleojoeleoj

@FrancisMulhare Hi francis. I've suffered with PTSD myself. I have to say, if I came to meditation from going to a retreat, I would probably not like it much either. In fact, I'd probably hate it. I've since come to realize that it is about dropping expectations. Retreats and sometimes even just group meditations themselves tend to have an element of expectation (and almost competition, I dare say) to them. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. It's just how people are when they get together in groups. 

It also reminds me of what a colleague who lives near a retreat in colorado had to say about it; "everyone comes here to find themselves, when they didn't have to leave to do it." I've since come to find my own pace in meditation and to see it as a repairative process, where there is no destination and no special expectation. Just being. In a world in which we live in (and especially when you live with ptsd), that is the perfect prescription for me. 

LawsonENglish
LawsonENglish

@FrancisMulhare You might try TM instead of Vipassana. TM is purely and anti-stress technique. There is no training of mindfulness or attention or concentration involved, and the effects of just TM on PTSD have been very dramatic in a positive way.

ksbennett007
ksbennett007

@bojimbo26 This is a misunderstanding.  There are many different kinds of meditations from walking meditation to sleeping mediation.  I will say that most instructions will have a person be certain their spine is straight, but other than that you just want to maintain a posture that is comfortable for you.  

Peace_2_All
Peace_2_All

@bozhe 

I totally agree with you.  I believe that the article 'did' do a disservice to many people *inferring* that that if you have some kind of mental disorder, then Meditation may not be for you, unless you have an addiction.

I believe the author totally missed the point, while also stating ... that having a meditation guide would help those with mental disorders.

Bottom-line... The practice/experience of Meditation is a pathway to peace, joy, awareness, and... better self-control, among many, many other things.

Peace...