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.