SAN DIEGO—Mindfulness meditation is an effective, evidence-based treatment which can improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions, two speakers told attendees at a Psych Congress 2019 session.
Brain imaging research has even shown the practice to be associated with an increase in gray matter volume in 4 areas of the brain and beneficial changes in the activation of parts of the brain, Psych Congress Steering Committee member Saundra Jain, MA, PsyD, LPC, said.
“Mindfulness meditation practices are effective interventions, and sometimes for mild to moderate conditions—depression and anxiety—super-effective as front lines,” said Dr. Jain, Adjunct Clinical Affiliate, School of Nursing, The University of Texas at Austin, adding that they can be used as an adjunctive treatment for patients already on medication.
Psychiatrist Michele Hauser, MD, Director, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Austin, Texas, said mindfulness practices date back about 3500 years and began to be used in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. They became popular in the West in the mid 20th century, she said.
As of 1999, there was hardly any scientific research in the field, she said, but the number of studies has surged since then.
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There are other types of meditation, including Transcendental, Qigong, compassion, loving-kindness, and Heart Rhythm, but the presentation by Drs. Jain and Hauser focused primarily on mindfulness meditation.
Practitioners of mindfulness meditation choose a secular “target” to focus on, such as their breath or a mantra. As their attention wanders to other thoughts, they observe and acknowledge the thoughts then let them go and return to the target. Using a visual example like clouds in a sky or leaves in a stream can help patients with the process of letting their thoughts go, Dr. Hauser said.
The practice helps reset the balance in the brain that is often disrupted in people with mental health disorders, Dr. Jain said, adding “think about mindfulness as a way to soften, dampen, or quiet that internal chatter.”
Mindfulness meditation also teaches people how to purposefully respond to stressful situations, not simply react to them, Dr. Hauser said.
“Instead of spiraling downward into increasing anxiety and depression, we’re able to stop that spiral and respond in a more appropriate fashion,” she explained.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which is mindfulness combined with cognitive therapy, has been used successfully in a number of European counties as a first-line treatment for depression and anxiety and to prevent relapse of depression, Dr. Hauser said.
Dr. Jain noted that meditation must be practiced every day; patients cannot skip days and “catch up” on a later day. Research has shown effects from as little as 10 minutes a day, the speakers said.
“A real chill pill: the power of mindfulness in the treatment of anxiety disorders.” Presented at Psych Congress 2019: San Diego, CA; October 4, 2019.