We have all felt stressed at some point in our lives. Stress causes nearly all of the most common mental health problems in the UK, including anxiety and depression and it has been suggested that 25% of us will at some point suffer with a mental health problem. One of the most common treatments for stress related mental health problems is medication. Antidepressants are often prescribed to individuals who are depressed and sedatives are prescribed to help treat anxiety. Medication can be a very effective way of treating stress related illnesses. In 2008 there were 36 million prescriptions for antidepressants in the UK, costing the UK economy £7.5bn. Your GP would not usually prescribe antidepressants to anyone suffering with mild to moderate depression without first offering alternative therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT) and counselling. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a therapy that combines meditation with cognitive behavioural therapy and yoga. A mental health foundation says that meditation cuts the risk of repeated depression by 50% and MBCT should become more available. A recent television news report has suggested that meditation has been proven to be very effective in treating stress related illnesses and is to be offered by GP’s as an alternative therapy. What is meditation and can it really be used as an alternative to medication?
Meditation is a practice where the meditator attempts to go beyond the thinking mind into a deep state of relaxation or awareness. Meditation has been practiced for centuries and is a major part of many religions. It has become increasingly popular in western culture and is now commonly practiced outside religious traditions. There are many different techniques used for meditating and these techniques can even be used whilst going about your daily business.
Concentration meditation is a technique where the meditator prevents any thoughts arising by focusing only on a particular object or mantra and not observing any thoughts that arise. They focus only on the object or mantra.
Mindfulness meditation is a technique where the meditator sits comfortably and focuses his or her attention on something. This could be ones breathing, focusing on the inhaling and exhaling of breath. It could be focusing on a mantra or repetitive sound, or it could be an object to focus on, like a mandala or a flower. The meditator then clears their mind of all thoughts and brings their attention into the present moment. Any thoughts that arise are simply observed and not labelled until they disappear. Mindfulness meditation can be used anywhere. For example if you are at home doing the washing up, you should focus your attention on what you are doing. You become aware of your surroundings; you feel the warm water and bubble and become present in the moment. Any thoughts that arise, you observe them as just thoughts until they pass and bring your attention into the now.
Meditation seems to have caught the eye of the scientific community. There have been many studies on the practice by neuroscientists in laboratory conditions; using EEG’s to study the brain activity during meditation. Studies researched and published in scientific journals have shown that meditation can lower blood pressure, reduce the chance of heart failure and strokes, decrease depression, anxiety and insomnia, reduce stress and pain, boost the immune system and improve intelligence, creativity and learning ability. There seems to be no negative outcomes whatsoever from the practice of meditation.
Meditation has started to become a practice in some schools. Students at a school in Detroit, USA have started meditating for 10 minutes every day. According to some students, it has helped them pay more attention and concentrate better in class and as a result their grades have improved. Behaviour has also improved as they feel calmer. A British newspaper has also reported recently that students at a leading public school in the UK have also started to receive 40 classes in meditation and stress relief. The mindfulness course is said to be one of the first in the country and was designed to develop concentration and combat anxiety. It is not only schools that have introduced meditation; a meditation technique called Vipassana meditation has been introduced to several prisons in the USA, India, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Results showed an improvement in inmates discipline and their willingness to co-operate with prison authorities. The results also showed that the inmates were less depressed, less hostile and less likely to smoke. Staff at a prison in the USA reported a reduction in alcohol and drug addictions.
So meditation seems to help people who are feeling stressed and moderately depressed to manage their mental health more easily. Although it has been reported to help people with more serious mental health problems, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, it is unlikely to be able to replace medication completely. Medication is necessary for more serious mental health illnesses, but if it can be avoided and replaced with meditation, it seems to be a very healthy and effective alternative.