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What is More Effective in Improving Mental Health: Medicine or Meditation?

Posted on 03.06.2019
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Meditation versus medication may make a snappy title, but as almost anyone reading this will probably know, it’s a little more complicated than that. Firstly, mental health encompasses a wealth of different conditions, each of which can affect people to varying degrees of severity. Telling someone who suffers from psychosis to just ignore the voices in their mind and do some yoga is supremely unhelpful; their medication may be the only thing allowing them to live without delusions and has likely been figured out over a difficult trial and error process. 

 

Instead of suggesting a complete substitution therefore, it is probably more productive to examine the role mindfulness and meditation can play in mental health. Mentalhealth.org describes mindfulness as ‘an integrative, mind-body based approach that helps people to manage their thoughts and feelings.’ It is closely tied to what most would consider meditation and is now considered by NICE to be an effective preventative practice for people experiencing recurrent depression. Those practising mindfulness may use a combination of meditation and breathing exercises as well as more physical outlets like yoga.  

 

 

So, how does it work? Well, we used to assume that the brain we were born with was our lot in life and nothing we did could change that. However, research now shows that, as Aditi Nerurkar, MD puts it: ‘the brain, like any other muscle of the body, is dynamic. Brain cells and their connections respond and adapt to stimuli. That's neuroplasticity. And meditation may help to physically train the brain.’ A recent study shows that eight weeks of meditation can change our grey matter, the area of the brain which houses neurons. The definitive consequences of this change are as yet unknown but, if a mere eight weeks of meditation can make a significant change in the architecture of the brain, it may the potential to help treat serious mental health issues. 

 

In practical terms, mindfulness meditation can help people in a few different ways. ‘Evidence shows compelling support for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which helps people to cope with stress,’ asserts Mentalhealth.org. ‘And for Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which is designed to help people with recurring depression.’ This evidence comes from brain scans that show changes in activity during meditation, namely an increase in emotional regulation. Again, although not a substitute for medication, meditation and mindfulness (when done properly) can be a useful tool for dealing with the symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

 

In this digital age of ours, seeking help with meditation is easier than ever. If you want to explore it further, either as a way to manage stress, or just a good habit, you can try one of the many mindfulness apps out there. For instance, you can download Headspace to your phone for 10 minute meditations on the go, or Calm, which uses sounds to transport you to a peaceful place. Others may find the apps ineffective, seeking out yoga or mindfulness classes for a more hands-on approach. Whatever you choose, consistency is key and the effects of meditation and mindfulness work best over a period of time. If you are someone for whom meditation is not enough, there are charities out there specifically designed to help, such as Anxiety UK and Mind. 

 

More importantly than anything else, never be afraid to ask for help.    

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