Meditation for Treating Psychological Disorders

Learn about meditation for treating anxiety, stress, depression, emotional disorders, mood changes and other mental health conditions.

Learn about meditation for treating anxiety, stress, depression, emotional disorders, mood changes and other mental health conditions.

Before engaging in any complementary medical technique, you should be aware that many of these techniques have not been evaluated in scientific studies. Often, only limited information is available about their safety and effectiveness. Each state and each discipline has its own rules about whether practitioners are required to be professionally licensed. If you plan to visit a practitioner, it is recommended that you choose one who is licensed by a recognized national organization and who abides by the organization's standards. It is always best to speak with your primary health care provider before starting any new therapeutic technique.


Different types of meditation have been practiced for thousands of years across the world. Many types have roots in Eastern religions.

Meditation can generally be defined as the self-regulation of attention to suspend the normal stream of consciousness. A common goal of meditation is to reach a state of "thoughtless awareness," during which a person is passively aware of sensations at the present moment. It is this goal that distinguishes meditation from relaxation. Various types of meditation may use different techniques. Techniques that include constant repetition of sounds or images without striving for a state of thoughtless awareness are sometimes called "quasi-meditative."

  • Mindfulness — This involves focusing on a physical sensation. When thoughts intrude, the meditating individual returns to the focus.

  • Breath mediation — This involves focusing on the process of breathing. Breathing exercises taught in childbirth classes are based on this technique.

  • Visualization — This involves focusing on specific places or situations.

  • Analytical meditation — This involves an attempt to comprehend the deeper meaning of an object of focus.

  • Walking meditation — This Zen Buddhist form of meditation called kinhin involves focusing on the sensation of the feet against the ground.

  • Transcendental meditation — This involves focusing on a mantra (a sound, word or phrase that is repeated over and over, either aloud, as a chant or silently). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced transcendental medication to the West in the late 1950s, and this practice was well publicized because of its famous followers such as the Beatles. A goal of transcendental meditation is to reach a state of relaxed awareness. Intruding thoughts may be noticed passively before returning to the mantra. The claimed health benefits are controversial, such as improved IQ and reduced violent tendencies. It has been debated as to whether transcendental meditation should be classified as a religion, because some people assert that transcendental meditation constitutes a cult or a religious sect.

Meditation is usually practiced in a quiet environment and in a comfortable position. Sessions vary in length and frequency. It is often recommended that meditation be practiced at the same time each day.

There is no broadly recognized certification or licensure for meditation instructors, although some organized religions and professional organizations have specific requirements for formal training and credentialing of new teachers.


There are a number of theories about how meditation works and its potential health benefits. One hypothesis is that it reduces activity of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight response), leading to a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure, slower breathing and muscle relaxation.

Several preliminary studies of transcendental meditation have noted these types of effects, although the research techniques were of poor quality, and the results cannot be considered conclusive. Changes in hormone levels, lactic acid levels, blood flow to the brain and brain wave patterns have been reported in some studies that were of poor quality. Better research is necessary to make a firm conclusion.


Scientists have studied meditation for the following health problems:

Anxiety, stress
There are several studies of the effects of mindfulness, transcendental meditation or "meditation-based stress reduction programs" on anxiety (including in patients with chronic or fatal illnesses, such as cancer). This research is not well designed, and although some benefits are reported, the results cannot be considered conclusive.

Because of weaknesses in research design, it remains unclear if any form of meditation is beneficial in people with asthma.

Because of weaknesses in research design, it remains unclear if any form of meditation is beneficial in people with fibromyalgia.

High blood pressure
There are reports that transcendental meditation may lower blood pressure over short periods of time and that its long-term effects may improve mortality. However, because of weaknesses in research design, a firm conclusion cannot be reached.

Atherosclerosis (clogged arteries)
Transcendental meditation, along with other therapies, has been reported to help attenuate atherosclerosis in older people, particularly in those with apparent cardiovascular heart disease. Further research is needed to confirm any potential benefits from meditation alone.

Sahaja yoga, which incorporates meditation techniques, may have some benefit in the management of moderate to severe asthma. Further studies are needed before a firm conclusion can be drawn.

Quality of life in breast cancer
Preliminary research suggests no added benefits of transcendental meditation techniques over support groups alone to improve quality of life in women with breast cancer. Additional research would be necessary to form a more firm conclusion in this area.

Immune function
Preliminary research reports increased antibody response after meditation. Further study is needed to confirm these findings.



Unproven Uses

Meditation has been suggested for many other uses, based on tradition or on scientific theories. However, these uses have not been thoroughly studied in humans, and there is limited scientific evidence about safety or effectiveness. Some of these suggested uses are for conditions that are potentially life-threatening. Consult with a health care provider before using meditation for any use.

Angina (chest pain)
Breast milk abnormalities
Bulimia nervosa
Cancer (including prevention)
Cardiac syndrome X
Cardiovascular rehabilitation
Chronic pain
Cognitive function
Coping with chronic illness
Coping with pain
Coronary artery disease (including prevention)
Drug abuse
Emotional disorders
Enhanced concentration
Enhanced memory
Fatigue in cancer patients
Fear of open spaces
Gag reflex abnormalities
Gastrointestinal disorders
Generalized anxiety disorder
Habitual responding
Headache (including that related to smoking cessation)
Heart attack prevention
Heart rate reduction
Heart rhythm abnormalities
High blood pressure
High cholesterol
Immune system stimulation
Improved mental clarity
Irritability caused by smoking cessation
Irritable bowel syndrome
Low blood cortisol levels
Menopausal symptoms
Mental illness
Mood changes
Mood disturbances
Multiple sclerosis
Muscle tension
Panic attacks
Panic disorder
Parkinson's disease
Peripheral vascular disease
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Premenstrual syndrome
Psychosomatic disorders
Quality of life
Raynaud's disease
Reduced oxygen consumption
Sleep disorders
Smoking cessation
Stress-related disorders
Stroke prevention
Substance abuse
Tension headache
Upset stomach


Potential Dangers

Most types of meditation are believed to be safe in healthy individuals. However, the safety of meditation is not well studied.

People with underlying psychiatric disorders should speak with a mental health provider before beginning meditation because there have been rare reports of mania or worsening of other symptoms. Some publications warn that intensive meditation can cause anxiety, depression or confusion, although this is not well studied.

The use of meditation should not delay the time it takes to see a health care provider for diagnosis or treatment with more proven techniques or therapies. And meditation should not be used as the sole approach to illness.


Meditation is an ancient technique with many modern variations. Meditation has been suggested as a way to improve many health conditions. However, well-designed research is lacking, and the scientific evidence remains inconclusive. People with psychiatric disorders should speak with a mental health provider before beginning meditation. Meditation should not be used as the sole approach to illness.

The information in this monograph was prepared by the professional staff at Natural Standard, based on thorough systematic review of scientific evidence. The material was reviewed by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School with final editing approved by Natural Standard.


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  1. Natural Standardd: An organization that produces scientifically based reviews of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) topics
  2. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): A division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services dedicated to research

Selected Scientific Studies: Meditation

Natural Standard reviewed more than 750 articles to prepare the professional monograph from which this version was created.

Some of the more recent studies are listed below:

    1. Barnes VA, Treiber FA, Davis H. Impact of transcendental meditation on cardiovascular function at rest and during acute stress in adolescents with high normal blood pressure. J Psychosom Res 2001;51(4):597-605.
    2. Barnes VA, Treiber FA, Turner JR, et al. Acute effects of transcendental meditation on hemodynamic functioning in middle-aged adults. Psychosom Med 1999;61(4):525-531.
    3. Blamey P, Hardiker J. US prisons use meditation technique with success. Nursing Standard 2001;15(46):31.
    4. Carlson LE, Ursuliak Z, Goodey E, et al. The effects of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients: 6-month follow-up. Support Care Cancer 2001;9(2):112-123.
    5. Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, et al. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med 2003;65(4):564-570.


  1. Fields JZ, Walton KG, Schneider RH, et al. Effect of a multimodality natural medicine program on carotid atherosclerosis in older subjects: a pilot trial of Maharishi Vedic Medicine. Am J Cardiol 2002;Apr 15, 89(8):952-958.
  2. Gaffney L, Smith CA. Use of complementary therapies in pregnancy: the perceptions of obstetricians and midwives in South Australia. Aust N Z J Obstet Gynaecol 2003;44(1):24-29.
  3. Keefer L, Blanchard EB. A one-year follow-up of relaxation response meditation as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. Behav Res Ther 2002;40(5):541-546.
  4. King MS, Carr T, D'Cruz C. Transcendental meditation, hypertension and heart disease. Aust Fam Physician 2002;31(2):164-168.
  5. Larkin M. Meditation may reduce heart attack and stroke risk. Lancet 2000;355(9206):812.
  6. Manocha R, Marks GB, Kenchington P, et al. Sahaja yoga in the management of moderate to severe asthma: a randomized controlled trial. Thorax 2002;Feb, 57(2):110-115. Comment in: Thorax 2003;Sep, 58(9):825-826.
  7. Mason O, Hargreaves I. A qualitative study of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. Br J Med Psychol 2001;74(Pt 2):197-212.
  8. Mills N, Allen J. Mindfulness of movement as a coping strategy in multiple sclerosis: a pilot study. Gen Hosp Psychiatry 2000;22(6):425-431.
  9. Schneider RH, Alexander CN, Staggers F, et al. Long-term effects of stress reduction on mortality in persons > or = 55 years of age with systemic hypertension. Am J Cardiol 2005;95(9):1060-1064.
  10. Schneider RH, Alexander CN, Rainforth M, et al. Randomized controlled trials of effects of the transcendental meditation program on cancer, cardiovascular, and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis. Ann Behav Med 1999;21(Suppl):S012.
  11. Speca M, Carlson LE, Goodey E, et al. A randomized, wait-list controlled clinical trial: the effect of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients. Psychosom Med 2000;62(5):613-622.
  12. Tacon AM, McComb J, Caldera Y, Randolph P. Mindfulness meditation, anxiety reduction, and heart disease: a pilot study. Fam Community Health 2003;Jan-Mar, 26(1):25-33.
  13. Targ EF, Levine EG. The efficacy of a mind-body-spirit group for women with breast cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Gen Hosp Psychiatry 2002;Jul-Aug, 24(4):238-248.
  14. Wenk-Sormaz H. Meditation can reduce habitual responding. Altern Ther Health Med 2005;11(2):42-58.
  15. Williams KA, Kolar MM, Reger BE, et al. Evaluation of a wellness-based mindfulness stress reduction intervention: a controlled trial. Am J Health Promot 2001;15(6):422-432.
  16. Winzelberg AJ, Luskin FM. The effect of a meditation training in stress levels in secondary school teachers. Stress Medicine 1999;15(2):69-77.
  17. Yorston GA. Mania precipitated by meditation: a case report and literature review. Mental Health Relig Culture 2001;4(2):209-213.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 29). Meditation for Treating Psychological Disorders, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Last Updated: July 10, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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