How can meditation improve mental health?

Can meditation really help with Alzheimer’s dementia, depression, anxiety and stress? If so, how?

Should you meditate to improve mental health

This is the big question in meditation research, the short answer is yes, but it depends. It’s important to point out that meditation also protects you against mental illness in several different ways. But before you start your online search for a meditation cushion and some incense, there are a few qualifications you need to be aware of.

Firstly what do we mean by mental health? From a psychological point of view, mental health is a broad term that encompasses almost every functional and structural mental disorder that a human can experience. If you take a look at the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), you’ll find over 150 conditions listed (I’ve included the main sub-headings and examples in a table below). Most scientific meditation and mindfulness research is linked to one particular condition or group of conditions. Therefore if you are looking for a meditation method to help treat a diagnosed disorder, you must take advice from an expert health care practitioner in that field. The idea that any one meditation or mindfulness method can be used to treat a range of mental health problems has no basis in evidence or anecdote. However, just as a walk in the open air or a visit to the seaside might make people feel happier, meditation can offer general support to many different people.

Lifelong happiness

We now have to consider a second qualification; there are profound differences between spiritual and medicalised (modern) forms of meditation. This is not surprising because traditional meditation seeks to offer a permanent, holistic cure to the more general issues we face in our lives. In contrast, medicalised meditation, at least those methods that have been scientifically validated, focus on treating a particular problem, not finding a solution. Without wishing to oversimplify, we see traditional meditation linked to improved overall mental stability, increased happiness, and subsequent benefits. Medicalised meditation has been developed to address quite specific psychological and physiological issues. Before you start any course of meditation or mindfulness it’s always good to share your goals with your teacher; they should be able to explain technically how the meditation works and what it is likely to do for you.

Resilience is the mental resource to cope with life’s problems; when we have good resilience we are much less likely to develop chronic or acute mental illness. This is probably the area where meditation is most useful, improving mental health and protecting us from illness. There is evidence that even a few weeks of meditation can help, but in all probability, only a lifelong meditation habit can deliver lifelong protection. For example, we know that meditation can create new brain structure in older adults with early stage dementia. So if you begin meditating in your 30s or 40s, you start to build the brain functions and structures to create resilience now and for the future.

Traditionally we associate meditation with happiness and joy. If you find the right teacher and the right method, regular meditation should be a pleasure that will offer a wide range of benefits for your life. Leading you to greater happiness and (probably) improving the quality of life of the people around you.

If you need advice on any particular meditation methods, drop me an email, and I’ll try to point you towards relevant resources.

The current categorisation of mental health disorders

CategoriesExamples
Neurodevelopmental disordersCommunication disorders, stuttering, autism spectrum disorder and Aspergers. Motor disorders, including tic disorders such as Tourette syndrome.
Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disordersIncludes delusional disorder and catatonia.
Bipolar disordersBipolar I, bipolar II and anxious distress.
Depressive disordersPersistent depressive disorder.
Anxiety disorders  Agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Trauma- and stressor-related disorders  Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorders.
Dissociative disordersDepersonalisation and dissociative identity disorder.
Somatic symptom and related disorders  Chronic pain (inked to certain psychological conditions).
Feeding and eating disordersBinge eating, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
Elimination disorders 
Sleep–wake disordersInsomnia, narcolepsy, hypersomnolence, sleep apnea and sleep-related hypoventilation.
Sexual dysfunctionsSexual desire and arousal disorders.
Gender dysphoria 
Disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disordersPyromania, kleptomania, antisocial personality disorder.
Substance-related and addictive disordersGambling (addiction) disorder and tobacco use disorder.
Neurocognitive disorders  Dementia, major neurocognitive disorder and mild neurocognitive disorder.
Personality disorders 
Paraphilic disordersPedophilic disorder.