Meditation for Troubled Minds: Can the Mind Heal the Mind?

Alternative_Medicine.jpgCan the mind cure the mind, working on itself? Well, although the entire self-help psychology industry survives on an assumption that it does — with various techniques, young and old, aimed at self-therapy, scientific research on the subject is still in its early stage.

Mindfulness meditation, or more commonly known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in psychiatric parlance, has been used “successfully” for years in individuals with a variety of medical disorders, including stress, chronic pain, depression, fibromyalgia, and eating disorders. Yet for any treatment protocol to enter mainstream medical practice, studies must establish a reliable, reproducible effect on a variety of scenarios, beyond statistical doubt.

A recent systematic review published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry looked at 15 studies on the use of MBSR in anxiety and mood disorders worldwide. The results, described as equivocal, indicate that at the current state of research, meditation can be at best considered an adjunctive therapy when it comes to treating anxiety and mood disorders — most studies failed to demonstrate it as a reliable primary method of treating these conditions. However the risk of relapse of successfully treated clinical depression was lowered when MBSR was utilized in maintenance programs.

Although the results may appear disappointing for meditation enthusiasts, a historical perspective may be illuminating. Meditation routines were first developed in ancient cultures, particularly Eastern, solely as a spiritual practice. Mindfulness meditation , as defined by the eminent mind-body researcher Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness, is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention to purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the experience of unfolding, moment by moment.” Awareness, in eastern cultures is the process of shifting your world-view, from earthly mundane matters, through progressive levels of detachment to gain a supra-ordinal view, where we see the wholeness and inter-connectedness of things.

Expecting it to work for curing psycho-social disorders, in my view, is detracting from the very basis of meditation — transcendence. If you meditated solely with the aim to get rid of depression or anxiety, it represents a desire to ‘escape’ from the problem, rather than work at the roots which give rise to it in first place — a biochemical imbalance in the brain, or social stressors as a causative or contributing factor. In the end it’s a ‘troubled’ mind trying to grapple with its own problems, looking for a technique not designed for a cure.

It is quite possible though, that if we look upon stress and anxiety as a warning signal from our mind and body that a change in the way we look at life and things in general is needed, and we view meditation as only a part of a whole series of measures to modify our current paradigms of living, it is likely to be far more successful in its originally intended role. MBSR research into illnesses could therefore be an incorrect way to approach the whole process of meditation in itself.


Toneatto T, Nguyen L. Does Mindfulness Meditation Improve Anxiety and Mood Symptoms? A Review of the Controlled Research. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, (April 2007), 52 : 4, pp 260-66.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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