Meditation is often used in different forms as part of a psychosynthesis approach, both for clients and therapists. Mindfulness meditation is incredibly popular at the moment, so it may be helpful for therapists to know about some of the research studies carried out on the benefits of mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation has been described as a method that aims to relieve stress through an accepting and non-judgemental focus of attention on the present moment. Emotions, thoughts and sensations will all occur, but can be observed "from a distance" while the primary attention stays on the breath.
Evidence from a study of older adults suggests that an eight-week mindfulness programme leads to "increased awareness, less judgement, and greater self-compassion". The researchers, from Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, USA, recruited 39 people with an average age of 82 years, living in a continuing care community.
Half of the group was given the mindfulness programme, and this half showed significantly greater improvement in acceptance and psychological flexibility. They also felt less limited by their physical health complaints. This "demonstrates the feasibility and potential effectiveness of a mindfulness programme in promoting mind-body health for elders," the researchers conclude.
Another study, this time involving doctors, found that mindfulness led to greater relaxation, feelings of ease and peace, renewal, energy, optimism, happiness and acceptance. A group of 42 doctors was recruited by researchers at the University of the Basque Country, Spain. Their mindfulness course lasted eight weeks, after which they were observed for a year.
The benefits, as measured by relaxation questionnaires, "significantly increased after a year, especially for mindfulness and positive energy," the researchers report. "Additionally, heart rate was significantly decreased for a year after the treatment."
The practice of mindfulness meditation has also been associated with demonstrable positive effects on brain scans and immune function. In a study at the University of Wisconsin, USA, the standard eight-week course was provided in a work environment to 25 healthy employees.
Brain electrical activity was measured before and after the course. Compared with a similar group of employees who did not undertake the course, those who had practiced mindfulness showed significant increases in activation in a part of the brain linked to positive emotions.
The participants were also subsequently given an influenza vaccine. The mindfulness group produced significantly more antibodies, suggesting that the vaccine worked more efficiently and would lead to greater protection were they exposed to the flu. The extent of these two responses, in the brain and the immune system, were linked. What's more, the biological effects were long lasting - up to four months afterwards.
"These findings demonstrate that a short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function," say the experts. "These findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways and underscore the need for additional research."
Recent research has discovered that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can be effective for people with one or two episodes of depression. The technique is currently recommended by the UK's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) for people with three or more episodes of major depression. But the new findings may lead to approval for a wider range of individuals.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy involves eight weekly group sessions. It uses traditional cognitive behavioural therapy methods alongside psychological strategies such as mindfulness and meditation, together with depression education. The researchers, led by Dr Nicole Geschwind of the University of Leuven in Belgium, gave 130 adults either eight sessions plus CDs of guided exercises and daily homework, or a place on a waiting list. All participants had previously had at least one episode of major depressive disorder and were still experiencing some symptoms.
The mindfulness group had significantly reduced depressive symptoms - a 30 to 35 per cent reduction compared with ten per cent in the control group. This method seemed to be equally effective for people who had only one or two previous episodes of depression as those who had had three or more previous episodes. Full details appear in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Dr Geschwind said, "Based on this study, we believe that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy treatment for residual depressive symptoms should not be restricted to people with three or more prior depressive episodes, though replication of our findings with further research is needed. At the very least, the current practice of restricting mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to patients with three or more episodes of depression needs re-examination."
Overall, therapists can be confident that mindfulness meditation programmes can lead to a reduction in many aspects of psychological and physical distress. Hence a meditation-based approach can be widely recommended. However, researchers in the field agree that further research should be carried out to help clarify the effects of meditation programmes in improving the positive dimensions of mental health and stress-related behaviour.
Davidson, R. J. et al. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, July-August 2003, Volume 65, issue 4, pp. 564-70.
Moss, A. S. et al. An Adapted Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program for Elders in a Continuing Care Retirement Community: Quantitative and Qualitative Results From a Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Applied Gerontology, June 2015, Volume 34, issue 4, pp. 518-38.
Amutio, A. et al. Enhancing relaxation states and positive emotions in physicians through a mindfulness training program: A one-year study. Psychology, Health and Medicine. January 2015, Volume 20, issue 6, pp. 720-31.
Geschwind, N. et al. Efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in relation to prior history of depression: randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry. October 2012, Volume 201, issue 4, pp. 320-25.