Fran Lowry

June 29, 2011

June 29, 2011 (Brighton, United Kingdom) — Regular, long-term meditation significantly improves mental well-being, new research suggests.

"Evidence suggests meditation may alleviate psychological distress," said lead study author Gauri Verma, MD, from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom.

"There is significant potential to apply the principles of meditation to affective states, such as anxiety and depression," she noted. "There is, however, little scientific evidence from population studies investigating benefits of any functional adaptation," Dr. Verma added.

The study was presented here at the International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists 2011.

Dr. Verma and coinvestigator Ricardo Araya, MRCPsych, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Bristol, investigated the association between meditation and psychological distress in 317 Buddhist monks and nuns living in Dharamshala, India, who practice meditation regularly.

They used the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) as the study's main outcome measure and asked the following questions to ascertain meditation levels:

  • Do you meditate on a regular basis?

  • How long ago did you start meditating on a regular basis?

  • In one sitting how long can you keep your attention during meditation?

  • How long have you been a monk/nun for?

The researchers also asked whether subjects had contact with family or friends, if they had become a monk or nun voluntarily, and if they had migrated.

Longer Duration, Better Outcomes

The study showed that the monks and nuns who had meditated for 10 years or more, which was the longest period in the study, had lower GHQ scores and better mental health. For every year they had been meditating, there was a 0.21-point decrease in GHQ score.

"The number of years meditating was the only variable that was associated with GHQ score," Dr. Verma said.

"To our knowledge, this is the first ever population study that has turned to the monastic community to explore the benefits of meditation," she said.

Meditation could be suggested in primary care for the management of mild depression or anxiety, just as exercise has been, she added.

Not Necessarily Generalizeable

Commenting on this study for Medscape Medical News, Kofi Kondwani, PhD, Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, said he was not surprised by the findings but admitted that he was a little concerned about the questionnaire itself.

"Is the GHQ instrument culturally unbiased? Was it developed and tested for reliability by native Indians or is it European based? How the GHQ was developed has a significant impact on the results," he said.

Dr. Kondwani also said the way subjects meditated is as important as the length of time they were meditating.

"I am sure there was a great deal of variance in how they were practicing meditation, unless they were all from the same monastic tradition. Some may have been contemplating on scripture. Some may have been concentrating on focusing the mind on a thought, breath, or object. Others could have been transcending thought altogether."

The results from this study could inform further pilot studies in Westerners who have mild depression or anxiety, Dr. Kondwani said.

"But to imply that if it works for [monks and nuns in Buddhist monasteries] it should work for us in the West is unsubstantiated by the evidence. The use of any survey instrument will have its limitations. Adding physiological measurements could strengthen future findings, remove cultural bias, and support this study's current conclusions."

Dr. Verma and Dr. Kondwani have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) 2011. Presented June 28, 2011.

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