Meditation has been trendy for quite some time. Practising meditation (or in other words, practising mindfulness) helps us to be fully present in the moment, enhancing our capacity to see things for how they are, free from judgement. In the stress-filled world, we live in, that’s a tempting offer.
Not surprisingly, meditation has found its way into schools, workplaces, research labs, and even our phones. The latest valuations estimate that the market size value for mindfulness apps is over $530 million and is expected to grow fourfold within 10 years. In terms of research, the National Library of Medicine’s online database currently contains more than 27,000 research articles related to mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is indeed one of the fastest-growing health trends, with between 200 and 500 million people meditating globally.
With great popularity naturally comes great expectations. Mindfulness practice promises a range of benefits, from reducing stress and improving symptoms of depression and anxiety to increasing productivity and creativity. These claims are not unsubstantiated. A meta-analytic study in 2020 showed that mindfulness practice has a considerable positive impact on both mental and physical health. Evidence Map of Systematic Reviews from 2021 indicates a positive or potentially positive effect of meditation on a number of areas – such as stress, quality of life, reduction of fatigue, worker health or quality of sleep.
A significant deal of research, as well as the experience of many meditators, proves that meditation can change our lives for the better. However, it is critical to realize that meditation is not a cure-all – especially in the case of serious psychological problems. Have you ever heard the term ´spiritual bypassing´? Spiritual bypassing is defined as a tendency to use spiritual explanations and practises to avoid complex psychological issues. In other words, those with mental health problems can try to replace psychological counselling with spiritual practices such as meditation. This tendency (given the still persistent societal fear of psychotherapy) is perfectly understandable but quite dangerous. Although meditation is a useful tool, nothing can replace the therapeutic power of a relationship with a well-trained mental health professional. For example, the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy is strongly supported by scientific evidence, and there is no data to suggest that meditation can replace it.
So what do we do if we are struggling with mental problems and at the same time we want to meditate? One solution is to seek psychotherapeutic help and use meditation as a supportive practice. Another solution is to look for a type of psychotherapy that incorporates principles of mindfulness into its techniques – for example, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) are excellent choices. These approaches give us needed professional help, plus a good dose of meditation practice.
Another common misconception is to assume that meditation will bring fast results. Sorry to disappoint but meditation is more of a long-distance race. Research from 2022 shows that it may take from approximately 160 to 650 hours of practice to achieve a clinically relevant amount of change. Therefore, don’t expect great results quickly because you may get disappointed and stop practising. Also, while 10 minutes of meditation a day is a good place to start, you should gradually build up to at least 20 to 25 minutes a day in order to reach the required 160 hours in a reasonable time.
In conclusion, meditation is not a quick fix for all problems. But it remains to be a great investment of our time and energy. It has been proven that those who meditate for a long period of time, experience a lot more positive emotions in their lives and a lot less negative ones. As a consequence of this stress reduction, the brains of long-term meditators are 7.5 years younger compared to non-meditators. So is meditation worthwhile or not?
Alexander Loziak PhD is a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the Centre of Social and Psychological Sciences (CSPS) of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He earned a PhD degree in Social and Work Psychology in 2021.