While practicing it remains rare, meditation therapy is more popular than ever. Even if you have never practiced it yourself, chances are you’ve seen it on TV or read about it. Meditation is a spiritual practice with a long history in Eastern tradition and a modern history as a psychiatric tool and alternative treatment modality.
A loose history of meditation would trace it to the religious and spiritual practices found in Buddhist thought, especially in the schools of Zen Buddhism, which intersected with Western philosophical and psychiatric thinking in the 20th century, bringing the concepts of meditation and mindfulness into the field of psychoanalysis as early as the 1950s, through the efforts of famous thinkers such as Erich Fromm and Paul Carus.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that interest in meditation as a legitimate form of treatment began to rise, as a result of key studies on the efficacy and mechanisms behind transcendental meditation (TM) as a mental treatment modality. Interest waxed and waned over the years as the research methodology behind certain meditative therapies was questioned, to the point that “alternative therapies” such as meditation therapy and yoga therapy continue to be understood as positive, albeit with largely unknown or misunderstood mechanisms of action.
What is Meditation Therapy?
Mindfulness therapies and meditation therapies utilize specific instructions and complementary factors, such as a calm and quiet environment, a soothing background sound, and an emphasis on comfort, to:
- Help individuals avoid rumination.
- Cut down on intrusive thoughts or interrupt them through meditation.
- Focus on a task or activity that elicits enjoyment.
- Help individuals learn how to enter a deep state of relaxation in times of stress.
- Practice breathing techniques that help address hyperventilation and the physical elements of a panic episode.
- Minimize a crowded mind by focusing on a single point, thought, or sensation.
- And much more.
Meditation therapies are guided one-on-one or group therapy programs that usually serve as adjunct treatment methods alongside first-line treatments, such as psychiatric pharmacology (antidepressants or anti-anxiety prescriptions) and one-on-one psychotherapy (cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and other talk therapy methods).
While some research speaks in the favor of meditation and mindfulness techniques as a potential first line approach for depression, most research indicates that it is best used in conjunction with other treatment methods, as a supplementary modality to help improve a person’s stress management skills or help them calm down in difficult situations.
How Does Meditation Become Therapy?
On a spiritual level, modern meditation can be traced to Hinduist and Buddhist thought, where it originated as one method on the path to enlightenment: the cultivation of the mind. Buddhism alone is complex and exists through many different schools and competing concepts; but core to many of them is the idea that an individual may transcend the physical world and achieve enlightenment by learning to live within, above, and even beyond material suffering.
When adapted into modern psychiatry, the idea that we may learn how to live above pain is highly appealing.
But more practically, meditation is used to remind people not to mistake the forest for the trees – to embrace the current moment, abandon negative or wholly unproductive thoughts, put an end to aimless rumination or constant worrying, and find ways to apply a healthier perspective and physical as well as psychological mechanisms to reduce stress: such as breathing exercises, and taking a few minutes to spend time in a calm and comfortable environment.
Therapists trained in applying meditation therapy will help individuals and groups learn to practice different ways of applying meditative thought in their day-to-day and find methods that best work for them. In practical terms, this means:
- Providing the prerequisite setting for meditative practices.
- Teaching individuals how to create time and space for meditation at home.
- Practicing different methods to begin entering a meditative state (e.g., breathing exercises, mantras, repeating noises, focusing on a sensation or sound).
- Utilizing physical activities to enter a state of meditation (such as simple repeated physical routines, e.g., tai chi and yoga).
- Repeatedly practicing meditation as a daily or regular habit creates a sense of normalcy in learning to drop out of a train of thought and concentrate on “the present”.
It is important to note that meditation can be practiced in many different ways. Being free of judgment is an important part of meditative therapy. A good therapist will help you find your best way to practice meditation, whether it takes the form of something traditional like yoga, or a completely different type of experience, such as deep cleaning, puzzle solving, painting, or something entirely unconventional, like a simulation video game or interpretative dance.
The Hallmarks of a Good Meditation Therapy Program
Meditation can come in many shapes and forms, but there are a few hallmarks that set a good meditation therapy program apart from a less-than-ideal one. These include:
- An emphasis on focused attention.
- A calm and relaxing environment.
- A lowered stress response.
- A comfortable position.
- Slow, controlled, and relaxed breathing.
Many people are too worried about finding the right way to meditate. Flexibility is key, and so is finding your own path. While there are religious and spiritual arguments to be made for a “right” form of meditation, medically, anything works so long as it helps you calm down and take a moment to step away from your usual thought processes.
When Does Meditation Therapy Work?
Meditation therapy works as an adjunct treatment program for an array of mental health issues, most notably mood disorders such as major depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and bipolar disorder.
It may also work to help individuals with anxiety disorders, and trauma-based disorders, as part of a larger treatment plan that may include exposure therapy, EMDR, brain spotting, or talk therapy.
Most therapists will not utilize a meditation therapy program as a first-line treatment, but as an additional modality that can help emphasize a person’s stress management skills and bolster their resilience against life’s stressors.
At Amend Treatment, we help individuals learn to apply the skills and lessons learned through their meditation therapy program in their day-to-day life, whether it’s to catch a quick break during work or calm down before a stressful presentation or make the most of a long commute via bus.