Meditation can be as good as drugs to beat the blues

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Article from The Times Newspaper Tuesday January 7th 2014

     "Meditation treats depression and anxiety as effectively as drugs for some patients, a study has concluded.
      Mindfulness, a Buddhist technique designed to focus on the present moment and help people to manage their thoughts by becoming more aware of them, appeared particularly helpful.
     However, there was little evidence that meditation helped patients to sleep better, feel less stressed or improved their overall quality of life, US researchers said.
     While studies have long suggested that meditation can help with anxiety, other researchers have objected that any improvement was the result of having something to do or the attention paid to the patient by a specialist.
     In the latest analysis, scientists at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, searched for studies that compared mindfulness, transcendental meditation, Zen and other meditation disciplines against placebos that gave patients equivalent “time and attention”, such as muscle-relaxation exercises.
     They found 47 studies involving 3,500 patients looking at a range of mental health problems, including depression and insomnia. Mindfulness programmes, which typically involve half an hour of meditation a day after about 20 hours of training, showed noticeable improvements for depression, anxiety and pain. There was no evidence that meditation was better than drugs, the scientists report in the journal JAMA internal Medicine.
     Madhav Goyal, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who led the study, said: “A lot of people use meditation, but it’s not a practise considered part of mainstream medical therapy. But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as other studies have found from antidepressants. A lot of people have this idea meditation means sitting down and doing nothing. But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programmes approach this in different ways. Meditation programmes appear to have an effect above and beyond the placebo.”
     His team argue that doctors should be prepared to talk to patients about the role meditation might have in helping with depression and anxiety, particularly as it has fewer side-effects than drugs.
     However, in a linked comment in the journal, Allan Goroll, of Harvard Medical School, said that the benefits shown by the analysis were much less than claimed by some alternative lifestyle enthusiasts. “Contrary to popular belief, the studies overall failed to show much benefit from meditation with regard to relief of suffering or improvement in overall health,” he wrote. “[This] begs the question of why, in the absence of strong scientifically vetted evidence, meditation in particular and complementary measures in general have become so popular, especially amongst the well-educated.”
     The study comes after Chris Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Care at the University of Liverpool, argued in the BMJ that antidepressants were too often given to people who were just unhappy. “Over recent decades there has been an increasing tendency, especially in primary care, to diagnose depression in patients presenting with sadness or distress and offer them anti-depressant medication,” he wrote.
     “But these pills won’t work for people with mild depression, or who are sad – but they have side-effects and we are seeing patients becoming reliant on drugs they do not need.”