Resilience & Mental Health

Meditation: What You Need to Know

What’s the bottom line? 

How much do we know about meditation? 

Many studies have been conducted to look at how meditation may be helpful for a variety of mental and physical health conditions. Several studies also have helped researchers learn how meditation might work and how it affects the brain. 

What do we know about the safety of meditation? 

Meditation is generally considered to be safe. However, people with physical limitations may not be able to participate in certain meditative practices involving movement. 

What is meditation? 

Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior.  

The 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that U.S. adults’ use of meditation tripled between 2012 and 2017 (from 4.1 to 14.2%). The use of meditation by U.S. children (aged 4 to 17 years) also increased significantly (from 0.6% in 2012 to 5.4% in 2017). 

There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common. 

  1. A quiet location with as few distractions as possible 
  1. A specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking, or in other positions) 
  1. A focus of attention (a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath) 
  1. An open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them) 

What the science says about the effectiveness of meditation 

Many studies have investigated meditation for different conditions, and there’s evidence that meditation can be helpful in the management of both mental and physical health conditions.  

For pain 

Research about meditation’s ability to reduce pain has produced mixed results. However, in some studies, scientists suggest that meditation activates certain areas of the brain in response to pain. 

Cancer treatment side-effects 

For people who suffer from cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, mind-body therapies, such as meditation, have been shown to help relieve anxiety, stress, fatigue, and general mood and sleep disturbances, thus improving their quality of life.  

Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines from the Society for Integrative Oncology recommend meditation, as well as other mind-body modalities, as part of a multidisciplinary approach to reduce anxiety, mood disturbance, chronic pain, and improve quality of life. 

For high blood pressure 

There is some evidence that meditation may reduce blood pressure. A literature review and scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggests that evidence supports the use of Transcendental Meditation as an adjunct or complementary therapy along with standard treatment to lower blood pressure. 

For irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 

Some studies suggest that mindfulness meditation helps people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but there’s not enough evidence to draw firm conclusions. A 2013 review of the scientific literature concluded that mindfulness training improved IBS patients’ pain and quality of life but not their depression or anxiety; however, the amount of improvement was small. 

For menopausal symptoms 

A growing body of evidence suggests that meditation-based programs may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms. A 2010 review of scientific literature found that yoga, tai chi, and meditation-based programs may help reduce common menopausal symptoms including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain. 

For anxiety and depression 

There is moderate evidence that meditation improves symptoms of anxiety. A 2014 review of the literature found that mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain, and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. 

For smoking cessation 

Overall, there is not enough evidence to know whether mind-body practices are as effective as other treatments to help people quit smoking. To date, there have only been a few studies on mindfulness-based therapies to aid in smoking cessation. 


There isn’t enough evidence to support the use of meditation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to a 2010 review of the science, because of the small number of studies conducted on meditation for ADHD, no conclusions could be drawn about its effectiveness for this condition. 

Meditation and the brain 

Some research suggests that meditation may physically change the brain and body and could potentially help to improve many health problems and promote healthy behaviors. 

What the science says about the safety and side effects of meditation 

Meditation is generally considered to be safe. 

People with physical limitations may not be able to participate in certain meditative practices involving movement. People with physical health conditions should speak with their health care providers or Care Team before starting a meditative practice, and make their meditation instructor aware of their condition. 

There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people with certain psychiatric problems like anxiety and depression. People with existing mental health conditions should speak with their health care providers or Care Team before starting a meditative practice, and make their meditation instructor aware of their condition. 

More to consider 

  • Don’t use meditation to replace conventional care or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem. 
  • Ask about the training and experience of the meditation instructor you are considering. 
  • Tell all your health care providers or Care Team about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care. 

Source: The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health