Is spirituality a critical ingredient of meditation?

Wachholtz, A. B., & Pargament, K. I. (2005). Is spirituality a critical ingredient of meditation? Comparing the effects of spiritual meditation, secular meditation, and relaxation on spiritual, psychological, cardiac, and pain outcomes. Journal of behavioral medicine28(4), 369-384. Full text.

Abstract. This study compared secular and spiritual forms of meditation to assess the benefits of a spiritual intervention.

Participants were taught a meditation or relaxation technique to practice for 20 min a day for two weeks. After two weeks, participants returned to the lab, practiced their technique for 20 min, and placed their hand in a cold-water bath of 2◦C for as long as they could endure it. The length of time that individuals kept their hand in the water bath was measured. Pain, anxiety, mood, and the spiritual health were assessed following the two-week intervention.

Significant interactions occurred (time × group); the Spiritual Meditation group had greater decreases in anxiety and more positive mood, spiritual health, and spiritual experiences than the other two groups. They also tolerated pain almost twice as long as the other two groups.

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Comparing mindfulness meditation and guided imagery in patients with acute depression

Costa, A., & Barnhofer, T. (2015). Turning Towards or Turning Away: A Comparison of Mindfulness Meditation and Guided Imagery Relaxation in Patients with Acute Depression. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy, 1-10. Abstract.

Background: Disengaging from maladaptive thinking is an important imperative in the treatment of depression. Mindfulness training is aimed at helping patients acquire relevant skills for this purpose. It remains unclear, however, whether this practice is helpful when patients are acutely depressed.

Aims: In order to investigate effects of mindfulness on symptoms and self-regulatory capacities in this group, the current study compared a brief training in mindfulness (n = 19) to guided imagery relaxation (n = 18).

Method: Participants were introduced to the respective techniques in a single session, and practised daily over one week. Self-reported severity of symptoms, difficulties in emotion-regulation, attentional control, the ability to decentre, and mindfulness were assessed pre and post-intervention, and at a one-week follow-up.

Results: Symptoms of depression significantly decreased and self-regulatory functioning significantly increased in both groups, with changes being maintained during follow-up. When controlling for change in depressive symptoms, results showed significantly higher improvements in emotion regulation at follow-up in the mindfulness group. The ability to decentre predicted changes in symptoms from pre to post-intervention, while mindfulness skills predicted changes in symptoms during the maintenance phase.

Conclusions: The findings suggest that both practices can help to instigate reductions in symptoms and enhance self-regulatory functioning in depression. However, in order to improve emotion regulation above levels explained by reductions in symptoms more intentional mental training seems necessary. Furthermore, while the ability to disengage from negative patterns of thinking seems crucial for initial reduction of symptoms, maintenance of gains might require broader skills in mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation targets mood and anxiety disorders

Ainsworth, B., Eddershaw, R., Meron, D., Baldwin, D. S., & Garner, M. (2013). The effect of focused attention and open monitoring meditation on attention network function in healthy volunteers. Psychiatry Research. (in press).

Abstract: Mindfulness meditation techniques are increasingly popular both as a life-style choice and therapeutic adjunct for a range of mental and physical health conditions. However, little is known about the mechanisms through which mindfulness meditation and its constituent practices might produce positive change in cognition and emotion.

Our study directly compared the effects of Focused Attention (FA) and Open-Monitoring (OM) meditation on alerting, orienting and executive attention network function in healthy individuals. Participants were randomized to three intervention groups: open-focused meditation, focused attention, and relaxation control. Participants completed an emotional variant of the Attention Network Test (ANT) at baseline and post-intervention.

OM and FA practice improved executive attention, with no change observed in the relaxation control group. Improvements in executive attention occurred in the absence of change in subjective/self-report mood and cognitive function. Baseline levels of dispositional/trait mindfulness were positively correlated with executive control in the ANT at baseline.

Our results suggest that mindfulness meditation might usefully target deficits in executive attention that characterise mood and anxiety disorders.

Improves self-control capacity and reduces smoking

Tang, Y. Y., Tang, R., & Posner, M. I. (2013). Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Epub before print, August 5, full text.

More than 5 million deaths a year are attributable to tobacco smoking, but attempts to help people either quit or reduce their smoking often fail, perhaps in part because the intention to quit activates brain networks related to craving.

We recruited participants interested in general stress reduction and randomly assigned them to meditation training or a relaxation training control. Among smokers, 2 weeks of meditation training (5 hours in total) produced a significant reduction in smoking of 60%; no reduction was found in the relaxation control. Resting-state brain scans showed increased activity for the meditation group in the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex, brain areas related to self-control. These results suggest that brief meditation training improves self-control capacity and reduces smoking.

Reduces ruminative thoughts and behaviors

Jain, S., et al. (2007). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 33(1), 11-21. Full text.

From the Abstract: Although mindfulness meditation interventions have recently shown benefits for reducing stress in various populations, little is known about their relative efficacy compared with relaxation interventions.

This randomized controlled trial examines the effects of a 1-month mindfulness meditation versus somatic relaxation training as compared to a control group in 83 students (M age=25; 16 men and 67 women) reporting distress.

The data suggest that compared with a no-treatment control, brief training in mindfulness meditation or somatic relaxation reduces distress and improves positive mood states. However, mindfulness meditation may be specific in its ability to reduce distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors, and this ability may provide a unique mechanism by which mindfulness meditation reduces distress.

Supports treatment for anxiety (10-year review of research literature)

Manzoni, G. M., et al. (2008). Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-years systematic review with meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 8(14). [from the Abstract]. Read article in full.

Relxation training is a common treatment for anxiety problems. acking is a recent quantitative meta-analysis that enhances understanding of the variability and clinical significance of anxiety reduction outcomes after relaxation treatment. Twenty-seven studies were included, drawing on international research between 1997 and 2007.

The authors concluded that their meta-analytical study shows consistent and significant efficacy of relaxation training in reducing anxiety. They found that applied relaxation, progressive relaxation and meditation showed greater effect sizes than other techniques.