Meditation programs involve learning skills about self-awareness of the mind and body. The various available mindfulness practices can focus on different aspects of self-awareness, including breathing, thoughts, bodily sensations, or a combination of these and other aspects of awareness. “Many people meditate to reduce psychological stress and stress-related health problems,” says Madhav Goyal, MD, MPH. “However, its unknown if meditation has health benefits beyond the placebo effect.”

Examining Efficacy

Dr. Goyal and colleagues sought to determine the efficacy of meditation programs in improving stress-related outcomes in a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The authors reviewed 47 randomized clinical trials that included 3,515 participants. The two types of meditation in these trials were mantra meditation and mindfulness meditation.

“Our results indicated that mindfulness meditation may provide small to moderate improvements in negative aspects of psychological stress, including anxiety, depression, and pain,” says Dr. Goyal. He notes, however, that there was insufficient to low evidence that meditation had an effect on improving stress, distress, mental health-related quality of life, positive mood, attention, substance use, sleep, and weight.


Meditation programs were also compared with other measures, such as exercise, progressive muscle relaxation, and cognitive-behavioral group therapy. There was insufficient evidence to show that meditation was more effective than these measures. Furthermore, the researchers found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment, such as medications, exercise, or behavioral therapies.

Counseling Patients

“Clinicians should know what the evidence says about the health benefits of meditation to counsel patients appropriately,” says Dr. Goyal. “We should be prepared to talk about the role that meditation programs can serve in addressing psychological stress, particularly when symptoms are mild.” He says that there appeared to be no known major harms or side effects from meditating in the studies that were analyzed. Patients can safely meditate in conjunction with other treatments that they are receiving.

Further Study Required

It is still unclear how meditation improves psychological well-being, and stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of these programs on mental health and stress-related behavior. Further study is also needed among people with clinical depression or anxiety to better characterize the effects of mindfulness meditation in these patients. “The good news is most meditation courses are secular, meaning that people from different religious backgrounds should feel comfortable attending,” says Dr. Goyal.