By Alexandra Morris
Can medications and meditation co-exist?
Or, put another way, does mindfulness — the deliberate act of paying attention to the present moment and observing your thoughts drift by — have a place in psychiatric care?
The answer, according to some doctors: yes, maybe, at least for some patients.
At a conference held earlier this month at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, psychiatrists David Lovas of Dalhousie University and Zev Schuman-Olivier of Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance made the case for and against mindfulness and psychiatric drugs in treating patients with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses.
Over the past twenty years or so, the number of patients taking antidepressants and antipsychotics has increased substantially. And in many cases, patients are on multiple drugs at once: one third of psychiatric outpatients are on three or more drugs, according to one study.
So researchers have begun to examine whether mindfulness, which can include walking meditation, body scan meditation (to bring awareness to each part of the body in turn), mindful eating or yoga, or mindful listening can significantly reduce some of the anxiety and distress associated with such illnesses.
“We’re witnessing a culture that is focused and organized in some ways around medication as a primary form of treatment,” said Schuman-Olivier. “On the other hand, people can overstate the power of mindfulness intervention.”
It’s a careful balancing act, they say: for some, mindfulness-based therapy may be more effective at relieving stress and addressing mental health symptoms, while others may benefit more from medications or a combination of medication and meditation.
In some cases, mindfulness can produce negative side effects – it has been shown to draw out negative memories of past events.
Still, mindfulness meditation is being adopted more and more as a practice to improve health and mental well-being. The U.S. Marines, for example, are using these meditation practices to improve their attention and working memory, according to a recent New York Times report.