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Meditation and Mindfulness: What You Need To Know

National Center for Complementary and Intergrative Health

What are meditation and mindfulness?

Meditation has a history that goes back thousands of years, and many meditative techniques began in Eastern traditions. The term “meditation” refers to a variety of practices that focus on mind and body integration and are used to calm the mind and enhance overall well-being. Some types of meditation involve maintaining mental focus on a particular sensation, such as breathing, a sound, a visual image, or a mantra, which is a repeated word or phrase. Other forms of meditation include the practice of mindfulness, which involves maintaining attention or awareness on the present moment without making judgments.

Programs that teach meditation or mindfulness may combine the practices with other activities. For example, mindfulness-based stress reduction is a program that teaches mindful meditation, but it also includes discussion sessions and other strategies to help people apply what they have learned to stressful experiences. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy integrates mindfulness practices with aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Are meditation and mindfulness practices safe? Meditation and mindfulness practices usually are considered to have few risks. However, few studies have examined these practices for potentially harmful effects, so it isn’t possible to make definite statements about safety.

How popular are meditation and mindfulness? According to a 2017 U.S. survey, the percentage of adults who practiced some form of mantra-based meditation, mindfulness meditation, or spiritual meditation in the previous 12 months tripled between 2012 and 2017, from 4.1 percent to 14.2 percent. Among children aged 4 to 17 years, the percentage increased from 0.6 percent in 2012 to 5.4 percent in 2017.

Mindfulness programs for schools have become popular. These programs provide mindfulness training with the goal of helping students and educators manage stress and anxiety, resolve conflicts, control impulses, and improve resilience, memory, and concentration. The mindfulness practices and training methods used in these programs vary widely. Studies on the effectiveness of school-based mindfulness programs have had small sample sizes and been of varying quality.

Why do people practice mindfulness meditation? In a 2012 U.S. survey, 1.9 percent of 34,525 adults reported that they had practiced mindfulness meditation in the past 12 months. Among those responders who practiced mindfulness meditation exclusively, 73 percent reported that they meditated for their general wellness and to prevent diseases, and most of them (approximately 92 percent) reported that they meditated to relax or reduce stress. In more than half of the responses, a desire for better sleep was a reason for practicing mindfulness meditation.

What are the health benefits of meditation and mindfulness? Meditation and mindfulness practices may have a variety of health benefits and may help people improve the quality of their lives. Recent studies have investigated if meditation or mindfulness helps people manage anxiety, stress, depression, pain, or symptoms related to withdrawal from nicotine, alcohol, or opioids.

Other studies have looked at the effects of meditation or mindfulness on weight control or sleep quality.

However, much of the research on these topics has been preliminary or not scientifically rigorous. Because the studies examined many different types of meditation and mindfulness practices, and the effects of those practices are hard to measure, results from the studies have been difficult to analyze and may have been interpreted too optimistically.

Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

High Blood Pressure


Insomnia and Sleep Quality

Substance Use Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


Weight Control and Eating Behavior

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

How do meditation and mindfulness work?

Some research suggests that meditation and mindfulness practices may affect the functioning or structure of the brain. Studies have used various methods of measuring brain activity to look for measurable differences in the brains of people engaged in mindfulness-based practices. Other studies have theorized that training in meditation and mindfulness practices can change brain activity. However, the results of these studies are difficult to interpret, and the practical implications are not clear.

NCCIH-Funded Research NCCIH supports a variety of meditation and mindfulness studies, including:

  • An evaluation of how the brain responds to the use of mindfulness meditation as part of a combined treatment for migraine pain.

  • A study of the effectiveness of mindfulness therapy and medication (buprenorphine) as a treatment for opioid use disorder.

  • A study of a mindfulness training program designed to help law enforcement officers improve their mental health by managing stress and increasing resilience.

Tips To Consider

  • Don’t use meditation or mindfulness 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 instructor of the meditation or mindfulness practice you are considering.

  • Take charge of your health—talk with your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Together, you can make shared, well-informed decisions

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