Today’s story is written by Joe Antonellis, a student-athlete at Pomona College in California. Joe has the kind of enthusiasm about writing that makes you want to sit down and write too, and brings all this passion to his work writing about mental health and personal journeys.
Mental health is the most important aspect of living a happy and fulfilled life, but it’s often overlooked in our media and society, making it very difficult to reach out to others in times of suffering. This fear of judgement can cause many to hide their afflictions, masking their true emotions in a happy façade just to get through the day. In these moments, it’s good to develop strategies for overcoming mental issues, whether you have OCD or you’re simply looking to improve your mental health and live better.
Recently, in my immersive research at Pomona College, I have delved deeply into the intricacies and effects of mindfulness practices. These practices often relate very closely to Buddhism, a religion that emphasizes meditative and mantric practices. In the context of Buddhism, techniques like these are meant for a lay person or monastic to practice in pursuit of enlightenment, or the “end of all suffering.” Although for a slightly different purpose, the medical field has used these mindfulness techniques successfully in treating mental illness, specifically OCD. Not only have these practices proven to drastically help those with mental illness, they’ve also helped people who don’t have a diagnosis but still want to improve their daily lives.
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In the majority of cases, the effect of these mindfulness practices on the human brain is markedly positive. The American Journal of Public Health (2002) published a study analyzing the effectiveness of alternative medical therapies on patients with serious mental illnesses, finding intriguing results. 86% of patients identified multiple practices that proved beneficial to their mental health. These included meditation and guided imagery– both practices essential to Buddhism.
Another category of therapy used by the study was called religious/spiritual activities, which included spiritual recitation of scriptures. Not only did these practices help patients manage their mental illness, but the study concluded that they “promote a recovery process beyond the management of emotional and cognitive impairments by also enhancing social, spiritual, general, and self-functioning” (Russinova). This suggests that these practices have the potential to not only manage mental illness like prescription medication, but also give patients hope that one day they could cure their disease. With these religious practices resulting in such a high medical success rate, there must be some scientific backing to support them. . .
Buddhism is often viewed as a way of life rather than a “religion.” Although Buddhism includes various rituals, amulets, prayers, and worship, it is very different from other religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the fact that there are no definitive religious texts, creator deities, or divine prophets (Barash, 2014). Biologist David Barash believes Buddhism to be the religion most compatible with science, due to its emphasis on personal experience, rather than a reliance on sacred texts, as the gateway to knowledge. The empirical nature of Buddhism is very similar to the investigative foundation of science, allowing the two to mesh fluidly.
Buddhism, much like science, often defines its teachings through simple observations of the world. The Pali Canon, one of Buddhism’s foundational texts, lists countless reasons for why life is suffering. For example, Buddha’s saying that life is like a dew drop, that it will vanish at sunrise and not last long, is analogous to the pleasurable times of our lives and their impermanence, which causes a lot of suffering (Bodhi, 2005, p.206). Because of its insistence on constant observation and reasoning, Buddhism can easily coexist with science. This suggests there’s a good chance that Buddhist practices like meditation would also mesh well with “scientific” approaches to mental health.
Neuroscience is the quickest path to understanding the true effect Buddhist practice has on mental illness. A study published by the National Library of Medicine (2011) examined the effects on the actual biology of the brain, looking closely at grey matter concentration in the left hippocampus. Grey matter is critical to a functioning brain, including regions of the brain responsible for memory, self-control, decision making, and emotions. Patients were put through a common 8-week mindfulness training program, and had their brains examined throughout. The mindfulness program included guided meditation and imagery, slightly different from traditional Buddhist meditation in purpose, but basically the same in principle. After analyzing the results, the researchers found that mindfulness practices increase the concentration of gray matter in areas of the brain important to “learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking” (Holzel).
These areas are very similar to those affected by mental illnesses like OCD. In fact, these biological findings add evidence to the testimonies of those affected by serious mental illnesses in the previous study. Patients said that the mindfulness practices “helped focus their thoughts” (Russinova), and stopped panic attacks, mental effects explained by an increase in gray matter. Now, there may be an obvious correlation between the two studies in the effectiveness of Buddhist meditation practices on the brain, but it’s not clear whether these studies are comparable to the original intentions of the practices themselves.
Meditation and mindfulness practices have a known beneficial effect on those with mental illness. Part of the reason why is that they gives the ability for “one to view their thoughts and self impartially” (Rojas, 2013). Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, an OCD specialist, is famous for applying mindfulness practices when dealing with the disease. He believes it is possible, given the science of neuroplasticity, that humans can rewire their brains through the force of will and applied thought (Rojas, 2013). Therefore, under these guidelines, Schwartz believes that mindfulness can be used to completely cure some mental illnesses. He is not only saying these practices can be as effective as prescription drugs, but suggesting that they are simply superior. Training your brain to act with control is almost impossible to achieve when afflicted with OCD, but with the right techniques, the process can begin.
This sort of “self directed neuroplasticity” (Rojas, 2013) can be applied through meditative mantric and visual practices as well. In Buddhist practice, it is commonplace to recite a sutra as a mantra. For example, chanting the Heart Sutra over and over again will keep one mindful of the teachings, planting the knowledge of the dharma in one’s subconscious, even if what is being chanted is not consciously understood. Mantric practices can be extremely beneficial to those afflicted with OCD, helping in times of panic and obsession. Although those afflicted are usually not chanting Buddhist scriptures, the focus and concentration on any one repeated phrase holds a similar effectiveness.
Some struggling with OCD would even argue that mantric practices are more beneficial specifically for an obsessive mind. One testimony states that “negative thinking often comes from meditations on my anxiety” (West, 2014). Contrary to the previously discussed research, this patient suffers from OCD more when attempting to meditate because they more susceptible to obsessions when they are on their own and their brain is allowed to think freely. This view shouldn’t give meditation a negative connotation though, as the same patient recommended Mantric practices, which is basically a different form of meditation where one focuses on their chanting instead of their breath. Focusing on a mantra can also give meaning to a meditation practice, as the words being recited can be beneficial to the recovery of a patient. For example, a patient would repeat over and over again in their head “Do I have to do this right now? I’m in control” allowing them to stay grounded during the most persistent obsessions.
Alternative medical practices are becoming more and more popular in modern society, with many going away from traditional prescription drugs to pursue a more natural treatment. Specifically, in the field of mental health, there is a large debate on if it is necessary or healthy for those diagnosed with a mental illness to take certain prescription drugs. In turn, a large market of research has opened up on alternative practices, and Buddhist meditation has filled the void effectively. With a slew of research supporting its mental benefits, meditation has been biologically proven to help patients, and even provide an opportunity to not just manage the illness, but defeat it.
These practices can certainly be more challenging than taking prescription drugs, but the challenge is worth it in terms of the potential mental progress one can achieve. There’s the added benefit that these techniques don’t really have side effects. Science and Buddhism’s combined empirical relationship with nature gives mindfulness practice a true medical legitimacy, providing hope for those afflicted with mental illness that there are other options for recovery besides prescription medications.
Until next time,
The nOCD Team
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