Study leader Dr. Madhav Goyal, an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, and colleagues found the so-called "mindfulness meditation" -- a form of Buddhist self-awareness designed to focus precise, non-judgmental attention to the moment at hand -- also showed promise in alleviating some pain symptoms as well as stress.
The findings held even as the researchers controlled for the possibility of the placebo effect, in which subjects in a study feel better even if they receive no active treatment because they perceive they are getting help for what ails them.
"A lot of people use meditation, but it's not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything," Goyal said in a statement. "But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants."
However, these patients did not typically have full-blown anxiety or depression.
The investigators analyzed 47 clinical trials performed through June 2013 among 3,515 participants that involved meditation and various mental and physical health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, substance use, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and chronic pain.
The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found moderate evidence of improvement in symptoms of anxiety, depression and pain after participants underwent what was typically an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation. There was not enough information to determine whether other areas could be improved by meditation, the researchers said.
They researchers also found no harm came from meditation.
Mindfulness meditation, the type that showed the most promise, is typically practiced for 30 to 40 minutes a day and emphasizes acceptance of feelings and thoughts without judgment and relaxation of body and mind, Goyal said.