Can Meditation Help ADHD?
Q. Since meditation helps a person focus, can regular meditation help those with ADHD?
A. It seems as though meditation should help those with ADHD, but proof that it works has been sketchy. That's because very few well-controlled studies have been conducted.
Meditation is a mental practice where one attempts to clear the mind of distractions through a combination of deep breathing, mental focusing exercise and/or physical relaxation techniques. Although there are different methods of meditation, there is some evidence that practicing it can improve mental focus. So it makes sense to explore how this practice might affect ADHD, a disorder characterized by an inability to focus attention on any one thing for too long.
A 2010 review by the Cochrane Reviews found few studies looking at how meditation affected ADHD symptoms. Of those studies that have been done, many were poorly designed and thus were not included in the review.
If a study design is not sound, the results from that study cannot be trusted. That's because something else may have caused — or contributed to — the results. So, even if a study found that meditation helps ADHD, if there is a flaw in how the study was conducted or how outcomes were measured, you can't be sure that the results are truly valid.
For example, a sound study "randomizes" which subjects get which treatment. If a study doesn't randomly pick subjects to be assigned to one of the different study groups, and instead simply asks people to volunteer for the treatment they wish to follow, it might be that only a certain type of person chooses a particular method. So, it's unknown if all types of people following that method would get the same results.
Also, randomized trials should include a "control" group. A control group allows the researchers to compare those not following the treatment with those following the treatment that is being tested. If no control group is used, ensuring that there is a group who don't get the treatment but are treated the same in every other way, then it's unclear that results were the result of the treatment.
For example, drug studies often give one group a drug and another "control" group a placebo. If people taking a weight loss drug lose weight while the placebo group does not, you can assume that it was the drug that caused the change. But if there is no control group, and everybody lost weight, it could be anything that led to the weight loss — maybe even something that wasn't measured. Perhaps all the subjects got motivated to eat less and exercise more because they were excited to be a part of a study, and that's what led to the weight loss, not the drug.
For these types of reasons, the Cochrane review excluded the majority of the few studies they could find, and ended up evaluating four studies. Of those, they determined that only two were appropriate for meta-analysis. Meta-analysis is a review method where the data from several studies are combined. This boosts the number of subjects and therefore increases the 'power' or impact of the study results.
The review found that there was no consistent evidence that meditation significantly improved symptoms of ADHD or improved scores on various psychological tests that measure attention, impulsivity and distraction levels.
That doesn't mean that meditation doesn't work, there just aren't good studies to show that it does. For one thing, there are different styles and doses of meditation, so meditating by focusing on one thought or mantra every single day for one hour might prove effective, when doing it once a week might not. Or doing relaxation forms of meditation where you contract and release different muscles may work, but only if you perform the exercise in a certain manner. Only more comprehensive studies will be able to show good results and determine the most effective protocol — this research is in its early days.
So, should you try meditating if you (or your child) has ADHD?
Probably. This activity is low risk and has other proven benefits such as decreased anxiety and increased breathing capacity.
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