How Meditation Is Better Than Drugs Pt 1 Depression, Anxiety, And Pain

how meditation is better than drugs pt 1 depression, anxiety, pain

Drugs can be awesome. They’re the closest thing we have to superhuman serums. What other substance can you name that will make you happy, take away your pain, increase your focus and creativity, take away your anxiety and depression, and even slow down the brain-aging process?!

But then the high wears off and you’re back to square one, unpleasant as ever. Drugs aren’t magic pills, they’re chemical loan sharks that provide temporary solutions to permanent problems. And when it comes time to pay, boy do they make you pay.

man staring into camera

But what if there was a permanent solution to these permanent problems? One that didn’t require spending dollars or sacrificing your body?

There’s one solution. All those drugs wrapped into one. Except it’s not a drug, it’s better than drugs.

It’s meditation.

I’ve made a couple off-hand references before claiming it improves confidence and productivity. But here’s the nitty-gritty, the science behind the claims of how meditation is better than drugs.

“As Good As Anti-Depressants”

Not my words.

These small effects are comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population but without the associated toxicities. – JAMA Internal Medicine

This is from a mindfulness meditation experiment where they tested for its impact on psychological  stresses such as anxiety and depression.

There’s a reason for this and it’s not magic. But for those of us who are anxious and depressed, it’ll sure feel like it.

It has to do with your left brain.

Your right brain is the nerd. It deals with facts and numbers ie. the sky is blue, the grass is green.

Your left brain is the artist. It tells you stories based on the facts ie. the sky is blue because of global warming, the grass is green because of house paint.

You might laugh at those stories, but the left brain can get out of control sometimes which lead to situations like:

Right Brain: Everyone at the table is frowning. They’re not laughing at our brilliant jokes.

Left Brain: Obviously, they hate us and are plotting our death.

Eric Barker –  Neuroscience Of Mindfulness: How To Make Your Mind Happy

wild wolf

As advanced as we are, the human brain is still living in prehistoric times. Which means that we hope for the worst. That’s right, your own brain is working against you.


Because that was the only way for humans to survive when we were surrounded by murderous animals that wanted to eat us.

Imagine this. One day you’re out in your loincloth picking some berries. You hear a rustle in the bushes and you have two options.

  • A) Ignore it. It’s probably nothing.
  • B) Run for it!

If you run for it and you were wrong, you lose some energy and perhaps the berries you were picking.

If you ignore it, however, and you were wrong…

People who ran for it had higher chances of survival because they managed to run from the living death machines that lived in the wild.

Contrast this with today.

If you saw somebody run from every sudden movement or sound, you would think something was wrong with them. But that’s exactly what happens when we’re confronted with the “rustle-in-the-bushes feeling.”

Fight or flight.

Our responses haven’t changed, just the stimuli.

Mental Judo

The more you practice mindfulness meditation the more you’ll be able to realize how irrational those stories are and cut them off before they influence your actions and emotions.

Most live their lives as the interpreter, they are the interpreter, and the mind is a master they are not even aware of. They are angry, offended, happy or fearful and do not question the authenticity of these thoughts and experiences. The left-brain interpreter is always on and cannot be shut off but once it is recognized, things begin to change… – The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment 

Getting rid of the left brain isn’t possible… nor would it be something you would like to happen (imagine if you suddenly lost your ability to predict what would happen in the next GoT episode).

But you can turn it in something useful and be happier as a result.

That’s right. You can perform mental judo on your own brain to be happier.


You start telling yourself stories that you actually want to hear.

In one of Ochsner’s reappraisal experiments, participants are shown a photo of people crying outside a church, which naturally makes participants feel sad. They are then asked to imagine the scene is a wedding, that people are crying tears of joy. At the moment that participants change their appraisal of the event, their emotional response changes, and Ochsner is there to capture what is going on in their brain using an fMRI. As Ochsner explains, “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.” – Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long

When you change how you look at something, the emotions you feel change as well.

Stronger Than Morphine…In The Good Way

ballet dancing

Again not my words.

“We found a big effect – about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.” – Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D

This is after four 20-minute sessions of mindfulness meditation. That means in less time than two GoT episodes you can increase your pain tolerance and decrease the amount of pain you feel!

There’s no spiritual being giving you their blessings when you meditate.

It’s all science baby.

Again this has to do with how the left brain keeps messing up.

The stories your left brain feeds you directly affects how you perceive pain. Just to show you how crazy it is, phantom limb pain is pain that exists in a limb that’s been amputated or in more general terms, a limb that doesn’t exist.

There are at least 12 disorders, such as phantom limb pain or atypical facial pain, where pain occurs in the absence of tissue damage. – Treating Chronic Pain With Meditation

The power of your left brain is that powerful.

How do you cure phantom limb pain?

One way of treating it is you trick the left brain via mirror therapy or the grown-up version of the ‘got your nose’ game.

The cliffnotes version of that link is you trick the brain into believing a reflection of your remaining arm or leg is the “phantom limb.” Then from that illusion, you can move the phantom limb into a more comfortable position.

The left brain can be pretty stupid so controlling it and choosing which stories you choose to believe in is vital.

Fight or Flight

In 1972 a study discovered meditation reduced activity in the sympathetic nervous system or the fight-or-flight response.

The fight-or-flight response induces increased blood pressure and heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and increases metabolism. Very nice to have when you’re out in the wild surrounded by living death machines, not so useful when you’re walking through your house and you step on a LEGO.

Pain is aggravated when the fight-or-flight response is activated. By relaxing the sympathetic nervous system, pain tolerance goes up and chances of you swearing in front of your kids go down.

Brain Morphin’ Time

But wait there’s more.

Meditation brings about fundamental changes to your brain. With respect to pain stimuli, mediation alters the primary somatosensory cortex, anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex.

  • primary somatosensory cortex: locates the pain and determines level of pain
  • anterior insula: judges how painful the resulting wound will be
  • anterior cingulate cortex: regulates emotion with respect to pain stimula (anger, frustration, etc)
  • prefrontal cortex: takes all the above information and decides on plan of action

What meditation does is it reduces activity in the primary somatosensory cortex which lowers the amount of initial pain while increasing activity in the pain and emotional regulation parts of your brain.

So you feel less initial pain and less ‘aftershock’ pain as well.

“Meditation teaches patients how to react to the pain. People are less inclined to have the ‘Ouch’ reaction, then they are able to control the emotional reaction to pain.” – Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D

Wrapping It All Up

Meditation isn’t a cure. Just likes drugs, meditation is a tool you use. If you have a knife wound in your back, meditating won’t sew it up. All it does is dampen the pain.

While it is just a tool, it is a great tool to:

  • be happy
  • decrease depression and anxiety
  • decrease pain

For how to meditate check out: 30 Day Challenge: How to Meditate

  • akiratoriyama

    Great article. Waiting for part 2.

    • Alex Liang

      Stay tuned. Thanks for reading!

  • theedman22

    Is there a “how-to” (meditate) article? I meditate, but would like to know exactly what YOU do while meditating, what your method is. Thanks.

    • Alex Liang

      I just put out a post explaining my method. Check it out. Thanks for reading.

      • theedman22

        Can you please give me a link to your post? I’m not sure how Disqus works and I dont’ want to lose this. Thanks. or p.s. this morning I went back to a form of meditation that I was using about 5 years ago. Its a way to explore my subconscious?

      • theedman22

        Can’t find your post explaining your method. Can you post a link or email to: Thanks!

      • theedman22

        Where, please? Thx

      • theedman22

        Can you post a link? Thx

  • Eddie Mattison

    This is odd because for years I have been taught the opposite: right brain is artistic, left brain linear.

    I would like to read your article on how to meditate, but can’t find it. Please direct me. Thanks.

  • I was just searching for left-brain interpreter and mindfulness, and came to this article… This article gave me a lot of useful information… I am still trying to find out how exactly mindfulness works in reducing the labeling and interpretations that are created by the left brain and how it is connected to default mode network (it reduces a lot of activity in DMN).. Looking for more articles from you on details on this question. Thanks for such a great article..