Q: I’ve been dogged by times of really intense depression for most of my life. Anti-depressants have helped some, and I’ve been in and out of therapy for years, but it’s still a struggle. I know you’ve written about meditation in the past. Do you think it could help me with my depression? I’ve tried doing it a few times and it wasn’t very easy to do, but I’m willing to work at it if it can make me feel better.
A: I should admit to a strong personal bias here. Over twenty years ago, after a devastating break-up with a partner, I learned to practice mindfulness meditation. The positive effects on my mood were immediate and profound. I’ve been a regular meditator ever since. I’ve also been privileged to be able to teach the practice to many psychotherapy patients. Not everyone takes to it, but those who do practice regularly almost always experience profound improvements in their well-being. What I’ve seen is validated by an avalanche of recent research. More and more data is showing that regular meditation practice positively alters brain chemistry. Here are just a few of the documented effects:
- Meditation helps the body release serotonin (the so-called ‘happy neurotransmitter’) by inhibiting activity in the stress-producing regions of the brain: the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex. It also increases activity in the calming region of the brain: the left prefrontal cortex.
- Another neurotransmitter, GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) plays the principal role in reducing neuronal excitability and inducing a state of calm. People with addictions typically have low levels of GABA, and deficiencies in this chemical can create many other problems, including anxiety, hyperactivity, racing thoughts, and sleeplessness. Recent research suggests that meditation practice stimulates the production of this vital chemical, and thereby improves attentional performance and emotional regulation.
- Endorphins are hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system that have an analgesic effect. Joggers have coined the term “runners high” to describe the endorphin rush that follows a long run. Research shows that meditation is also highly effective in raising endorphin levels.
- Meditation can measurably decrease cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol makes us more alert and able to respond to emergencies, but when we’re under chronic stress, this chemical destroys healthy muscle and bone, causes inflammation, and leads to anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure, brain fog, and insomnia, to name just a few of its negative effects. Recent research at UC Davis showed remarkable decreases in cortisol levels within only a few short weeks of regular meditation practice. (This may be one of the reasons that meditation practice has been shown to decrease cravings in people recovering from addictions.)
All of these findings indicate that meditation can have great value in stabilizing mood, lowering stress and decreasing depression and anxiety. For treating depression specifically, psychologists have developed a form of therapy called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which combines mindfulness meditation with traditional cognitive therapy. Part of this therapy involves meditating daily for thirty minutes. One of the benefits of MBCT is that the practices can be taught in an eight-week class format, making it a highly cost-effective form of treatment. Some self-motivated patients can even master the practices completely on their own. The entire program is available in a book and accompanying CD, called The Mindful Way through Depression. I suggest you check it out. MBCT will require much more of your time and effort than taking a pill, or even going to therapy once a week, but I think you’ll find the effort will be worth your while.
But meditation will only be only effective if you do it regularly, even if only for a few minutes daily. The best way to establish that habit is to take a meditation class or practice with a group that regularly sits together. Without support from others, it’s very difficult in this over-stimulated and overactive culture to establish consistent practice.
Above all, be patient! Progress in meditation is measured in months and years, not days and weeks. The good news is that while the positive effects of meditation develop slowly, they are cumulative and reliable.