Q: I’ve been depressed for a long time and finally started getting treatment for it last year. I’ve been taking anti-depressants and seeing a therapist for eight months. I am feeling better, but I’m still down a lot. I’ve never meditated, but I have friends who do, and they say it could help me be less depressed. Is this just hype, or is there anything to the idea that meditation helps with depression?
A: Yes, there is. I’ve been teaching meditation to patients with depression and anxiety for over twenty years, and am convinced that it can be very helpful as part of an overall treatment plan. In recent years, research has produced a mountain of evidence which confirms that view. Most recently, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine reviewed thousands of previous studies on meditation, and found that one type, mindfulness meditation, may rival antidepressants in relieving the symptoms of depression. The research found that, while meditation is not a cure-all, when it comes to the treatment of depression, anxiety, or pain, the practice may be just as effective as medication for all three of these issues.
While the reasons that meditation is effective with depression aren’t completely known, the researchers noted that it is linked to reduction in activity in the amygdala, the “alarm system” of the brain, and also to reduced activity in the default mode network, the brain network that is “on” when your mind is wandering from thought to thought. This may be important because one of the key features of depression is that it hijacks attention. When we’re sad, depressed or anxious, we tend to focus on the negative things that have happened to us and worry about the negative things that may happen to us in the future. We ruminate and brood, which can drive us into a downward spiral that can lead to deeper depression. Mindfulness practice is essentially about focusing the attention on the present moment, which can break this cycle of rehearsing and rehashing. If you’d like to explore this avenue, an excellent resource is The Mindful Way through Depression. This book will show you how to use mindfulness practice in your daily life, and it also includes a CD with six guided mindful meditations that you can use to get started in your practice.
Learning to be mindful – to rest the awareness in the present moment – is usually considered a foundational meditation skill, but there are also other traditional eastern meditation practices which can do much to lift your mood, and western psychology is only beginning to explore these. One focused concentration practice which I have found very helpful with depressed patients is self-compassion practice. One of the most painful symptoms of depression is relentless self-denigration, and learning to incline the mind in the direction of more self-acceptance and self-forgiveness can be very helpful. If you’d like to explore this avenue, a good place to start would be http://self-compassion.org/
Another practice which can ease both depression and anxiety is lovingkindness meditation. This is a concentration practice in which you deliberately send well-wishes, first to yourself, and then to others. Just a few minutes daily of the practice can help increase empathy and decrease the habit of critical and judgmental thoughts toward self and others. Here’s a link to a website where you can learn how to do this practice: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/gratitude-meditation-happiness/
Finally, the regular practice of gratitude can be very helpful. When people are depressed, they tend to focus their attention on what is deficient or absent in their lives, and to lose sight of what is positive or fulfilling. Just a few minutes a day of focused concentration on the things in your life for which you can be grateful can do much to counteract this tendency. You can learn how to do this practice here: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/gratitude-meditation-happiness/
Meditation is obviously not as easy as taking a pill. It takes patience and sustained commitment to learn. One way to help ensure success is to meditate with others. While the resources above can be very helpful, I suggest you also find a meditation class to attend, or a meditation group which meets weekly. Learning any new skill is easier to do if you do it with other people, and meditation is no exception. Good luck!