Does meditation help in treating depression? You bet it does. Depression can be treated in many ways. Antidepressants and psychotherapy are the usual treatments, but research studies suggest that a regular meditation practice can help by changing how the brain responds to stress and anxiety (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018).
Depression is a common and serious mental illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. It causes feelings of sadness, a loss of interest in activities once found enjoyable, changes in appetite and sleep, difficulty in thinking, concentrating or making decisions, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, and loss of energy or increased fatigue. Symptoms must last at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression.
How Meditation Helps in Treating Depression (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018) (EOC Institute, n.d.)
Meditation has been found to change certain brain regions that are specifically linked with depression.
“Me Center” and “Fear Center”
The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of the brain becomes hyperactive in depressed people. The mPFC is where you process information about yourself, such as worrying about the future and ruminating about the past, hence it is often called the “me center”. When people experience stress about life, the mPFC goes into overdrive.
Another brain region linked with depression is the amygdala, or “fear center.” This is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which triggers the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol in response to fear and perceived danger.
These two brain regions work in concert to cause depression. Research has shown that meditation helps break the connection between these two brain regions.
Another way meditation helps is by protecting the hippocampus (a brain area involved in memory). People who suffer from recurrent depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus. One study found that in people who meditated for 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks the volume of gray matter in their hippocampus increased.
The Biofeedback Institute did a study in 1991 on 14 depressed alcoholics. The depressed alcoholics were given experimental alpha and theta brainwave therapy over 20 sessions, and the depression was reduced in a whopping 80%. In addition, at the 21-month follow up, the relapse rate was very low. Hence, meditation can help in treating depression because it heavily increases both theta and alpha brainwaves.
Cultivating Awareness of Our Thoughts
Meditation teaches us how to be aware of our negative thoughts, which all by itself makes them less powerful and less frequent. When we become a witness to the thinking process, instead of getting carried away by the negative thoughts, the meditative mind simply watches and lets the negative thoughts go. This helps us realize that thoughts are not reality, and they do not have to influence our moods or emotions.
Thoughts rise and fall, like the waves upon the seashore, and we need not get fixated or attached to anyone of them. It is this passive observation and awareness of the mind during meditation that weakens both the frequency and strength that our negative thoughts have on us. Thereby, meditation allows us to maintain a well balanced, clear, calm, focused, and creative state of mind, and prevents anxiety and stress overwhelming and sending us spiraling into depression.
Techniques of Doing Meditation
You can try one of the many online tutorials to learn the basics of meditation. You can find guided meditations from the Benson-Henry Institute. You also can gain further insight and instruction by reading books from top meditation experts like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, and Tara Brach. Many local yoga studios also offer beginning and intermediate meditation classes (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018).
Here’s a brief guide to some of the popular and more studied types of meditation, all of which have been shown to benefit people with depression (Gardner, 2018). To learn more about each of these techniques, consult either online tutorials or some meditation expert well versed with the technique.
- Loving-kindness meditation: This focuses on creating an attitude of love and kindness towards yourself and others. People practicing this type of meditation have less depression, a more positive outlook, fewer negative emotions, and greater compassion. A related type of meditation that is equally effective is compassion meditation.
- Mindfulness meditation: Many other types of meditation have stemmed from mindfulness, and it has the most scientific evidence supporting it. Mindfulness meditation is a moment-to-moment awareness of the present moment using your breath as an anchor to keep bringing your attention back to the present moment and help with cognitive retraining.
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): This is a subset of mindfulness meditation that combines meditation with cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT is a therapy used in depression that focuses on changing erroneous and negative thinking and behavior patterns.
- Breath awareness meditation: Even 15 minutes a day of focusing on inhaling and exhaling can yield mood benefits, including lessened emotional reactivity. It can be done at any time throughout the day. It can be done sitting, standing, or lying down, and with your eyes open or closed.
- Yoga: Yoga combines physical postures with breathing techniques and meditation, and it seems to have an effect on depression and anxiety. It should be done with a qualified instructor in yoga. fMRI studies of Kundalini yoga demonstrate that meditation increases activity of certain areas of the brain, which in turn leads to parasympathetic stimulation, and the sensation of deep peacefulness (Sadock, et al., 2017).
- Transcendental meditation: Transcendental meditation, or TM, is very popular around the world. Instead of breath, TM uses sound or a personal mantra, often one or two syllables, as the anchor.
- Visualization: This involves focusing on pleasant images, which calms you down. Visualization or guided imagery meditation can be led by another person, or you can use any recording available online. Rescripting is a form of visualization where you use imagery to change how you recall negative memories.
- Body scan meditation: This involves focusing on different parts of your body sequentially while focusing simultaneously on inhaling and exhaling deeply. It can be done lying down or sitting, with eyes open or closed. This allows you to observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations better, leading to less intense reactions to stress.
- Chanting: You can use chanting of sacred syllables or mantras, or periodic chimes of a gong as a way to focus the mind. They activate parts of the brain involved in the regulation of mood and emotional control.
Thus, we can see that meditation is effective in depression and can even cure depression.
EOC Institute, n.d. 7 Powerful Ways Meditation Dominates Depression. [Online]
Available at: https://eocinstitute.org/meditation/8-compelling-reasons-meditation-can-cure-depression/
[Accessed 20 Sep 2019].
Gardner, A., 2018. 11 Types of Meditation That Can Help Treat Depression. [Online]
Available at: https://www.health.com/condition/depression/types-of-meditation-for-depression
[Accessed 20 Sep 2019].
Harvard Health Publishing, 2018. How meditation helps with depression. [Online]
Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-meditation-helps-with-depression
[Accessed 20 Sep 2019].
Sadock, B. J., Sadock, V. A. & Ruiz, P., 2017. Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.