Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions worldwide, with an estimated 350 million people diagnosed each year across the globe. And this number doesn’t even include the countless millions who remain undiagnosed due to lack of awareness of the signs or access to mental health services. Those who are diagnosed with depression are in need of simple, effective treatments that don’t have crippling side effects. In a search for this miracle cure, meditation often comes up. But does meditation for depression work? More and more research is indicating yes: meditation can be a safe, effective, side effect-free way to deal with depression.
The research on meditation for depression
In 2010 as mindfulness meditation began to spread, researchers at Boston University conducted a meta analysis of 39 studies with over 1,100 patients on it. These studies looked at the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for a variety of conditions including anxiety, depression, cancer, and other mental and physical conditions.
For anxiety and mood disorders, mindfulness-based therapy was associated with a significant reduction of symptoms in both short- and long-term settings.
With depression, the risk of relapse and reoccurrence is high due to the personalized nature of the condition. While talk therapy can bring patients out of the acute phase of depression, doctors often recommend maintenance antidepressants for relapse prevention. While these are effective for some, new research is showing that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (a combination of meditation techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy) is more effective than antidepressants at preventing relapse.
This finding is corroborated by another study that found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy reduced rates of depressive relapse from 78% to 36%.
To add even more of a boost with meditation for depression, research from Rutgers University has found that combining meditation and exercise is even more effective at combatting depression than either of these therapies alone. This study found that a combination of 30 minutes of meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobics resulted in patients who reported far fewer symptoms of depression and fewer negative thoughts.
Researchers also provided this same eight-week program for homeless mothers living in transitional housing. These mothers were exhibiting severe depressive symptoms when they entered the study but by the end reported less anxiety and depression, with more motivation and hope for the future.
Start with mindfulness-based meditation for depression
The type of meditation associated with treatment for depression is usually mindfulness-based. Mindfulness-based meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy (MCBT) are all names for therapeutic meditation that follows the same basic techniques.
- Stay in the moment: Mindfulness meditation teaches practitioners to focus on what is happening, as it happens. This teaches practitioners to not catastrophize something that happens or worry beyond what is happening at any given moment.
- Breathe: A key feature of all meditation for depression is to focus on the breath. When people get depressed or anxious, breath can get short and shallow. Deep, even breathing calms the autonomous nervous system, relaxing the “fight or flight” stress response. This allows for relaxation.
- Think about tools for the future: Especially with mindfulness meditation that incorporates talk therapy, this technique offers those with depression tools to cope with potentially depressing or anxiety-producing situations. Part of this is about being in the moment, but this also looks forward to some self-talk that can happen before a situation becomes stressful.
Of these three tools, the idea that being present in the moment regardless of what is happening is perhaps the most powerful tool for combatting depression. This tool doesn’t ask the depressed person to “cheer up” or “get over it.” This technique reinforces the idea that it is okay to be with what is happening without judgment or attempts at change. In doing so, a depressed person can stop the interior dialogue that often makes a depressive episode worse.
How-to get started with meditation for depression
So how can meditation help with depression in your life? Meditation is simple, free, requires no special equipment, and can be started at any time, anywhere. Here’s how.
1. Carve out some time
Even if it is just ten minutes a day, set aside dedicated practice time. This can be at any time of day. Commit to this daily practice as if it were a meeting or an appointment, and don’t put it off.
2. Have a seat
Sit comfortably. This can be on the floor, in a chair, or anywhere in between. You should remain upright if you can, but meditating lying down is also fine as long as you are able to breathe and relax quietly. If you are seated in a chair, sit towards the edge of the chair with your spine tall and your hands resting in your lap. If you have low back pain, a cushion at your lumbar spine can offer healthy support.
Seated on the floor, you can sit with your legs crossed. Your knees should be lower than your hips, so if your hips are tight, sit on a blanket or a pillow. A comfortable seat is essential so you can focus on the meditation.
3. Breathe and focus on what’s happening now
This is alternately the easiest and hardest part of meditating. Just sitting and breathing deeply, concentrating on the feeling of air moving in through the nose and out through the nose, can seem too simple to do any good, but at a minimum you are calming your nervous system. Try to make your inhales as long as your exhales.
When your mind starts jumping around, that’s okay. Try to let the thoughts go and not engage. Return the focus to your breath. The goal is not to make the thoughts go away completely but to let them drift through like clouds, always returning to the breath.
4. Use a mantra…or not
Some people like to use a mantra, repeated silently to themselves as they meditate. This can be something as simple as repeating silently “I am okay” on the inhale and “Everything’s fine” on the exhale. If you are not comfortable with a mantra, that’s fine, too.
The power of mantra is that if you repeat it often enough, when a situation arises you can simply repeat it to yourself and your body will respond. It’s like building your meditation muscle memory.
5. Pay attention to what is happening
Feelings may arise as you sit and breathe. You may feel anxious. You may get sad. You may feel silly for sitting on a cushion and breathing. Whatever comes up, let it come up. Observe without judgment. Keep breathing.
The goal is that there really is no goal other than loving acceptance of exactly who (and where) you are.
That’s really it. Meditation seems simple but more and more doctors are including it in a comprehensive treatment plan for depression (and a host of other health conditions). When combined with cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation can be a powerful tool for treating depression.
Does meditation help with depression? The research clearly says it does; check out these 11 ways to incorporate meditation into your day.