How Meditation Can Ease Depression

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A regular mindfulness-based meditation practice can interrupt a cycle of negative thinking. Here's how meditation can help depression, and how to start practicing.

Meditation for depression

Depression is more common than you may think. Roughly 17.3 million adults over 18 experienced an episode of this mood disorder in 2017, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

When you have major depressive disorder (a depression that lasts for more than two weeks), it affects your mood, sleep, appetite, and interest in life. Depressed people can have symptoms like exhaustion and irritability too.

One driver of depression is rumination, says psychologist Elisha Goldstein, author of Uncovering Happiness.

Rumination is when obsessive thoughts race in your head. They may include negative or self-critical voices, hopelessness, and an inability to see solutions.

“Our mind gets really stuck, and people who are depressed are sick of themselves because this self-referencing is always happening,” he says.

Typically, psychologists treat depression with a combination of therapy (usually cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT) and antidepressants or other meds.

But many practitioners are turning to a new tool: meditation for depression. Specifically, experts are considering mindfulness-based practices as add-ons to treatment.

Here’s what you need to know about how it works and how to start a meditation practice.

How mindfulness works

Think of mindfulness as a secular form of traditional meditation.

“Mindfulness is the ability to focus on the present moment without worrying about the future [common with anxiety] or ruminating on the past [common with depression],” explains licensed psychologist Morgan Levy, who uses mindfulness-based therapy techniques with her patients.

Several types of meditation fall into the mindfulness bucket. One of the most common focuses on attention—paying attention to one thing, whether it’s your breath or a sound or a word. Another type is open awareness, during which you notice what’s going on, moment to moment, without judgment.

There’s also Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), an eight-week course that meets for two hours at a time under the supervision of a specially trained therapist. It combines cognitive therapy practices and mindfulness meditation to change anxious or depressed thinking patterns.

The wandering mind

No matter what type of mindfulness meditation you practice, your mind will wander, and you’ll start thinking about dinner, say, or what’s next on your to-do list.

“The goal isn’t to not be distracted but rather to notice that you are distracted and gently bring yourself back to the activity,” Levy says. “You might be distracted a second later, and that’s completely normal. Just again bring yourself back to the activity without judging yourself.”

The non-judgy thing is key: People with depression usually put themselves down.

And while other kinds of meditation for depression may be beneficial for reducing mood-disorder symptoms, there’s not much evidence around them yet.

“But here’s what I’ll say about them: if you’re doing something to care about yourself, that’s going to be supportive because you’re sending the message internally that I care enough about myself to do this,” says Goldstein. “It’s the exact opposite of what depression is saying, which is ‘You’re worthless, or nothing you do is any good.'”

How mindfulness meditation helps your brain

The brain has various networks, a series of interconnected neurons in different regions that work together.

One of these is the default mode network (DMN), the parts of the brain that show high or low activity levels depending on what we’re doing.

When we really engage with something—a movie or a project, say—the DMN doesn’t fire up as much.

But it does go into high gear when we’re just thinking—when we daydream, remember past events, or mull over what someone said or did.

The DMN also activates when depressed people ruminate, says Judson Brewer, MD, the director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and an associate professor of psychiatry at Brown University’s medical school.

“So we found that when people are meditating, they’re specifically deactivating this default mode network,” he says. “By observing thoughts—’Oh, there’s a thought’—we’re less identified with them, and the suffering decreases because we’re not … pushed or pulled or driven by them.”

Being mindful also brings more blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, taking it away from the amygdala, the part of the brain that plays a role in behavior and emotion, notes Goldstein, who is also the creator of the Mindful Living Community.

“With that, we have more emotion regulation. We have more impulse control. We have more perspective,” he says.

How long does it take to change your brain?

Unfortunately, there’s no set answer for this one. The change can happen quickly for people who take the eight-week MBCT program (which has in-person instruction plus homework), says Dr. Brewer.

There’s a caveat, though.

“It depends really on how quickly somebody learns how their mind works and then starts to work with it,” he says. “I think of [meditation] as short moments, many times throughout the day. [That] is what drives any habit formation. It’s not just doing it once for a long, long period of time.”

That makes sense if you think of mindfulness as a skill that takes time and practice to develop, says Levy, who recommends her patients start with at least five to 10 minutes a day.

“Some people notice changes in their mood immediately, but most of them notice more long-lasting changes after several weeks of practicing,” she adds.

In some ways, that’s good news for beginners. You don’t have to commit to long sessions—just regular ones.

“Consistency and frequency are going to trump intensity,” Goldstein says. “If someone did a meditation daily for five to 10 minutes, that’s going to be more powerful than someone doing a 30- to 45-minute meditation once a week.”

Just keep at it. The benefits will follow.

Even new meditators lowered the volume in their default mode network after taking an eight-week mindfulness course, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

And the 14 people in the study’s 40-day mindfulness meditation training course were meditating an average of only 11 minutes a day.

(Start by giving this 5-minute meditation a try.)

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How mindfulness meditation helps depression

There several ways mindfulness meditation can help people with depression manage their condition. And the benefits make a good case for seeking out a quiet spot and spending the next 10 minutes being meditating.

You prevent a relapse

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy effectively prevented relapses in people with depression, a study by the National Defense Research Institute found.

Researchers found it was especially helpful for people who’d had three or more depressive episodes, and when used in combination with other treatments, like medication. They also found that it was helpful in reducing depression symptoms.

Another review, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at 47 trials and found that mindfulness meditation is comparable to pharmaceutical antidepressants in treating mild depression.

You interrupt the depression loop

When you’re depressed, you don’t think you have many choices or solutions. “So we can’t learn how to get out of this cycle of rumination that’s fueling depression,” Goldstein says.

But mindfulness shifts the way you think about things. “It allows us to alter our perspective so that we are more open, to ourselves and to others, and nonjudgmental,” says Levy.

You make healthier choices

Mindfulness also makes you aware, which can lead to more intentional choices, experts say.

“Once you ask yourself, ‘What do I actually need right now?’ we see more choices of different things that we can begin to engage with, versus just thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking,” Goldstein explains. “We start realizing what I really need right now is to care for myself.”

So you may decide to take a walk outside or call a friend or even find something funny on YouTube.

“Whatever it is, we learn to take care of ourselves, which interrupts the loop. That’s something that’s trainable, and that’s why it reduces the relapse into depression,” says Goldstein.

You’ll get in touch with emotions

“When I work with people with depression, there are times when they are feeling so low that they don’t have the energy to speak, or they might feel numb and aren’t even aware of what they are feeling,” says Levy.

Levy might use a few mindfulness meditation techniques, like a short body scan or breathing exercise, to help them become more aware of their thoughts and emotions.

“This helps move the therapy process forward because we are able to discuss what is going on inside of them,” she notes.

The effects can last months

The positive effects of mindfulness-based meditation for depression can last six months or more, according to a study published in American Family Physician. That was the case even when mindfulness was the first-line treatment.

How to start—and keep—a practice

Find a therapist

Suppose you’re overwhelmed by the many apps and YouTube videos out there. In that case, Levy suggests finding a therapist or mindfulness expert to help you start and develop your meditation practice.

When you find one, ask for an initial phone call or video call and see if they are a good fit for you.

“Research shows that the therapeutic relationship is the most important factor when it comes to noticing a change in therapy,” she says. “You can ask them how they use mindfulness and meditation in their practice and how custom and tailored the process is.”

Take a course

There’s so much evidence that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy helps people with depression that Dr. Brewer recommends you find an MBCT program, either online or in person, and make sure the instructor is certified.

(Brown’s Mindfulness Center offers online courses for a sliding-scale fee as well as free online community mindfulness sessions.)

You can also try a meditation center or retreat or look for a reputable online program, says Goldstein.

He says there are three things that make a powerful combination: “If you can find a structured, proven program; a community that’s also in that program; and a teacher that you trust, you’re more likely to make the shifts faster,” he explains.

That group component is important. “Research shows that feeling a sense of community helps with reducing depression,” Levy says.

Start small

“The act of practicing is enough,” says Levy. So if your practice is just a minute long at first, no worries.

Goldstein agrees.

“See how it feels and then work up,” he says. “Give yourself permission to just start really small. The question depression asks is, ‘What can’t I do?’ We’re just switching to say, ‘Well, what can I do? Can I do a minute? Yeah, let’s do this for a minute.'”

These mini-meditations may be just the thing to start you off.

Explore your options

Don’t give up if you don’t like the first—or even first few—techniques that you try, says Levy.

“There are so many different variations and strategies of practicing mindfulness,” she says. “You just have to find the one that resonates with you.”

Be kind to yourself

“There will be some days where it’s easier to practice than others. Practice acceptance and non-judgment instead of being hard on yourself for ‘not doing it right’—there’s no such thing—or for not enjoying it,” Levy says.

While mindfulness-based therapy and meditation isn’t a cure for depression (and you may still have to take antidepressants), a regular practice will help you enjoy what’s going on around you instead of letting those moments go by, says Levy.

Now that you know about meditation for depression, go check out these tips for how to live in the moment.

Side view of senior woman with in-ear headphones sitting in lotus position at parkMaskot/Getty Images

How to Meditate

Sources
  • Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island
  • Elisha Goldstein, PhD, psychologist and creator of the Mindful Living Community, Los Angeles
  • Morgan Levy, PhD, licensed psychologist in Florida
  • National Institute of Mental Health: "Major Depression"
  • Scientific Reports: "Alterations in Brain Structure and Amplitude of Low-frequency after 8 weeks of Mindfulness Meditation Training in Meditation-Naïve Subjects"
  • Rand Corporation: "Meditation for Major Depressive Disorder: A Systematic Review"
  • American Family Physician: "Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Benefits of Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation"
  • JAMA Internal Medicine: "Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis"