The World Health Organization recently listed depression as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. As many people know one of the primary disabilities this can lead to is obesity and chronic health conditions. Depression is truly a global problem, and one for which many possible solutions have been explored. Meditation and mindfulness are examples of solutions that have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years.
The effect of meditation on anxiety and depression, two illnesses which are often closely interlinked, is both promising and encouraging. One 2017 study focused on two groups of adults suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The first group explored treatment using mindfulness-based stress reduction and the second group received no intervention or treatment. The group using mindfulness reported lower levels of stress in the body when compared with the second group.
Despite the clear science and related benefits, many people can be hesitant to take up meditation as a form of recovery. I know, because I was one of these people.
My journey with depression has involved long periods of struggle, and my recovery has typically been hindered by many internal battles. I have been forced to wrestle with the notion that I wasn’t the strong-minded character that I previously believed myself to be. That, perhaps, I don’t quite fit with the preconceived societal notions of what it means to “be a man.” I now know this to be untrue, but this internal conflict has left me fighting my depression, often without a clear cut solution.
When meditation was recommended by a therapist as a way of taking time to relax, reflect, and accept my current situation, I immediately shunned it.
My immediate impression of meditation and acceptance was based on connotations of long, silent retreats at temples in distant mountains. I have always shunned these notions of self help as being the purview of overly enthusiastic social media influencers. It was therefore very difficult to convince me otherwise. Especially when that thinking was clouded by the logic-stripping nature of depression.
Months passed, and I wasn’t finding relief. Instead, desperation made me feel iller, and it became clear that my strategy of “fighting” was not working. It was then that I turned back to the ideas of mindfulness, relaxation, and acceptance. I finally gave in and decided to at least try committing to regular meditation.
I will not lie, it was incredibly tough to meditate at first. Trying to relax and accept thoughts guided by depression felt like an impossible task, and I awkwardly fidgeted my way through meditation sessions.
However, once I began to distance myself from depression, and to see it as an external problem that did not define me, it became much easier to practice meditation and mindfulness.
I cannot say say that I enjoy reflecting on my darker thoughts, but I have begun to realize that they do not have to be permanent. These periods of reflection have become a great time for me to take stock of where I am at with my mental health. I can assess the highs and lows that I have experienced during that day or week. Better yet, I can actually feel the positive impacts of meditation.
This is perhaps unsurprising to some, given that meditation physically changes our brains.
Research has found that those who meditate daily can experience a breakdown in the neural connections in the brain that induce feelings of fear or anxiety. Meditation also builds connections in the brain that relate to our level of empathy, as well as our ability to assess problems rationally.
A study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that positive changes can take place after just eight weeks of regular meditation practice. These changes also have the added benefit of strengthening our memory and increasing our levels of happiness.
It has become clear to me that meditation is the perfect skill to develop when experiencing depression. While sometimes tough, practicing meditation can help to encourage contentment when depression looms large.
Having subsequently learned that meditation can be just as effective as antidepressant medication has been very encouraging! I am not a pill popper and have never felt comfortable taking medications in the anti depressant category. Add that to the potential cost of prescription drugs and I would never be able to follow a drug regimen for depression
I have realized that meditation needs to be a regular fixture in my life. Today I am happy to say that meditation remains part of my typical daily routine and allows me to navigate depression with a greater sense of ease.
If you are suffering, and are unsure where to turn, here are two crucial pieces of advice:
- First, you may feel that meditation is not for you, and that’s OK. It is important to understand that it is not a necessity, but it certainly helped me. What is important, is to learn to accept a situation, rather than fight it. Remember that all things change in due time. Although there may be dark clouds currently, the blue sky is never too far behind. This perspective alone has been a game changer for me.
- Second, try not to overwhelm yourself with thoughts about what the right routine might be. There are many avenues available, and I often (and unnecessarily) stress myself out about whether a combination of routines is the “right” one. Do not worry about being perfect just worry about getting it done, what ever it is.
Meditation is one excellent tool, and it can be helpful to use it in conjunction with other routines. Consider other tools such as daily exercise and therapy. The combined effects of these routines can literally be life changing!
For me, I found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)* extremely useful, especially when used in combination with the mindfulness-based approach of meditation. Find a routine that sits well with you, and try to stick with it. While it may take time, a routine, along with acceptance, can greatly improve mental health.
*Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. Unlike traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, which probes childhood wounds to get at the root causes of conflict, CBT focuses on solutions, encouraging patients to challenge distorted cognitions and change destructive patterns of behavior.
CBT rests on the idea that thoughts and perceptions influence behavior. Feeling distressed, in some cases, may distort one’s perception of reality. CBT aims to identify harmful thoughts, assess whether they are an accurate depiction of reality, and if they are not, employ strategies to challenge and overcome them.
CBT is appropriate for people of all ages, including children, adolescents, and adults. Evidence has mounted that CBT can benefit numerous conditions, such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and many others. Research also indicates that CBT can be delivered effectively online, in addition to face-to-face therapy sessions.