Meditation and depression
Along with stress, depression is another deeply
unpleasant, and sometimes devastating, experience
that motivates people to learn to meditate.
Depression and anxiety can make everyday life
very challenging. And research suggests that healthy
lifestyle habits like meditation may help with some
of its symptoms.
I am convinced that meditation can be very helpful
for depression, whether the depression is situational
(caused by external events) or organic (caused by
chemical imbalances in the brain). Research has also shown that learning to meditate can dramatically reduce the chances of relapse into depression for those who have suffered repeated bouts.
I am not a mental health professional, and make no claims for any expertise in the field of mental health in general, or with depression in particular. However, I know meditators who have struggled with depression, and they have found their practice to be a great support. I’ve also experienced periods of depression myself, and mindfulness has been an invaluable tool for emerging from that state.
In cases of milder depression it’s quite possible to meditate effectively, building on whatever inner resources one has in order to lift oneself into a more positive frame of mind.
How can meditation help with depression?
First of all, I do not, of course, recommend meditation as an alternative
to medication or to therapy.
Meditation is not a magic cure for all ailments, although it can help with many physical and emotional disorders. Although doctors do not always have all the answers, medical advice should be sought from a qualified practitioner if you suffer from severe depression, and it’s extremely unwise to stop taking prescribed medication
without consulting a professional.
Medication may be needed to control severe depression, and medication will certainly be needed for bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy can also be very useful. For extreme depression, meditation should only be used as a complementary practice, although for more minor depression meditation can usefully be used alone.
Meditation is a term covering a wide variety of ways in which we can work directly or indirectly with our mental states to effect desired change. It is based on the recognition that with awareness we can to some extent choose how to respond to circumstances. We all have experience of this. You might realize that you are getting impatient and irritable, and decide to relax, letting go physically and emotionally.
Two things are going on here: one is the awareness of our mental states, and the second is the ability to make choices that shift our mental states in a desired direction. Meditation both helps us to become more aware and offers us techniques to help us
choose alternative responses (and therefore experiences).
Change what you can…
The choices that we can make are always limited, and the effects they have may be small, but they are incremental and supplemental — that is they add up over time to create more profound changes in our outlook and in our ability to make more effective choices in the future. The choices we can make when we are depressed are definitely more limited than otherwise, but such choices do exist.
So learning meditation implies two things: the cultivation of awareness, so that we can make such choices more often and more easily; and learning methods that allow us to alter our mental states. Such methods are often very simple – things like being aware of your breathing low down in your body to calm yourself when you are anxious.
Although meditation is not a cure-all, it obviously has applicability to those who suffer from depression since it is connected with learning to move from undesired states (including depression) to more desired states that are more pleasant and fulfilling and allow more normal functioning.
We are all working with (and to some degree against) our conditioning. Those who suffer from depression have to contend with chemical imbalances that have a strong effect on mental functions. Sometimes those chemical imbalances are short-lived and due to circumstances, diet, or even lack of sunlight.
Other times they may be caused by genetic factors. But to my mind this just makes it more essential that people in this situation use every means available to ameliorate the effects that their body chemistry has on their mental and emotional functioning. You can’t change your genes, but there are things you can change.
No matter the source of your depression, your depression is the best reason you have to start meditating.
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