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How Meditation Can Improve Your Depression
October 18, 2022
Depression, despite being fairly common, is a serious mental illness that negatively impacts how one feels, thinks, and acts regarding their experiences. In July, 23.2% of Americans ages 18 and older reported experiencing persistent symptoms of depressive disorder. That’s over ⅕ of the US population. Fortunately, there are many ways to treat depression, the most common being therapy and SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) medication. However, not everyone has equal access to these styles of treatment and many are left suffering from depression without resources to help them. This is where alternative methods to easing depression symptoms can be helpful. One of the most notable ways to help manage depression is through intentional meditation.
What is Meditation?
The core purpose that meditation holds is to cultivate a heightened sense of focus and awareness. It can be described as a “consciousness changing” technique because it directs your state of consciousness away from worrying about the past, future, or hypothetical scenarios, and toward being present in the current moment. Because meditation teaches us how to be fully conscious of the present, our minds can also learn to “filter out” unnecessary stimuli–like distracting sounds–in our environment and focus only on the thoughts flowing through our minds.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years by different people and cultures. Although it originated as a religious practice, it is used frequently as a psychotherapeutic practice in the current day. There are many different styles of meditation for you to try out, but the two most common types are:
Mindfulness Meditation: This practice combines the practices of mindfulness and meditation and can help slow down overwhelming thoughts, calm your mind and body, and most importantly, engage you fully in the present moment. Mindfulness is the idea of directing your attention to the present non-judgmentally. This means that you are not only paying attention to your present environment, thoughts, and feelings but that you are encountering them with acceptance and embracing them.
Concentrative (Focused) Meditation: This type of meditation’s purpose is just what you’d guess from the name; it involves directing your full concentration to one thing. Whether it is your breath, a part of your body, or a specific external stimulus, concentrative meditation directs your attention away from your thoughts and towards something else. After the meditation is complete, you’ll likely be left with a clearer mind.
How does Meditation Improve Depression?
Because meditation has so much to do with staying present and aware of your thoughts, you may be wondering, how does this help depression? Those who have depression know that your headspace is likely to be consumed by negative thoughts, and the present may feel like the last place you wish to be. Wouldn’t meditation just perpetuate this feeling?
In short, the answer is a surprising “no”. Meditation and becoming more aware of your present thoughts doesn’t make these thoughts more prominent—it actually helps give you the power to recognize the negative thought and then simply let it pass.
The two parts of the brain that influence depression are the medial prefrontal cortex, which helps process thoughts relating to yourself and often causes rumination about your future or past, and the amygdala, which increases the production of cortisol in response to fear or anxiety. When these brain systems are activated, they can work together to create depressive symptoms. However, when you meditate and learn to become aware of your thoughts and feelings, you’re more likely to simply let them pass through your mind as any other random thought does. This is why people who meditate tend to have less hyperactivity in these two brain areas, as research attests. The key takeaway from multiple research studies is that meditation–mindfulness meditation in particular–helps people understand that they are not their depression and makes them work through their thoughts in a more logical, understanding, and positive way.
How to Meditate
If you would like to give meditation a go, try this simple stress-relieving guided meditation from Headspace!
Meditation can seem daunting if you’ve never done it before. On the other hand, you may also think it’ll be very simple. From the looks of it, all you have to do is sit cross-legged and take deep breaths, right? These statements are all likely to be false for your first session of meditation. Although meditation certainly isn’t extremely difficult, it often takes a few sessions for the practice to start to come naturally.
The main issue that many people face when trying to meditate for the first time is that they try too hard to completely clear their minds and feel as if they failed if a negative thought pops through. Remember, all thoughts are welcome during meditation, no matter how positive, negative, or random. Always keep in mind that the purpose of meditation is not to be void of thoughts, but to quietly observe your thoughts while realizing that you do not need to emphasize them. This, in turn, will make negative thoughts seem like clouds in the sky: there, but simply passing by.
3 Simple Steps for Your First Meditation:
1. Find a quiet space and get comfortable.
Because you are focusing inwards on your breathing, meditation will be made much easier in a quiet and comfortable environment. Most people enjoy meditation while sitting in a cross-legged position with their palms in their lap, but you can also sit upright in a chair if you prefer. Meditation should not be done by laying down in a bed, unless you’re doing a sleep meditation. Even though comfort is key, you want to make sure you are fully present, and you cannot be present if you fall asleep!
2. Begin deep breathing.
Take deep and slow breaths through your nose, hold for a few seconds, and then exhale. Keep breathing at a pace that is comfortable for you. Soon, you should feel your body start to become more relaxed.
3. Be kind to your wandering mind.
Your mind is bound to wander to various thoughts, even when you are focused on breathing. You may get random thoughts about what you will have for dinner later, or more stress-inducing thoughts about your future or something that happened in your past. Try to become aware of when your mind wanders to these thoughts, and then simply redirect your attention back to your breathing. You mustn’t scold yourself or feel ashamed for having these thoughts, or obsess over the content of them. Tell yourself that you are going to refocus on breathing, and let the thought pass by. You will likely have to redirect your thoughts multiple times, especially in the first few meditation sessions.
Your meditation sessions do not have to be long, either. Even just devoting 5-10 minutes a day to practicing meditation will be beneficial. Once you feel more comfortable, and if your schedule permits, you can increase the time of your meditations to your liking. Almost nobody can master the art of meditation in just a session or two. You will likely need to practice a handful of times to get the hang of it, but the time you put into practicing will be well worth it in the end!
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