Everywhere you turn there are reports about the increase in stress, depression, and anxiety. It’s been referred to as an epidemic by the World Health Organization, which reports that the burden of depression is on the rise globally. Depression and sadness are not the same. Depression is a mental illness and symptoms can vary from mild to severe and must last longer than 14 days to be considered a true depressive symptom.
According to the American Psychiatric Association symptoms can include:
- Feeling sad or having a lingering depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you formerly enjoyed
- Changes in appetite that affect weight (gain or loss)
- Trouble sleeping
- Low energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing, chewing cuticles, pacing)
- Feeling worthless
- Difficulty focusing or making decisions
- Suicidal thoughts
One of the challenges of diagnosing clinical depression is that other medical conditions—like thyroid problems, brain tumors, or even vitamin deficiency—can present with the same symptoms as depression so it is important to rule out any other medical causes by visiting your physician.
Some Data About Depression
Once thought to be an adult condition, symptoms of depression can appear anytime, but usually makes its first appearance during the late teens or early 20s. Women are more likely than men to suffer from depression although some hypothesize that this statistic speaks more to the social acceptance of a woman to get help versus a man who might be seen as weak or less masculine for allowing emotions to impact performance.
“Some studies show that one-third of women will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime. And one in six people will experience depression at some time in their life,” The American Psychiatric Association notes.
With the incidence of depression so prevalent, can meditation help with depression symptoms?
1. Feelings of Sadness
One study looked specifically at the impact of mindful meditation on happiness and found meditators had significantly higher levels of subjective well-being, which is the scientific word for happiness. Meditation was shown to significantly enhance positive thinking.
There have also been many proven connections between self-reported well-being and mindfulness. One study pinpointed a change to the brain’s processing of sadness as a result of meditation. Meditators were more able to process and move beyond sadness than the control group.
2. Loss of Interest or Pleasure in Activities You Used to Enjoy
Participation in an activity or exercise requires both motivation and engagement. The connection between motivation and meditation is still a work in progress. Common sense says that you return to a task because it is pleasurable.
Barbara Fredrickson is well-known for her broaden-and-build theory, which shows experiencing positive emotions leads individuals to try new things or begin new relationships, which in turn leads to building personal resources like friends and positive experiences. These changes lead to enhanced physical and mental health, which leads back to more positive emotions. She calls this the upward spiral. Her research also connected this upward spiral with a loving-kindness meditation.
Engagement levels have been shown to improve in meditators. Participants reported changes in felt experience and experienced improvements in goal-directed behavior—they showed up more easily and got pleasure from the tasks at hand.
3. Changes in Appetite
Mindful eating is a way of focusing attention on what you are fueling your body with. Using this type of focus can help meditators to focus on what their body needs and how much they are consuming. Finding the right balance of foods and amounts that create health for your body can help to increase or suppress appetite.
Suffering from depression can cause either too much or not enough sleep. The ultimate goal is to fall asleep easily and awaken feeling refreshed. Often professionals see sleep disturbances and depression as deeply correlated not knowing which came first—the lack of sleep or the depression. According to Harvard Medical School, meditation primes the body for a restful sleep and helps to keep the mind from wandering to places that keep you up (or awaken you) at night.
5. Physical Movements
The increase in self-soothing movements often seen as a sign of depression is also a telltale sign of heightened stress and anxiety. In one study there were significant decreases in distress as well as increases in positive mood states in the group of meditators.
The results of a seven-year study show meditation practice is linked to lasting improvement in sustained attention. Meditation helps you to focus better and longer. It is unclear if improving focus reduces symptoms of depression yet, but there is ongoing research as to the impact of positive engagement and flow states, that feeling you get when you are “in the zone,” and its impact on depression.
7. Suicidal Thoughts
Anytime you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the first priority is to get to your ER where medical professionals can assess and intervene. In a non-emergency situation, a study (largely with veterans and other PTSD sufferers) showed that meditating encourages a reduction in suicidal thoughts.
How to Start a Meditation Practice
Given the clear connection between better psychological health and meditation, the next step is to figure out the best way to encourage someone who is experiencing depressive symptoms to start a meditation practice. Different strategies work for different people. Here are a few ways to use meditation on depression.
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Local Meditation Groups
Almost everywhere there is a yoga class, there is a meditation sangha (gathering). Whether you are a complete beginner looking to learn how to meditate, or a more seasoned meditator seeking a group of like-minded people, finding a. (virtual) group that fits your lifestyle is a great way to form or solidify your practice. The convenience of location matters. Feeling a sense of connection or belonging to the group will also help act as an accountability partner to get you there. You may want to join with a partner, which can help you both to stay accountable.
Working with a Meditation Instructor
There are many types of individual meditation instructors and finding one in your region is a good way to get started. Having the insights and expertise from an instructor can be key to supporting you when questions arise, obstacles appear, and consistency is difficult to follow at the beginning of your meditation practice. To access a list of Primordial Sound Instructors near you, click here.
A solo meditation retreat can be a day, a weekend, a week, or longer in duration. They can be silent. And they sometimes include yoga and a detox diet or spa treatments. Although retreating may feel counterintuitive to overcoming depression, sometimes a retreat is a gift to yourself where you re-prioritize your self-care role in recovery. Check with your medical practitioner to see what they recommend for you.
Meditation and depression can be a well-balanced pairing, but in no way is meditation the only tool in your toolkit. Therapy, exercise, nutrition, and medical intervention all play roles in helping you to flourish and monitor your mental health. Finding the right tools for your mental well-being is a unique and individual journey that takes time and effort.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.