Depression isn’t just sadness or joylessness; it’s a lack of physical, emotional and psychic energy that combines with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, and is then liberally sprinkled with self-criticism. In fact, self-dislike is one of depression’s signature features. Even when there’s a lot of underlying anger at others, as there sometimes is, there’s usually just as much anger with the self.
There’s cognitive distortion with depression, too. We literally don’t think straight when we’re depressed, and tend to see ourselves as having fewer choices than we actually do. Focus, memory and concentration suffer, too. Because of this, people find it hard to make decisions, and this in turn can feed the vicious cycle of lethargy and self-reproach.
Fortunately, clinical research shows us that mind-body methods such as guided meditation, hypnosis, breathwork, yoga and guided imagery can help turn this frustrating condition around. Sometimes these tools and techniques are sufficient in their own right. At other times, they work hand in hand with psychotherapy or medication, augmenting their positive impact.
We’re proud of our carefully curated collection of guided meditation tools to relieve depression. Over the years, we’ve worked hard to find the finest guided imagery and self-hypnosis for depression in the field, delivered by some of our most gifted teachers and healers.
Belleruth’s guided imagery for depression, heartbreak, anger, grief and posttraumatic stress gets high marks for alleviating depressive symptoms, as does Traci Stein’s superb self-hypnosis for healthy self-esteem and procrastination.
The brilliant Amy Weintraub guides listeners in how to use breathwork to dissipate the heavy hold of depression, as does the surefooted, eminently trustworthy guidance of the incomparable Andy Weil. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Bodhipaksa demonstrate the healing power of mindfulness meditation to shift us away from debilitating mood states; and Emmett Miller guides listeners to accept change and move on.
How your brain reacts
Stress and anxiety are major triggers of depression, and meditation can alter your reaction to those feelings. “Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus, and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions, and physical sensations intrude — which happens a lot when you feel stressed and anxious,” says Dr. John W. Denninger, director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Meditation has been found to change certain brain regions that are specifically linked with depression. For instance, scientists have shown that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) becomes hyperactive in depressed people. The mPFC is often called the “me center” because this is where you process information about yourself, such as worrying about the future and ruminating about the past. When people get stressed about life, the mPFC goes into overdrive.
Another brain region associated with depression is the amygdala, or “fear center.” This is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which triggers the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol in response to fear and perceived danger.
These two brain regions work off each other to cause depression. The me center gets worked up reacting to stress and anxiety, and the fear center response leads to a spike in cortisol levels to fight a danger that’s only in your mind. Research has found that meditation helps break the connection between these two brain regions. “When you meditate, you are better able to ignore the negative sensations of stress and anxiety, which explains, in part, why stress levels fall when you meditate,” says Dr. Denninger.
Another way meditation helps the brain is by protecting the hippocampus (a brain area involved in memory). One study discovered that people who meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks increased the volume of gray matter in their hippocampus, and other research has shown that people who suffer from recurrent depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus.
Change your thinking
The aim of meditation is not to push aside stress or block out negative thinking, but rather to notice those thoughts and feelings, all the while understanding that you don’t have to act on them. This could be as simple as closing your eyes and repeating a single phrase or word, or counting breaths. “This helps provide some distance from those negative thoughts or stressful feelings, allowing you to recognize that, although they affect you, they are not you,” says Dr. Denninger.
Meditation also can help prepare the brain for stressful situations. For example, meditating for a few moments before a doctor’s appointment or social situation can help shift the brain and body out of the stress response and into a state of relative calm.
Yoga, tai chi and other forms of moving meditation are ideal for lifting depression, and we feature some of the best master teachers and practitioners, demonstrating their user-friendly, easy-to-follow methods on audio and video.
If you wish to complement the mind-body work you’re doing with meditation and hypnosis for depression, this list of tips may prove useful.
- Force yourself to get up in the morning and avoid sleeping in, even though, if you’re depressed, you won’t feel like it. This will have to be a straight act of determination and will. Getting up and moving around helps fight depression; sleeping late feeds it.
- Reduce your intake of carbs – especially sugar – while upping the protein. Again, it feels counter-intuitive, because if you’re depressed you’re going to crave the quick charge of energy that sugar and simple carbs deliver. But that very same jolt of sugar floods the bloodstream, spikes, and then causes a crash, leaving you more depressed than ever. The same is true for caffeine and alcohol. Do yourself a favor and keep away from the stuff.
- The more you can move and exercise, the better off you’ll be. Don’t forget, depression is blocked or dead-ended energy, and you can get it moving again by literally moving. (And, yes, if you’re depressed, you won’t feel like it – let’s face it – you won’t feel like anything! – you’ll just have to take it on faith. You’ll feel better afterward.)
- If your depression is seasonal or fed by lack of light, those full-spectrum light boxes and lamps that imitate the sun’s rays can be a big help and are now available at a reasonable cost. A half-hour a day under those healing, energizing rays can make a big difference.
- Let your more reliable friends, family and/or support system at work know that you need extra support, concern, encouragement or sensitivity (as long as it doesn’t get you in trouble or create a new set of problems for you). If you haven’t already worn them out or frustrated their efforts to help you in the past, the right people will come through for you. But do be smart about whom you talk to, and don’t try to get blood from a stone.
- Try to catch yourself at negative self-talk, criticism, self-scolding and internal name-calling, and instead deliberately change your inner voice to say something positive, encouraging and kind. It may feel hokey and fake at first, but give it a try anyway, because it works.
- When you’re depressed, your schedule can be your friend. So keep up your routine, meet your responsibilities and stay active. But if you just can’t hack it now and then, forgive yourself, try to be kind to yourself, and get back up as soon as you can.
- Medication can help you jump start your healing if you’re so much in the pits that you don’t have the energy for anything else. So don’t be a rigid, anti-pill snob if this is what it takes to get you going. But, it’s important to see a doc who’s up on the latest anti-depressants – ask around. Too many family docs and even psychiatrists aren’t so informed about the rapidly shifting range of meds that are available now, and they can over- or under-medicate you. Once you’re feeling more like yourself, you can begin doing some of the other things on this list and start reducing your dosage.
- Counseling or therapy can be a huge help here, even if the depression is biochemically based because it has such an erosive effect on work performance, relationships and confidence. A good clinician can be just the right kind of sounding board to help you get back your perspective and balance.