11 Types of Meditation That Can Help Treat Depression
The dozens of different types of meditation all seek a state of heightened awareness, says E. Robert Schwartz, MD, director of the Os her Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and that heightened awareness could have far-ranging benefits for people with depression and anxiety.
“There is a strong feeling in the neuroscience area and the psychology realm that meditation and meditative practices can change your brain physiology,” Dr. Schwartz says.
Of course, you have to actually do it. “Learning how to manage your thoughts takes time, energy, and dedication,” Dr. Schwartz says.
Keep in mind that adopting a meditation practice doesn’t mean you abandon medications and other treatments for depression that you may already be using. “Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, has been shown to be helpful in treating depression, but it should be used as a part of conventional medical care under the supervision of a physician, and not as a substitute for conventional medical care,” says Adi ti Nerurkar, MD, medical director of the Chang-Suit Integrated Health Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Here’s a guide to some of the more popular and more studied types of meditation that can benefit people with depression.
Loving-kindness meditation focuses on creating an attitude of love and kindness towards yourself and others. Several studies have found that people who practice this type of meditation have less depression, a more positive outlook, fewer negative emotions, and greater compassion.
Loving-kindness meditation may also help quell self-criticism, which underlies a number of different mental health disorders. One study found reductions in self-criticism lasted for at least three months after the actual meditation sessions had ended.
A related type of meditation, compassion meditation, stresses unconditional compassion and has also been linked with better mood and fewer negative feelings.
Mindfulness meditation might be considered the mother of all meditation. Many other types of meditation have stemmed from mindfulness, and it may have the most scientific evidence supporting it.
“Mindfulness meditation is a moment-to-moment awareness of the present moment,” says Dr. Nerurkar. “It uses your breath to create an anchor to keep bringing your attention back to the present moment and help with cognitive retraining.”
Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation may reduce depression, as well as anxiety and stress. The Society for Integrative Oncology recommends using mindfulness meditation to ease depression and anxiety in cancer patients, and studies have even documented ways in which mindfulness changes the brain.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
This is a subset of mindfulness meditation that blends meditation with cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT is one of the most widely used forms of therapy for depression (and other mental health concerns) and focuses on changing damaging thinking and behavior patterns.
MBCT was first developed to prevent relapses in people with recurrent depression; more recent evidence suggests that it may also help people with active depression.
A recent study of the similar behavioral activation with mindfulness (BAM), which incorporates behavioral therapy with a mindfulness practice, found that it reduced symptoms of depression like changes in sleep, appetite, and mood. “BAM is an innovative type of intervention,” says Samuel Y.S. Wong, MD, lead author of the study and professor and head of family medicine and primary health care at the JC School of Public Health and Primary Care at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The two components are like ‘yin’ and ‘yang.’”
Breath awareness meditation
Awareness of your breath is a fundamental component of many different forms of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation.
“Mindfulness meditation uses the object of your breath to focus on, to help with mind training,” says Dr. Nerurkar. Breath awareness meditation may also be called mindful breathing.
As little as 15 minutes a day of focusing on inhaling and exhaling can yield mood benefits, including lessened emotional reactivity. And you don’t necessarily have to set aside special time to pay attention to your breathing: Many people find ways to incorporate awareness of their breath throughout the day. It can be done sitting, standing, or lying down, and with your eyes open or closed.
Yoga combines physical postures with breathing techniques and meditation, and it seems to have an effect on depression and anxiety. Studies have found that Kundalini yoga in particular–which incorporates chanting–is helpful in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Kundalini yoga includes specific techniques to manage fear, banish anger, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
Another study found that yoga, when combined with CBT, eased anxiety, depression, and panic while improving sleep and quality of life in people with generalized anxiety disorder.
Talk to your doctor before starting yoga. Unlike meditation, which is generally safe, yoga can cause injury, although this isn’t common. Make sure you practice yoga with a qualified instructor.
Transcendental meditation, or TM as it is known, has a large following around the world.
Instead of using the breath to anchor your attention, “transcendental meditation uses sound or a personal mantra, often one or two syllables, as the anchor,” Dr. Nerurkar explains.
One study of teachers and staff at a residential school for students with severe behavioral problems–in other words, people with high-stress jobs–found that transcendental meditation improved stress, depression, and burnout, and that the benefits lasted four months.
Many people find that focusing on pleasant images rather than negative ones stimulates calm. Visualization or guided imagery meditation can be led by another person, or you can direct your own session using one of scores of recordings available online.
Imagery can also be used to change how you recall negative memories. Imagining happy endings in place of such memories–a process called re scripting–resulted in better quality of life and self-esteem in at least one study. The participants were asked to revise past events in their imagination; visualize their moods as symbols or creatures, then transform them into something more positive; and find positive phrases and words to replace negative ones.
Body scan meditation
Body scan meditation involves focusing on different parts of your body sequentially. Like breathing awareness, you can do this lying down, sitting, or in other postures, and with your eyes open or closed. As you shift your attention to different parts of your body, you also focus on inhaling and exhaling deeply.
Body scanning seems to be linked with better observation of thoughts, feelings, and sensations and less intense reactions to stress.
One study that looked at body scan meditation among other forms of mindfulness found fewer depression relapses in people with bipolar disorder from a formal practice of just once a week.
Barack Obama once said he found washing dishes soothing. Cleaning up may not be a formal meditation practice, but repetitive activity–including scrubbing pots and pans–may induce a certain calmer mental state, if you do it mindfully.
At least one study supports this idea, finding “mindful dishwashers” did show more mindfulness and less nervousness than those who didn’t wash up mindfully.
“It’s the repetitive action that doesn’t require any real thought,” says Dr. Schwartz. “It’s the same as physical exercise. You’re using the exercise or the manual labor as a way of calming your mind, focusing, and removing all of the extraneous thoughts that most of us have during waking hours.”
Many meditation traditions use chanting or periodic chimes of a gong as a way to focus the mind.
“Chanting is a modality to arrive at the same type of meditative state,” says Dr. Schwartz. “You use that … to gain your ability to focus.”
One study found that “active-type meditative practices” like chanting and yoga seemed to activate parts of the brain involved in regulation of mood and emotional control.
Walking, of course, is good for both your physical and mental health. But a walking meditation may take you to another level.
Aerobic walking coupled with Buddhist meditation three times a week for 12 weeks not only reduced depression but also improved flexibility and balance in a small group of older adults in one study. Meditating before or after walking (for as little as 10 minutes at a time) also lowered anxiety in younger adults in other research.
“Meditation is [about] learning how to not just focus your mind but also to relax your mind,” says Dr. Schwartz. “You’re learning now to bring [your mind] back to neutral,” and you can do that not just while walking but with many forms of exercise, he adds.
Meditation Won’t Cure Your Depression, but It Can Be a Big Help
Depression is a common mental health condition that can show up in a variety of ways.
If you live with depression, you could have chronic symptoms, like a generally low mood you can’t shake. Or you might have major depressive episodes a few times a year. You might also notice symptoms changing or worsening over time.
Sometimes, depression treatments start working pretty quickly.
- find a great therapist
- have success with medication
- make lifestyle changes that help relieve symptoms
Depression symptoms can linger, even with treatment. If the above methods haven’t helped as much as you hoped, you may want to consider adding meditation into the mix.
How can it help?
Meditation for depression? If you feel a little skeptical at the suggestion, you’re not alone. You might even think it sounds like a recommendation from the people who say depression will improve if you just “Smile more!” or “Think positively!”
Sure, meditation alone won’t make your symptoms vanish, but it can make them more manageable. Here’s how.
It helps change your response to negative thinking
Depression can involve a lot of dark thoughts. You might feel hopeless, worthless, or angry at life (or even yourself). This can make meditation seem somewhat counter-intuitive, since it involves increasing awareness around thoughts and experiences.
But meditation teaches you to pay attention to thoughts and feelings without passing judgment or criticizing yourself.
Meditation doesn’t involve pushing away these thoughts or pretending you don’t have them. Instead, you notice and accept them, then let them go. In this way, meditation can help disrupt cycles of negative thinking.
Say you’re sharing a peaceful moment with your partner. You feel happy and loved. Then the thought, “They’re going to leave me,” comes into your mind.
Meditation can help you get to a place where you can:
- notice this thought
- accept it as one possibility
- acknowledge that it’s not the only possibility
Instead of following this thought with something like, “I’m not worthy of a good relationship,” meditation can help you let this thought cross your awareness — and keep going.
Can Meditation Help You with Depression?
Psychologists weigh in on when mindfulness therapies can (and can’t) help to ease depression.
As nearly 10,000 freshmen and transfers arrived on campus at the University of California, Los Angeles, last fall, they were invited to try something never before offered during student orientation: depression screening.
The hope, administrators explained, is that by identifying their risk for depression, students can get the support they need before they face the rigors of academia and the disorienting experience of living away at college. There’s reason for the concern. In 2016, a record high of almost 12 percent of UCLA freshman reported “frequently” feeling depressed in the past year. And a report from Penn State, drawing data from 139 university and college mental health services, found that in the 2015–2016 year, use of these services increased by 30 percent, although enrollment grew by just 5 percent. This included “a persistent increase in ‘threat-to-self’ characteristics such as non suicidal self-injury and suicidal idealization.”
The screening initiative—which will be extended to the entire student body eventually—is part of the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, a landmark effort to understand one of the most pervasive and debilitating health conditions in the world, one that affects an estimated 350 million people and contributes to the suicides of 800,000 people, including 40,000 Americans, every year.
The university launched the challenge in 2015 as a multiyear, interdisciplinary study to develop better methods of understanding the genetic and environmental causes of depression and to improve detection, evaluation, and treatment. The goal is ambitious: to cut the global depression rate in half by 2030.
This comes at a time when public health officials around the world struggle to get their hands around what is considered the leading cause of disability among adults, costing some $210 billion in medical and long-term care and lost productivity hours each year.
“That depression has not been identified as our number-one health issue astounds me,” UCLA chancellor Gene Block said in announcing the campus screening program in September 2017.
Meditation for depression
First off, how does mindfulness meditation affect our overall mental health? Meditation helps us become more aware of what’s happening within. It also allows us to relate more directly – with benevolence – to the emotions that are brought to light, including anger, stress, anxiety and craving. There are a zillion distractions and pressures in the modern world that might persuade us to lose touch with our emotions and feelings. If we don’t pay attention, we may well end up suppressing them, and this is never healthy. Meditation connects us to a sense of spaciousness, which in turn fosters well-being.