Which Meditation Technique is Most Helpful with Depression and Anxiety?

Imagine if you could cure depression with a therapy that was more effective and long-lasting than expensive drugs, and which did not have any side effects. These are the claims, recently being made for a form of Mindfulness meditation.


Psychologists from the University of Exeter published a study in 2010 into "mindfulness-based cognitive therapy" (MBCT), finding it to be better than drugs or counseling for depression. Four months after starting, three quarters of the patients felt well enough to stop taking antidepressants.

MBCT marries Eastern meditation with Western cognitive therapy. Patients are taught the simple technique over eight sessions and then practice it at home for 30 minutes a day. Professor Willem Kuyken, whose team at the Mood Disorders Centre of the University of Exeter in the UK carried out the research, says: "Anti-depressants are widely used by people who suffer from depression and that's because they tend to work. While they're very effective in helping reduce the symptoms of depression, when people come off them they are particularly vulnerable to relapse. For many people, MBCT seems to prevent that relapse. It could be an alternative to long-term antidepressant medication."

MBCT was developed in the mid-Nineties by psychologists at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Toronto to help stabilize patients' moods during and after use of antidepressants. About half of patients relapse into depression - even if they continue taking the medication. One common reason for a relapse is when a normal period of sadness turns into obsessive brooding.

The MBCT technique is simple, and revolves around "mindfulness meditation". In this, you sit with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing. Concentrating on the rhythm of the breath helps produce a feeling of detachment. The idea is that you come to realize that thoughts come and go of their own accord, and that your conscious self is distinct from your thoughts. This realization is encouraged by gentle question-and-answer sessions modeled on those in cognitive therapy.

Depression Medications Boost Neurotransmitters. Meditation Does Too.

Between your wonderfully complex brain’s billions of neurons are an internet-like group of information communicators known as "neurotransmitters." For the depression sufferer, there are two critical "need to know" neurotransmitters: serotonin and norepinephrine. When levels of these two highly important brain chemicals get too low, we feel an overwhelming sense of sadness, and consequently, become depressed.

If you are taking an antidepressant, it is almost certain to be targeting these two chemical messengers. The problem with taking anti-depressants are many: unknown side effects (paradoxically, suicide is one), dependency, and they flat out don’t work for many people.

In fact, clinical evidence has shown the anti-depressants efficiency is questionable, it takes time and efforts to refine the treatment plan, and in most cases, the pills might stop working after the certain period of time. As countless studies show (including a highly esteemed University of Montreal research team) — with meditation, you can boost both serotonin and norepinephrine to healthy "depression resistant" levels... naturally. In effect, meditation creates within your brain a sort of "neurochemical utopia" — where depression is unable to survive.

Meditation’s freshly drafted serotonin army will quickly neutralize any depression linked enemy combatants currently occupying your brain, effectively making it a powerful fortress preventing any future potential invader.

Meditation Deactivates The Anxiety and Depression Center Of The Brain

Considering what they dealt with every day, our primitive hunting and gathering ancestors certainly needed highly tuned survival instincts. The brain region that kept them alive the most, the amygdala’s job was to alert them to any potential danger on the horizon — and it served them very well. The problem is, while our ancient ancestors needed their "survival mode" activated on a daily basis, modern man does not.

Yet, we, as a society, are still somehow triggering our fight or flight stress response a few times per day with nothing more than common day to day financial difficulties, relationship worries, career problems, etc. Each time we trigger our "life or death" fear center amygdala, a nasty chemical cocktail of hormones (like cortisol) get released, flooding our bodies with a bunch of nasties.

What is the very best way to cool off an overheated amygdala, forever shielding depression? Meditation. Esteemed Harvard neuroscientists examined the brains’ of freshly minted meditation practitioners before and after an 8-week mindfulness class. They found that the "depression center" amygdalae had actually managed to shrink in size, while also being far less electrically active. In other words, meditation effectively turns off the most critical brain region involved in depression.

Meditation Solves the Psychology Of Depression

When we get stuck in a mental rut, negative thoughts keeps firing, like a howitzer, one after another. "I’m not good enough...I make too many mistakes...I am a bad person." This kind of relentless thinking fuels bad moods, like kindling on a wildfire, spreading to all areas of the mind — keeping anyone locked in a seemingly perpetual state of depression, with no clear way out. Scientists estimate the number of human thoughts at around 50,000 per day — meaning a negative, depressed mind can literally generate dozens of pessimistic thoughts per minute! While we all have this type of thinking from time to time, the difference is the depressed mind’s sheer volume & level of bombardment.

Depression is rooted in fears about the future and regrets about the past. Focusing on the moment, not the past or the future, is the secret behind meditation’s power. Like a negative thought vortex, trying to extract happiness from some other place or time gets us nowhere — this mindless overthinking can quickly suck away today’s joy. Meditation will restore your present mind focus, allowing you to see the beautiful moment to moment unfolding of life, keeping everything from getting stale.

Meditation teaches us how to be aware of our negative thoughts, which all by itself makes them less powerful and less frequent. When we become witness to the thinking process — instead of our negative thoughts carrying us away like a rip current, the meditative mind simply watches negative thoughts and lets them go. Watching ourselves think helps us realize that thoughts are not reality, they do not have to exert any influence on our mood or emotional state. Thoughts come and go, like waves upon the shore. No need to fixate or attach to any one of them. Instead of a negative thought spiraling further and further out of control, digging a deeper and darker hole — meditation prevents the nasty trigger of depression from ever getting pulled. It is the passive observation and awareness of the mind during meditation that weaken both the frequency and strength that our disharmonious thoughts have on us.

Depression Weakens the Brain. Meditation Builds It Back Up

Beyond simply making us feel down in the dumps, many are surprised to learn depression can actually downgrade the size & strength of certain brain areas. A 1996 University of Washington (St. Louis) research study measured the brains of 10 major clinical depression sufferers, revealing that the depressed participants’ "hippocampus" — a brain region best known for memory loss and disorientation, was remarkably underdeveloped when compared to normal brains. Moreover, the effect was amplified by time —  the more days the participants were "officially" diagnosed as clinically depressed, the greater the magnitude of frailty.

Meditation is proved to be capable of rehabilitating the hippocampus and reversing any negative, deteriorating "depressed brain" effects.  Numerous studies show, time and time again, meditation practitioners to have highly developed, well-formed Hippocampi — with one 2007 study (University of Geissen, Germany) finding a one to one relationship with number of years meditation experience and the overall "hippocampal grey matter density."

In other words, the more meditation you do, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus — elevating your brain higher and higher above the dark valley of depression.

Practicing Meditation

The following three meditation approaches are considered to be the most efficient for the people struggling with depression and anxiety, Start here first, before trying all others.

Mindfulness Meditation

1. Sit upright. Some studies have shown mindful meditation is effective in combatting depression, and is particularly effective in preventing relapse for those who have experienced episodes of major depression. To practice mindfulness meditation, you'll first need to sit upright on a chair or on the floor.

* Choose a room without distractions. It might be best to choose a particular corner of the room. Do not face anything stimulating, like a television set or window. Try to face a blank wall if possible.
* Sit in a manner that feels comfortable. You want to be able to focus on your breath and self rather than feelings of physical discomfort. You can sit on the floor, a cushion, or a chair with a straight back. Make sure you choose a chair that does not wiggle around. Try to sit up straight when you're meditating in order to make breathing easier.
* Place your hands on your thighs, facing downward. Keep your eyes somewhat opened, with your gaze focusing on the wall or floor. Make sure your hips are higher than your knees.

2. Close your eyes. Sit for a few moments, keeping your mind focused on the present moment. Once you're seated, spend a few moments taking in the present moment. Be aware of your posture, your body, and your environment. Your mind will probably wander at some point. When this happens, gently bring your thoughts back to your body and your surroundings.

3. Feel your breath. After spending a few moments focusing on the present, turn your attention to your breath. Breathing is a natural, rhythmic process. Pay attention to how air comes in and out of your lungs.

* Channel all your attention on your breath. There is no need to manipulate your breath or breathe in a particular way. Just pay attention to its natural rhythm.
* Keep your attention on your body and environment in addition to your breathing. Try to spend a few minutes breathing and focusing on the present. Once again, if your mind wanders, try to bring things back to the present.
* Try practicing diaphragm breathing either sitting up or lying down. If you plan to sit up, make sure you sit up straight so you can breathe more easily. Place one hand on your chest and another on your lower stomach. Breathe in such a way that the hand on your stomach rises while the one on your chest remains still. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Repeat for as many breaths as it takes for you to begin to feel calmed and emotionally slowed down.

4. Let thoughts flow through you. After a few minutes of breathing, allow your mind to wander. Do not judge or analyze your thoughts. Just let them come in and out naturally.

* Thoughts will begin to arise if you meditate long enough. They might be memories, worries, concerns, or snippets from TV shows. Try not to control your thoughts. Just let them come and go on their own.
* Avoid judging your thoughts or trying to work through or analyze anything. Simply let the thoughts occur. It can be helpful to name your thoughts in your head as they come. Think something like, "Here is a memory from childhood," or, "Here is some worry about my job.

5. Aim for two-and-a-half hours of mindful meditation per week. Strive to meditate a bit each day. Studies show two-and-a-half hours of mindfulness meditation improves symptoms of depression in some patients. Try to work meditation into your regular schedule. For example, plan to meditate after brushing your teeth each night before bed. This way, it'll become routine.

Body Scan Meditation

1. Lie down in a comfortable place. Body scan meditation can also help you remain in the present moment. Focusing on the present can help aid in depression. Many people report feeling more relaxed after a few weeks of practicing body scan meditation. The first step in body scan meditation is lying down. Choose a comfortable space, like a mat or your bed.

2. Notice your body and set your intention. Spend some time focusing on your body. Then, set your intentions for the exercise. Your intention is an aim or purpose that embodies how you want to live your life. It could be something like, "Open my heart," or "Have compassion for myself." Your intention should always be positive.

* How does your body feel against the mat, bed, or floor? What body parts seem tense? Is there anything pressing into your hips or back? Imagine softening those areas, making them feel more relaxed and comfortable. Relax any body parts, like the jaw or shoulders, that seem tense.
* The point of body scan meditation is to clear your mind. Spend a moment stating your intentions in your head. Agree to let go of the past and future and allow everything but your body to fade into the background.

3. Begin the scan. Once you're comfortable and relaxed, begin the scan. Body scan meditation is the practice of placing hyper focus on one area of the body at a time.

* A body scan is sort of like taking a tour of your body. Do not picture your body parts or move them. Simply notice how they feel.
* Start with your feet. Are your toes colder than the rest of your body? Are you wearing socks? If so, take stock of how the fabric feels against your skin. Move up to the foot and then the leg.
* As you scan your body parts, allow them to disappear. Let your toes fade from awareness as you explore the rest of your foot. Let your foot slip from your mind as you move up your leg.
* Travel up the body until you reach your head, allowing your body to gradually fade away as you go.

4. Connect it all together. Once you've reached your head, it's time to connect your body back together. Start with the head. Feel the head connect to the neck, the torso, the arms, and so on. Then, feel your skin all around your body. Allow yourself to feel a physical sense of wholeness.

Loving Kindness Meditation (Metta Meditation)

Metta is a Pali word that means kindness, benevolence, and good will. This practice comes from the Buddhist traditions, especially the Theravada and Tibetan lineages. “Compassion meditation” is a contemporary scientific field that demonstrates the efficacy of metta and related meditative practices. Demonstrated benefits include: boosting one’s ability to empathize with others; development of positive emotions through compassion, including a more loving attitude towards oneself; increased self-acceptance; greater feeling of competence about one’s life; and increased feeling of purpose in life (read more in our other post).

1. Close your eyes. Sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your spine straight. Relax your whole body. Keep your eyes closed throughout the whole visualization and bring your awareness inward. Without straining or concentrating, just relax and gently follow the instructions.

2. Take a deep breath in. And breathe out.

3. Start by developing loving-kindness towards yourself, then progressively towards others and all beings. Keeping your eyes closed, think of a person close to you who loves you very much. It could be someone from the past or the present; someone still in life or who has passed; it could be a spiritual teacher or guide. Imagine that person standing on your right side, sending you their love. That person is sending you wishes for your safety, for your well-being and happiness. Feel the warm wishes and love coming from that person towards you.

Usually this progression is advised:

* oneself
* a good friend
* a “neutral” person
* a difficult person
* all four of the above equally
* and then gradually the entire universe

4. Take a deep breath in. And breathe out. And another deep breath in and let it go. Notice the state of your mind and how you feel after this meditation. When you’re ready, you may open your eyes. The more you practice this meditation, the more joy you will experience.

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