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Does Meditation Help With Depression?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

As someone with a deep, vested interest in the mentality, treatment, and ultimate source of depression, I have looked at the science at hand to see what can be discovered. Turns out, about 350 million people worldwide have depression issues. That is about 5% of the world population! And we aren’t sure the number isn’t higher because diagnosing depression is difficult. The science is not solid yet, hence the wide range of manifestations and the varying degrees of duration. So what can we possibly hope to do with this stark situation? Well, I like to start with what we know and build a building from that foundation (Hallwell 42).

People who suffer from depression have long periods of low moods, don’t have much of an appetite, can have random pains, don’t get much satisfaction of life, and can suffer from insomnia. To be certified as a depressed individual, you need to be in a low mood for a 2-week period along with suffering from one of the remaining traits. As far as the sources of depression, it can be a genetic trait altering your brain chemistry, but it can also be habitual, negative thinking patterns too. Some definite risk factors include mental/physical abuse, substance abuse, and of course a family history of depression. It is because of all this uncertainty that depression treatment has about a 50% success rate after the first round, followed by about 70% the second time, and about a 90% the third time and above. What if a different method other than traditional therapy or medication existed that could perhaps remove all this cloudiness? (42, 44-5)

Mindfulness

This has led people to seek out mindfulness techniques, because it allows you to use your own tools to solve the problem. And mindfulness does help people achieve calm and peace via self-regulation and meditation, so how could it not be useful to us? If we repeat the practice, the frequency of the events will go down and we will gain the ability to transition “from auto pilot to more of an experimental present-moment mode” of life. It is though mindfulness that we gain he ability to put our life into perspective via the observation of the mind itself. You can find that oneself does not equate to the depression, it’s not who we are but a state of existence that can be altered. This isn’t to say that the depressive episodes disappear completely, but you will gain and increase in “well-being and resilience (44-6).”

So take note of those things that are bringing you down. Is worrying about them going to change the situation? Instead focus that energy on being a compassionate person and helping others, because it builds a framework of positive emotions within you. We are able “to direct that strong sense of determination in whatever direction” we chose to as we are aware of that ability. You can also direct the anxious mentality towards solutions to the problem that plagues you or to recognize the good things in your life. But constantly ruminating over the problem itself doesn’t solve anything but it does make you suffer and develop a pattern into your mindset. Indeed, “we create the conditions of despair itself,” so by acknowledging our initial short comings and moving along we can gain a foothold over the mental roadblocks we have (The Dalai Lama).

That all being said, mindfulness is not a solution during a depressed state. At that moment, your brain is “compromised,” and so you cannot reliably enter the compassionate state of mind mindfulness aims for. In fact, mindfulness brings a deep awareness to the current moment, meaning a mindfulness approach to solving a current depressive moment could escalate the situation. Only through long term practice outside of these events will allow for a mastery of the topic. Research done by Zindel Segal backs this up. The experiment had people watch sad movie clips and then employ mindfulness techniques. Subsequent fMRI scans of their brains revealed a decrease in activity in the midline prefrontal structures, which are where we ruminate and often experience the depression itself, and an increase in sensory processing. They still felt the emotions but didn’t let it cause anxiety, for mindfulness leads to “enhanced sensory experience and a corresponding decrease in living in your head.” Mindfulness allows us to enter upward spirals, growing out of lower states that downward spirals take us to (Hallwell 46, 49).

CBCT Study

A separate study looked at medical students who often experience depression issues as they learn their trade (which often means rising above such issues for themselves and others). Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) was used and is “a form of compassion-focused meditation.” Developed by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, it is “secular in presentation” but has its roots in Buddhism (specifically lojong). It has been shown to improve “empathic accuracy,” increase the quality of relationships, decreases inflammation pertaining “psychosocial stress” and increases activity and size of areas of brain pertaining to “thinking of others’ mental states and for emotional recognition.” It is not the same thing as mindfulness, which strives to curate a non-judgmental POV on life. CBCT instead wants you to be empathetic to others while examining your own thoughts on the topic. This is accomplished by first striving to see people beyond labels of “friend, enemy, and stranger” and then by building a frame of empathy that extends to all types of people. By acknowledging the interconnectedness of all our lives we can see how our empathy can grow in others, and vice versa. It allows us to fully engage with the world (Mascaro).

A 10-week random study was done with students between 22 and 30 years old. Some were put into the CBCT program where you would meet for 90 minutes a week and mediate for 20 minutes a week. Others were put on a wait list, hence a control group. The breakdown of people who completed the whole program was 13 women and 8 men in CBCT while 7 women and 4 men were on the wait list. A pre and post assessment was given to everyone that covered several self-reporting scales including CLHS, R-UCLA, DASS, PSQI, and SUI. After compiling the data, the results showed people who underwent CBCT and were in the higher depression range had the most improved scores after the training than compared to similarly depressed people who were on the wait list. Overall, CBCT students has “a decrease in loneliness and depression and increased compassion,” but the study did point out that you had to want to do the program, and people did drop out of it because of a lack of interest. That makes sense, for if you want to change then you will have to be the one to put in the effort to do so, but don’t be discouraged if that seems insurmountable. It can be simple as clicking a button to get the process rolling (Ibid).

Some Further Considerations

A note about all these findings. Steven Hickman, a psychologist and executive director at the Center for Mindfulness was asked about the confidence we should place into the science of mindful practices. He offered that the topic does have human experience as the central focal point, which can be a mark down. However, there is lots of evidence for its success for most people. Remember, that works for x% of people does not equate to x% success rate for an individual. “Let this science lead you to be skeptic and go investigate…let your experience be your guide,” he advised (Hickman).

Also worth considering, but is challenging to do, is the potential of the situation. Sometimes trauma can be informative in surprising ways. One of these is post-traumatic growth (PTG), or a general sense of being able to do anything because of your personal trauma. It was identified in 1996 by Laurence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi (University of North Carolina) and was found to correlate with an increase in personal strength, spiritual awareness, appreciation for life, and a general ability to see new possibilities. Intuitively, such things make sense because trauma can realign us and forces us to put things into a new perspective. It can even make you more empathetic (Begley 34).

In the past, rather than encourage PTG an individual was recommended to be resilient and try to be as they were before their trauma. Another option is an appeal to a deity figure for strength. PTG doesn’t deny either of these options but adds a component of moving on with your life in a forward direction also (35).

And as a personal note, I want you to not be discouraged if all this talk seems like its downplaying the impact of depression as a diagnosable ailment or if it trivializes the treatment of depression. You are suffering and are looking for help, so please give these mindful techniques a go. Have courage that it will work out, because until you give it a try then we cannot know if its effective or not. I hope it is for you, and if you would like to talk about this then please leave a comment or a message. Let’s figure this out, people!

Works Cited

Begley, Sharon. “Picking Up the Pieces.” Mindful. Apr. 2019: 34-5. Print.

Hallwell, Ed. “When the Mind Goes Dark.” Mindful Feb. 2018. Print. 42, 44-6, 49.

Hickman, Steven. “Am I Doing This Right?” Mindful Feb. 2018. Print. 32.

Mascaro, Jennifer S., Sean Kelley, Alana Darcher, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Carol Worthman, Andrew Miller & Charles Raison (2016): Meditation buffers medical student compassion from the deleterious effects of depression, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1233348.

The Dalai Lama. “Countering Stress and Depression.” Dalailama.com. The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 31 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 Sept. 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Leonard Kelley

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