Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people around the world live with some form of depression. In America, more than 17.3 million individuals have had at least one depressive episode. Typically, doctors and psychiatrists treat depression with therapy and medication. But ongoing research suggests that mindfulness and regular meditation practice can also help relieve depression by changing how the brain responds to stress and anxiety.
The Depressed Brain
Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent and often overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss of interest in activities. Even though many of the symptoms of depression are physical, the disorder originates in the brain. When Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and other forms of depression develop:
- The brain has difficulty controlling mood and emotions. Scientists have discovered that depression can shrink parts of the brain that help regulate mood and emotion. The brain regions most affected by depression include the hippocampus, amygdala, frontal, and prefrontal cortices. When the hippocampus and amygdala shrink, you become more vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress and anxiety. Smaller frontal and prefrontal cortices can negatively impact impulse control and make it hard for you to regulate your emotions.
- Low levels of neurotransmitters negatively affect how you think and feel. Healthy brains have a delicate balance of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Depression inflames the brain, causing a chemical imbalance and decreased neurotransmitter functionality. Low levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin can make you feel tired, sad, and anxious. When there’s a shortage of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, you might feel like you have low energy and may lose interest in activities you previously enjoyed.
- The brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen, resulting in a number of symptoms associated with memory and mood. The brain, like all organs in the body, needs oxygen. People with depression tend to have lower levels of oxygen in the brain. This shortage of oxygen can sap your energy and leave you feeling confused, disinterested, and restless.
Luckily, mindfulness and meditation can help retrain the brain, regulate emotions, and restore the brain’s chemical balance. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” researcher Madhav Goyal explains. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind…and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
How Mindfulness & Meditation Helps Relieve Depression
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that teaches you to focus on your awareness of sensations and feelings in the present moment without trying to interpret, understand, or judge those feelings. In short, mindfulness helps you retrain the brain. Learning how to be fully present and aware of what you’re experiencing without becoming overly reactive or overwhelmed can help alleviate stress and anxiety, two major triggers of depression. Even the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends mindfulness as a way to prevent depression. Here’s why:
Mindfulness Helps Restore the Brain’s Ability to Regulate Emotions
Depression can over activate the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and amygdala. Also known as “the me center,” the medial prefrontal cortex is where you process information about yourself. The mPFC also processes worries about the future and obsessions about the past. Stress sends the medial prefrontal cortex into overdrive, which then alerts the amygdala, also called “the fear center,” which triggers the body’s fight or flight mode. The two parts of the brain interlock with each other, creating an overwhelming cycle that can lead to depression. Meditation helps disconnect these two parts of the brain.
“When you meditate, you are better able to ignore the negative sensations of stress and anxiety,” Dr. John Denninger explains. Mindfulness specifically allows you to acknowledge stress and “the me center” without reacting or triggering the “fear center.”
Meditation also helps protect the hippocampus. Instead of leaving depression to continually shrink the hippocampus, meditating for just 30 minutes a day can increase the volume of grey matter in the hippocampus. As the hippocampus returns to normal size, people with depression become better able to regulate their emotions and become less vulnerable to negative thoughts, low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness.
Meditation Can Change the Way You Think
One of the most common symptoms of depression is debilitating sadness. Medications such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and antidepressants try to combat sadness by boosting neurotransmitters. Mindfulness takes a different approach.
Instead of trying to eliminate sadness, mindfulness works to change the way you think about experiencing negative emotions.
“We weren’t interested in trying to eliminate sadness,” therapist Zindel Segal explains. “Sadness is also a feature of our universal human experience. We weren’t interested in trying to get people to not feel sad. What we’re trying to get people to do is to anchor themselves in their experience so that when a negative emotion comes up in the mind, it can wash over them; it doesn’t totally destabilize.”
Meditation techniques that teach this while helping treat depression include:
- Loving-kindness meditation, which focuses on creating an attitude of love and kindness toward yourself, combating negative emotions, hopelessness, and low self-worth.
- Breath awareness meditation, which emphasizes the focus on the breath. Breathing through challenging emotions helps lower cortisol levels and helps ease anxiety.
- Transcendental meditation, which uses sounds or a personal mantra to anchor your focus.
- Visualization, which encourages you to focus on pleasant, rather than negative images, helps stimulate serenity and an overall sense of calm.
- Body scan meditation, which invites you to focus on different parts of your body sequentially. As you shift your focus to different areas, you also inhale and exhale, giving your mind a moment to acknowledge what your body is doing and feeling without immediately reacting in response.
Using these techniques can help you to acknowledge and process the debilitating negative emotions associated with depression without triggering your fight or flight mode. The loving-kindness and visualization techniques take it a step further by building your confidence and helping you to focus on images that give you hope, combating worthlessness, and negative self-talk.
Let Us Help You Manage and Treat Depression
Depression is often an exhausting, frustrating, and isolating experience but mindfulness and meditation can help. Mindfulness can help restore your brain’s ability to regulate emotions in a healthy way. Meditation can help you change the way you think about difficult emotions and challenging situations.
Restoring the brain to its optimum state of health is our passion and mission here at StoneRidge Centers. All of our mental health treatment programs combine brain science with compassionate clinical care.
You don’t have to let depression run your life. We can help you manage your depression for the long term. Contact us today at 928-583-7799 if you, a loved one, or a close friend is dealing with depression.
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