Meditation for Depression: Alternative treatments to cure complex disorders
Meditation for depression. Some call it a powerful tool to increase attention and focus whereas others are repelled by the thought of just sitting around, not thinking about anything. We know of monks that perform meditation on a regular basis to achieve extraordinary skills which are considered superhuman. Meditation has indeed proven to aid in everyday life in our Western society. A better ability to focus, an efficient direction of attention and increased cognitive skills are observed when people start meditating. A few individuals even claim to experience additional health benefits caused by a stronger immune system. But could we use meditation as a tool to treat diseases where conventional treatments fail? In short, could we cure complex disorders for instance use meditation for depression?
Description of Meditation
The first thing we need to be clear about is the fact that meditation is NOT a religion but a science, and when practiced in the correct manner produces results which can be verified. It is a technique for resting the mind and reaching a state of consciousness totally different from the normal waking state. The most important aspect is probably the mind not focusing on the external world (events taking place around you, daydreaming, fantasizing, etc.), but to put your focus inwards. The ability to achieve a silent mind and not letting yourself distract by external stimuli is the key to successful meditation.
Though we can generally explain to our peers what meditation entails, finding a scientific definition proves to be rather difficult. Generally, there are two different fields trying to define the concept of meditation. One field explains this concept to be a family of mental training techniques, which is referred to as the “method definition”. The other field takes the enhanced experiential states or the altered states of consciousness from the use of these methods as a reference, which is called the “state definition”. To have two very different definitions makes comparing research results inevitably difficult.
Types of Meditation
Various types of meditation exist each having their own method. What they all have in common is the contribution to a healthier body and mind if practiced correctly. Based on the goal of the individual, the most suitable type should be selected and applied frequently.
1. Concentration Meditation: As the name implies, this type of meditation involves focus. Here you try to put your attention on a single aspect for a certain period of time. It is important to regain your focus every time your mind wanders off.
Three techniques are listed below and are suitable for beginners:
- Zazen (Breathing)
- Vipassana (Body sensations)
- Tratak (Concentration on a Candle Flame)
2. Reflective Meditation: This type of meditation refers to disciplined thinking about a particular question, theme or discipline. In this method, people devote their whole attention towards the chosen theme. If the thoughts wander to other topics the person has to come back to the original question. Therefore it is essential to becoming acquainted with concentration meditation first.
3. Mindfulness Meditation: This is the most popular and most widely accepted in the Western World. As in the concentration meditation, the practitioner directs his or her attention towards an object, but the focus can be broader here (there can be a simultaneous awareness of other phenomena).
4. Heart-Centered Meditation: Here the person executing this method focuses on his or her heart area while inhaling and exhaling slowly but smoothly. This type contributes to the release of fears and sadness and will “heal” your heart.
5. Creative Meditation: With this technique, you use visualization techniques which aid in accomplishing a set goal. The ability to create mental imagery with your mind is a powerful tool for individuals executing this method are subsequently able to create their present moment leading to positive thinking and being.
These meditation techniques could have implications for the treatment of several complex disorder. We will take the very common case of depression to see how meditation is able to influence the severity of the symptoms associated with this disorder.
Conventional treatment of Depression – The Problems
Major depressive disorder or simply depression is a common problem primarily in the First World. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it describes a common and serious medical illness that impacts the way you feel, act and think. Nevertheless, a number of opportunities exist to relieve the symptoms of depression using antidepressants. What they do is restore the neurotransmitter balance (the chemistry) in the brain. Patients with depression are deficient in particular neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation. The antidepressants’ job is to increase or decrease the amount of these neurotransmitters in the synapse thereby resetting the brain’s chemistry to its normal state. This sounds like the perfect treatment, but unfortunately, changing the neurotransmitter release so drastically and artificially does come with side effects. Nausea, weight gain, loss of sexual desire and fatigue are only a few on the list of potential side effects. For this reason, it is common for doctors to prescribe drugs relieving the side effects arising from the antidepressant.
To make matters worse, the positive effects of the antidepressant are felt usually only after 3 to 4 weeks of constant administration. It would, therefore, be much more beneficial to change the make-up of the neurotransmitters naturally to avoid these side effects completely. Meditation for depression would, therefore, be an option.
Meditation for depression: Release of hormones
In order to achieve an efficient treatment of disorders like depression, the neurotransmitter (or hormone) imbalance needs to be restored. This implies that if meditation for depression was a possible candidate for relieving the symptoms, it needs to have an influence on the hormonal content in the brain.
In one study investigating meditation for depression, a group of people with panic disorder received a PET (positron emission tomography) scan showing serotonin 1A receptors (receptors of the hormone serotonin that plays a crucial role in mood regulation) levels to be one third lower than in the control group. When the panic group performed several meditation techniques, their urine revealed a much higher content of the breakdown products of serotonin. This suggests a natural increase in serotonin through meditation.
Hormonal alterations were also seen in other neurotransmitters: Norepinephrine and dopamine.
Increased levels of norepinephrine are found in people with anxiety and is also a target in meditation for depression. A finding showed decreased levels in rats to contribute to lessen anxiety. The same effect was seen in meditators, which exhibited lower blood levels of this hormone.
Dopamine is involved in reward-motivated behavior. Research showed a decreased level of dopamine in people with social phobia compared to a healthy control group. However, individuals performing Yoga Nidra meditation showed an increase in dopamine levels in the ventral striatum (the brain area where dopamine originates).
The last hormone affected by repeatedly performing meditation is melatonin, a hormone contributing to sleep regulation. TM-Sidhi meditators’ melatonin levels were measured on two different nights. One night in which they meditated for one hour and one night in which they were just sitting quietly. On the night they meditated, their melatonin levels were higher than in the night were no meditation was conducted. Increased levels of melatonin are beneficial, as it has proven to decrease anxiety based on a review citing nine different studies all confirming the same result.
If you feel like expanding on famous people who have used meditation for depression you can read more here.
Meditation for depression: But why does the majority not practice meditation?
A lot of misconceptions about meditation are out there leading to a more negative reputation of the concept in general. Let us look at a few points to check if they have validity.
“One has to meditate many years to experience positive effects.”
To become really good at meditation it takes indeed some time, however, this is the case for almost any task we lack experience with. If someone practices meditation on a regular basis, positive effects can already be noted only after 8 weeks.
“Meditation is boring.”
Nowadays we have the opportunity to obtain instantaneous fun through our smartphones. This makes meditation seem a boring task since you cannot do anything at all but focus on the same thing. But if someone finds meditation boring simply depends on his or her attitude. Do not expect to be entertained like when playing a new game on your computer. Especially at the beginning, meditating can seem quite dull as we have to learn to cope with the nothingness meditation brings.
“Meditation is selfish.”
Since it is a technique which is practiced alone, it is a valid point to make. However, we make time for ourselves also in other areas of our lives (when we eat, shower or spend time in front of our PC). Meditation comes however with great benefits as it positively affects your personal and works life. It is even advantageous for people around you.
Meditation for depression: The lack of acceptance of meditation
The biggest problem with this topic is the difficulty to design controlled experiments when looking at meditation for depression. The methodology to assess mindfulness is rather poor. At the beginning, you already became acquainted with the difficulty of finding a sound definition and exactly this is where the problem starts. As so many labels for the same phenomenon are used, it becomes difficult to generalize from one study to another. Researchers in this field are only able to rely on questionnaires they give to the subjects, however, the answers the experimenters receive from their subjects can be very slippery and extremely vulnerable to biases.
Only if the mindfulness community agrees on general guidelines and terms describing the concept of meditation for depression, can we use the knowledge to infer the effects another novel meditation for depression technique might bring. As soon as more clarity is obtained, the media will be able to inform the general public in a more objective way promoting the acceptance of meditation for depression. One thing is for sure: The benefits of meditation are present and we should not miss out on them.
Meditation for depression:5 Meditation Tips for Beginners
- Start with only 2 minutes: At the beginning, we recommend you to only sit for 2 minutes. This can be anywhere you like. Do this once a day for at least a week and then slowly increase the length of your session. After a month you will be meditating for 10 minutes, which seems like a short time, but it’s not! It is important to start small first!
- Focus on your breath: Put your full attention towards your breath. You can count the number of breaths you take or focus on the inhale and exhale. If your mind wanders (and it will at the beginning), try to come back quickly focusing on your breath again.
- Do not judge your thoughts: Whenever you experience unwanted thoughts, look at them with a friendly attitude. Consider them as friends, not intruders and appreciate them.
- Commit yourself: Make it a habit, but not only for a week. Try to incorporate it into your daily routine and set specific times for your sessions. Only if you do it for a while will you experience the full effects.
- Try to find a community: When we start and run into problems, it is best to consult people who have been already in the same situation. Share your experiences with a community practicing meditation and ask for opinions. The more opinions you hear, the better!
“The mind is just like a muscle – the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the more it can expand.”
What has been your experience with meditation? Do you have any problems with depression? Ever used mediation for depression? Please don’t hesitate to comment below.
Patrick has completed a Master in Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently doing an online course in journalism. His aim is to inform the general public about science-related topics. He looks to achieve this by keeping his work simple, yet precise and informative for everyone.