In addition to psychotherapy and prescription medications, some people suffering from depression use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices such as meditation to ease their symptoms. In Western culture, CAM is defined as a healing practice that falls outside of the realm of conventional medical treatment.

Meditation is considered a “mind-body” practice. This means that it emphasizes the mind and body working together to achieve better health. But there is no precise definition for meditation because there are so many different types, many of which originated in ancient religious traditions. Despite this confusion, most forms of meditation are defined by some of these components:

  • Posture. Many types of meditation are done in a seated position, sometimes even with a prescribed posture. Some types involve a routine of slow, deliberate movements.
  • Breathing. Breathing during meditation can be “passive,” meaning that it should be natural but not a focal point, or “active,” meaning there is a prescribed method of breathing that is perhaps even the focal point of the meditation.
  • Focused Attention. Attention is focused upon breathing, a “mantra” (a word or phrase that is repeated out loud or silently), a sensation, an object, or even a posture.
  • Relaxation. Meditation is best practiced in a quiet place free of distractions. The desired outcome is for the mind and body to relax.

How It Works

Many research studies have investigated meditation and its effect upon the brain and the nervous system. At present, there is not enough information to make conclusive statements about how meditation should be used to treat depression. However, health experts believe that meditation may work to reduce activity in the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is involved in the “fight or flight” response. When you're under stress, it makes your heart rate and breathing quicken. It also narrows your blood vessels, restricting the flow of blood through your body.

Meditation may also help to increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows your breathing and heart rate to slow and causes your blood vessels to open up, improving blood flow. This process causes a state of relaxation.

Types of Meditation

Although there are dozens of different meditation techniques, they fall under the following three broad categories:

Mantra Meditation

In this form of meditation, the person sits in a comfortable position. They focus their attention on a prescribed or individually chosen mantra that they repeat aloud or silently during the meditation. Breathing might be linked to the mantra.

Mindfulness Meditation

During mindfulness meditation, the person often sits in a specific posture. The focus is typically on breathing though it can also be focused on body sensations or even a “koan,” which is a saying, phrase, or question to be contemplated. Although no specific spiritual beliefs are required, a commitment to self-discipline is helpful.

Movement Meditation

This type of meditation uses breathing and gentle flowing movements to create a meditative state. Examples of movement meditation are various types of yoga, tai chi, and qigong.

Because of a lack of empirical data, meditation is generally not recommended in lieu of conventional treatment for depression. It is more often used in addition to psychotherapy and/or prescription medications. It's important for you to talk to your healthcare provider about any lifestyle changes you make.

What the Expert Says

“Meditation is a very important part of treatment for depression and other anxiety disorders,” Dr. Mason Turner, Chief of Psychiatry, Kaiser Permanente San Francisco, said. “It is essential to stress management and anxiety.”

Dr. Turner said meditation is important because it increases the mind-body connection and allows a person to calm his or her mind and be able to think through problems. New research shows promise into how powerful meditation can be to treating depression.  

Meditation doesn’t have to be a formal process, Dr. Turner said. It may be something as simple as focusing on one’s breathing so one can focus on the moment at hand.