Depression is a common mental health condition that can show up in a variety of ways.
If you live with depression, you could have chronic symptoms, like a generally low mood you can’t shake. Or you might have major depressive episodes a few times a year. You might also notice symptoms changing or worsening over time.
Sometimes, depression treatments start working pretty quickly.
Depression symptoms can linger, even with treatment. If the above methods haven’t helped as much as you hoped, you may want to consider adding meditation into the mix.
Meditation for depression? If you feel a little skeptical at the suggestion, you’re not alone. You might even think it sounds like a recommendation from the people who say depression will improve if you just “Smile more!” or “Think positively!”
Sure, meditation alone won’t make your symptoms vanish, but it can make them more manageable. Here’s how.
It helps change your response to negative thinking
Depression can involve a lot of dark thoughts. You might feel hopeless, worthless, or angry at life (or even yourself). This can make meditation seem somewhat counterintuitive, since it involves increasing awareness around thoughts and experiences.
But meditation teaches you to pay attention to thoughts and feelings without passing judgment or criticizing yourself.
Meditation doesn’t involve pushing away these thoughts or pretending you don’t have them. Instead, you notice and accept them, then let them go. In this way, meditation can help disrupt cycles of negative thinking.
Say you’re sharing a peaceful moment with your partner. You feel happy and loved. Then the thought, “They’re going to leave me,” comes into your mind.
Meditation can help you get to a place where you can:
- notice this thought
- accept it as one possibility
- acknowledge that it’s not the only possibility
Instead of following this thought with something like, “I’m not worthy of a good relationship,” meditation can help you let this thought cross your awareness — and keep going.
It’s a leaf floating along the river, not a whirlpool sucking you down. You can return to enjoying the moment without getting trapped in a cycle of increasingly distressing thoughts.
It helps you learn how to manage depression more effectively
Learning to stay present in the moment can equip you to notice warning signs of a depressive episode early on.
Meditation can make it easier to pay attention to your emotions as they come up. So, when you begin experiencing negative thought patterns or notice increased irritability, fatigue, or less interest in the things you usually like to do, you might choose to focus on self-care to keep things from getting worse.
Plus, it’s backed by promising research
You’ve probably heard exercise helps relieve depression symptoms. While there’s certainly
Meditation can feel daunting if you’ve never tried it before, but it’s fairly straightforward and easy, though it might feel a bit odd at first.
These simple steps can help you get started:
1. Get comfortable
It’s often helpful to sit down when first learning meditation, but if you feel better standing up or lying down, that works, too.
The key is to feel comfortable and relaxed. Closing your eyes can also help.
2. Begin with your breath
Take slow, deep breaths through your nose. For several seconds, just focus on breathing.
Pay attention to:
- how it feels to inhale
- how it feels to exhale
- the sounds of your breath
Your thoughts might wander away from your breath, and that’s pretty normal. Just keep redirecting your focus to breathing whenever you catch yourself thinking about something else.
3. Move from breath to body
Eventually, begin shifting your attention from your breath to the various parts of your body to perform what’s known as a body scan.
Start your body scan wherever you like. Some people find it more natural to start with their feet, while others prefer to start with their hands or head.
Focus your awareness on your body, moving from one part to the next. As you continue to breathe slowly and deeply, note how each body part feels.
Do any areas hurt? Or feel tense?
If you notice an unusual or troublesome sensation, like tension or aches, you can add a visualization exercise.
Imagine yourself sending relaxing breaths to that part of the body. Picture that tight muscle loosening and pain easing. Getting more comfortable with your bodily experiences and sensations can help you become more tuned in to changes as they come up.
When you’ve finished scanning your body, return your focus to your breathing for as long as you need.
Dealing with unwanted thoughts
If any unwanted or unpleasant thoughts and emotions come up as you breathe, acknowledge them briefly, then turn your attention back to your body scan.
Keep in mind that’s is nearly impossible to keep your attention from ever wandering, even if you’ve been meditating for years. The key is to not beat yourself up about it. Simply redirect your awareness with self-compassion. This will probably feel odd at first, but it gets easier with time.
If you’d like to learn more about meditating effectively, you can always take a class or find a meditation teacher. You don’t need to necessary venture out or fork over money, though. There are plenty of free resources online.
You can find some guidance here, or check out the resources below:
There’s really no right or wrong way to meditate. If you’re looking for some extra pointers, though, these tips can help.
Practice at the same time every day
Making meditation a habit can help your success.
It’s OK to start small. Even 5 minutes a day can help. Try commit to 5 minutes every day at a time that works well for you.
Maybe you do a body scan in the shower every morning or do a sitting meditation right before bed. Maybe it’s the last thing you do before getting into bed each night. You might have to try a few scenarios before you find the most effective approach to meditation, but that’s OK.
Once you find the right approach, you’re more likely to stick with it.
Use a mantra
Your attention will sometimes wander, that’s just a given. If you find it hard to bring your focus back, it might help to use a mantra.
Choose a simple phrase you feel comfortable repeating throughout your meditation practice, like “I am calm.” Even one as simple as the traditional “om” can help increase your focus.
Maybe a seated meditation doesn’t really work for you. If you’re an active person, you might prefer to meditate while walking or even getting some more intense activity.
As long as you’re safe, you can absolutely meditate on the go. Practice focusing your awareness throughout your body, on the repeated motion of your arms, legs, or other active body parts.
Even just taking your meditation outside can help you have more success. Nature offers a lot of health benefits and the soothing sounds of the natural world can offer a great backdrop for meditation practices.
Give it time
Meditation takes effort and time. You might notice some small improvements right away, but you probably won’t feel a huge difference immediately.
Most research exploring the benefits of meditation looks at its impact over a period of several weeks or even months. Like most other approaches to treating depression, you may have to keep at it for a while to really see some benefits.
In the meantime, try to focus on any positive changes you do notice, whether it’s a slight increase in your focus or a gentle lift of your mood.
Depression can be serious. While meditation does show promise as a helpful approach for depression, it’s often not enough on its own.
If you have symptoms of depression, consider seeking support from a therapist before trying alternative approaches. Many therapists offer mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, so you can still incorporate the benefits of meditation into your care.
Meditation may not help much during a major depressive episode. If you have severe symptoms, you’re better off talking to a mental health professional or your healthcare provider.
Keep in mind that meditation increases awareness of thoughts and emotions, so a potential outcome of meditation is worsened negative thoughts. Some people do report that depression symptoms increase with meditation.
If this happens, you may want to stop meditating until you can talk to a mental health professional and get more insight and guidance on working through these thoughts.
Above all, it’s a good idea to get professional support as soon as possible if:
- your quality of life has decreased
- you struggle to manage daily life and responsibilities
- you experience physical symptoms, like fatigue, pain, or loss of appetite
- you have thoughts of hurting yourself or other people
- you think about death, dying, or ending your life
Nothing can “cure” depression. However, when you incorporate meditation practices into your daily life, you may find it easier to challenge unwanted thoughts you experience and keep yourself from getting locked into the negative thought spirals that often make depression worse.
Meditation may be more beneficial when used alongside therapy, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a compassionate therapist who can offer more guidance on coping skills and other treatments.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.