Meditation for Depression: How It Works and Types to Try (2023)

Meditation is often celebrated for its positive effects on well-being. But can it play a role in easing symptoms of depression?

Although people have been practicing meditation for thousands of years, it has recently gained more mainstream popularity as a way to reduce symptoms of stress, enhance focus, and boost productivity, among other benefits.

Some people have also turned to meditation for managing mental health conditions — such as anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and depression — with the aim of “retraining” the mind and subduing unhelpful thoughts and difficult emotions.

Because meditation is something anyone can do, anywhere and at any time, it certainly seems worth considering. But can it really have an impact on depression?

If you live with depression, you may experience a range of signs and symptoms, from deep feelings of loneliness and worthlessness to trouble sleeping, eating, and socializing. Meditation is believed to help support you through some of these effects.

“At its core, it’s a way of training your attention so that, instead of finding yourself lost in difficult thoughts and feelings, you can gain new perspective and insight,” says Laura Coleman, meditation expert and founder of Be. Modern Meditation.

“As you train your ability to stay in the present moment, without judging it and getting caught up in your mind, the symptoms of depression become more manageable,” she continues. “[It] wakes up your awareness to the full range of your experience, rather than focusing on the negative.”

The benefits of meditation extend further than just helping you become more “in tune” with your thoughts. Research indicates that meditation can have a positive physical influence on the mind and body — including in some areas involved with depression.

(Video) 10-Minute Meditation For Depression

It may reduce inflammation

In recent years, scientists have associated depression with inflammation in the brain and body. The relationship is cyclical: Higher inflammation is linked to worsened depressive symptoms, while depressive symptoms (such as stress and poor sleep) are believed to increase inflammation.

Research indicates that meditation can help lower inflammation.

In a 2017 analysis of 18 studies, the authors concluded that meditation and similar mind-body techniques, like yoga, may significantly reduce inflammation. The authors note, though, that more studies are needed that account for lifestyle factors such as sleep, diet, and exercise.

A 2019 study on 79 males found that those who engaged in regular yoga-meditation had notably lower inflammation and stress levels than age-matched controls. But this study had a small sample size, so again, more research is needed to support these results.

It could alter the brain’s shape and size

Scans

have shown

that people with depression often experience changes in the structure of key parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus (memory), thalamus (sleep and wakefulness), and amygdala (fear).

Some research suggests that regular meditation could change the brain too.

A 2020 study of 27 meditation newcomers found the amount of gray matter — brain tissue that processes and passes on signals — had increased in several areas after just 7 weeks of practice.

Meanwhile, research from 2014 found that 8 weeks of mindfulness training led to greater cortical thickness (thinner measures are related to cognitive impairment).

It helps stimulate the vagus nerve

Running between the brain to the abdomen, the vagus nerve plays a part in everything from heart rate and inflammation to fear and mood — and low activity within it has been linked with depression.

Research

suggests that meditation can play a role in activating this nerve, which in turn can lead to improved mood and an enhanced sense of relaxation.

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Seeking professional help

Although studies and anecdotal accounts suggest that meditation can be beneficial in helping relieve symptoms of depression, it’s important to remember that this practice isn’t an alternative to professional treatment approaches such as medication and talk therapy.

You might want to use meditation as a helpful complement to other forms of treatment, but the extent of its impact on depression is still relatively unknown, so it’s not recommended for use as the primary or sole method.

You can speak with your primary care physician or a talk with a therapist about the best approaches to help manage symptoms of depression.

How to meditate for depression

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Variety is the spice of life, so you’ll be pleased to hear that there’s more than one approach to meditation, and a number of these approaches have been shown to benefit people experiencing depression.

Mindfulness meditation

Perhaps the most recognized and commonly practiced variety, this “is particularly effective in easing depression symptoms,” says Coleman.

Why? “It has a focus on your here-and-now experience with a quality of curious awareness,” she explains. “This helps you to notice patterns of rumination and overthinking. You can then make a choice about how to respond, rather than being consumed by it.”

Breathing meditation

Focusing on your breath can help steer your brain away from negative thoughts, improve oxygen intake, and lower cortisol levels.

A 2017 study found that individuals with major depressive disorder who engaged in this form of meditation for 2 months saw a significant decrease in symptoms.

Loving-kindness meditation

Perhaps the most heartwarming of all meditations, this requires you to focus on happy, loving thoughts about yourself and others.

“Just like mindfulness meditation, it trains your brain to respond differently to the stressors of depression,” Coleman explains. “But it also cultivates increased feelings of connection with others that can help combat the isolation of depression.”

Body scan meditation

Whether you want to move from your head down or from your toes up, this approach involves slowly bringing awareness to each body part — noticing any sensations and then consciously easing the muscles into relaxation.

A 2016 study of U.S. veterans found that body scan meditation in combination with mindfulness was particularly effective in reducing symptoms of depression.

Walking meditation

Walking isn’t just good for your physical health — it’s great for your mental well-being too. And you can combine it with meditation for a double whammy of goodness. This approach is exactly as it sounds: recognizing and appreciating the smells, sights, and sounds of everything around you.

A small 2014 study of older adults with depression found that symptoms significantly decreased among those who walked mindfully but did not decrease in those who simply went for a walk.

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Thanks to its increased popularity, there’s no shortage of great resources offering all kinds of meditations.

Apps:

  • Headspace offers a wide range of guided sessions, which can be particularly helpful if you’re new to the practice. The app has meditations to aid in specific areas, such as sadness, sleep, anxiety, and loneliness.
  • Calm provides a variety of guided sessions with topics including easing depression, mindful walking, loving kindness, and self-esteem.
  • Breathly is free to download and use. It’s simple in design and content, offering brief explanations of different breathing meditation techniques and a timer function, so you can engage in meditations without being distracted by counting.

YouTube:

  • The Mindful Movement offers hundreds of free videos covering positivity, calmness, reducing anxiety, and everything in between.
  • Goodful has a partially guided 10-minute meditation for depression.
  • Mindful Peace provides a 20-minute depression-specific practice.

Books:

Meditation in a variety of forms can be a great support in helping ease symptoms of depression. It’s worth considering as a complementary approach to professional treatments.

If you’re a beginner or overwhelmed with thoughts, the prospect of meditating can be daunting. Try to be patient and avoid putting pressure on yourself. You might also need to try a few techniques before you find one that resonates and feels comfortable.

(Video) How Meditation Works & Science-Based Effective Meditations | Huberman Lab Podcast #96

However, research suggests that some people experience adverse side effects from meditation, such as increased anxiety, so if engaging in the practice makes your symptoms worse, it’s best to discontinue and speak with a healthcare professional if you’re concerned.

Remember: Meditation is meant to be a positive experience. So try to take your time, be kind to your mind, and enjoy the calm.

FAQs

What type of meditation is best for depression? ›

Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation may reduce depression, as well as anxiety and stress. The Society for Integrative Oncology recommends using mindfulness meditation to ease depression and anxiety in cancer patients, and studies have even documented ways in which mindfulness changes the brain.

What type of meditation is best for mental health? ›

For stress and anxiety

Research from 2013 suggests that mindfulness meditation has the potential to reduce general anxiety symptoms. The researchers also noted mindfulness-based stress reduction practices could have a positive impact on the ability to manage stress.

How does meditation relieve depression? ›

The main triggers of depression are stress and anxiety. Meditation helps alter those feelings and thoughts by training your brain to focus on one thing. When negative thoughts come knocking, the brain returns to that focus point, allowing the negative emotions and physical sensations to pass.

What are the 3 basic approaches to treating depression? ›

Three of the more common methods used in depression treatment include cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic therapy. Often, a blended approach is used.

What are 5 ways to meditate? ›

Five of the most common types of meditation are mindfulness, body scan, walking, loving-kindness, and transcendental meditation. Different types of meditation come with different benefits, but some benefits include reduced anxiety, improved self-control, better self-care, and less pain.

What is the most effective meditation technique? ›

Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep is a well known and immensely powerful meditation technique to promote deep rest and relaxation. One starts with lying down in savasana ( the corpse pose) and is then guided into a conscious state of meditation.

How different types of meditation affect the brain? ›

Mindfulness meditation increased thickness in the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, both linked to attention control, while compassion-based meditation showed increases in the limbic system, which processes emotions, and the anterior insula, which helps bring emotions into conscious awareness.

What is the best type of meditation for anxiety? ›

Mindfulness meditation is a technique that can relax the mind and body to help manage stress and anxiety. Mindfulness meditation strives to focus the mind on the present moment, allowing it to notice sensations and feelings without evaluating them.

What are three major elements required for meditation? ›

There are three traditional aspects to meditation: approach, practice and integration.

How long does meditation take to work? ›

One study indicates that it takes up to 8 weeks for your brain to start seeing benefits from meditation. These benefits include improved focus, enhanced emotional regulation and control, and better decision-making.

What is meditation and how it works? ›

Meditation is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine. Meditation can produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress.

Can meditation cure mental illness? ›

“We now have a lot of evidence that mindfulness meditation is helpful for a range of different conditions, including depression, anxiety, substance problems and chronic pain. At the same time, we also know that it's not a universal cure-all.”

What is the fastest way to treat depression? ›

Medications and psychotherapy are effective for most people with depression. Your primary care doctor or psychiatrist can prescribe medications to relieve symptoms. However, many people with depression also benefit from seeing a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional.

How long does it take to treat depression? ›

Once a patient starts taking an antidepressant that is effective, they may start to see changes in 2 weeks, while other patients may not see a change in their symptoms for four to six weeks. Some patients may need to take antidepressants for over a year before achieving remission.

How many sessions are required for depression? ›

Having more than eight sessions does not confer any additional benefit. Indeed, there is little difference between 1-5 sessions and more than eight sessions for depression.

Are there different types of meditation? ›

If you're interested in trying meditation, but do not know where to start, here's a list of seven types of meditation practice:
  • Mindfulness Meditation. ...
  • Transcendental Meditation. ...
  • Guided Meditation. ...
  • Vipassana Meditation (Sayagyi U Ba Khin Tradition) ...
  • Loving Kindness Meditation (Metta Meditation) ...
  • Chakra Meditation.
6 Aug 2022

Is meditation good for anxiety and depression? ›

If stress has you anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation. Spending even a few minutes in meditation can help restore your calm and inner peace. Anyone can practice meditation. It's simple and inexpensive.

Is Vipassana good for depression? ›

Vipassana is found to be effective to reduce the severity of depressive symptoms significantly (p=0.001). Vipassana could be the option for treating depression along or coupled with other methods.

Does mindfulness work for depression? ›

Studies have suggested that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is just as effective as medication in preventing depression relapse among adults with a history of recurrent depression, and in reducing depressive symptoms among those with active depression.

Can meditation cure mental illness? ›

“We now have a lot of evidence that mindfulness meditation is helpful for a range of different conditions, including depression, anxiety, substance problems and chronic pain. At the same time, we also know that it's not a universal cure-all.”

Videos

1. How Depression Affects The Brain - Yale Medicine Explains
(Yale Medicine)
2. 10-Minute Meditation For Anxiety
(Goodful)
3. The one factor causing depression and anxiety in the workplace | Johann Hari | Big Think
(Big Think)
4. My Story of Depression and How to overcome Depression #ChetChat
(ChetChat)
5. What is Suicidal Ideation?
(Psych Hub)
6. 5-Minute Meditation You Can Do Anywhere
(Goodful)
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