If you’re in the US, there’s about a 7% chance you’ve suffered a major depressive episode in the last year; odds are higher if you’re a woman, a bit lower if you’re a man. (source: National Institute of Mental Health) According to the World Health Organization, globally an estimated 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.
In recent years, meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, has gained in popularity as a means to help counter depression (among other things). But does it actually help?
I can say based on both personal experience and the research done on the subject that mindfulness does help with depression – but not in the way many people seem to expect. You don’t just sit down, empty your mind, and enter a state of calm happiness. In fact, if you are in the midst of a depressive episode and are being mindful of it, you are going to get a very clear look at your depression. You might sit with the awareness that depression is a painful and discouraging experience – and you might very well find that being aware of it doesn’t get rid of your depression. If you’ve been practicing mindfulness for a while, though, your experience might have shown you how to be aware of its presence without identifying with it in that moment. You will have learned that everything changes all the time – at some point you weren’t depressed; now you are depressed; and at some point you will no longer be depressed.
That’s not a cure, of course, and fixing things really isn’t the point of mindfulness or meditation – so seek appropriate medical or psychological treatment. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that meditation should be your only means of addressing every problem – it’s just one tool in the box. While you are seeking and undergoing appropriate treatment, be as compassionate as you can toward yourself. Realize that feeling bad does not mean that you are bad or broken – it is something that has arisen, and it will pass. And practicing mindfulness often increases resilience, the ability to recover from stressful circumstances.
So, does mindfulness help with depression? Yes, in several ways. An ongoing practice provides a framework for coping with depression in the moment, identifying the feelings of depression but not identifying yourself with the depression. It provides an alternative perspective to the one the depression presents. And it cultivates greater resilience to help recover from the experience of depression more rapidly and fully. It does not replace other medical or psychological treatment, but it can complement them beautifully. And once the depression has passed, the benefits of your mindfulness practice will persist, making you less likely to relapse into depression and at the same time enriching your life each day, in each moment.
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