For thousands of years, meditation, “a discipline that involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling”, has been a popular practice in different cultures, taking various forms and serving as a way of finding inner peace.
Although the origins of the practice are closely linked to religion, today meditation is not just for the spiritual (although it may still be a part of it if one so desires!). A large body of evidence points out that there are many amazing health benefits of meditation, both physical and emotional .
However, starting out may be difficult for the beginner, as the amount of information out there is simply overwhelming.
Fear not, as today we’re going to explore the concept of meditating to help you make informed choices. Furthermore, we’ll highlight amazing benefits of meditation for mental health, including battling depression.
Ready for something new and amazing? Let’s get started.
There are many various definitions of meditation out there, from a vague self-referring “the action or practice of meditating” to more comprehensive ones like the one we’ve identified at the beginning of this guide. This is perfectly understandable, given how many variations of the practice exist. Some of the earliest references to meditation are found in Indian Hindu Vedas, but later on other forms of meditation were developed within Confucianism, Taoism, early Buddhism and other religions.
Of course, different cultures approached meditation slightly differently, but all kinds of it have certain core concepts in common. Generally speaking, meditation is a state of thoughtless awareness, as opposed to the act of actively doing something. You are meditating if you’ve reached the state of mind where you’re both calm and profoundly peaceful, yet completely alert.
There are many different ways to learn how to meditate, from spiritual practices to modern counterparts such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) .
Ultimately, there is no single right way to meditate, so you are very welcome to pick the style that works for you.
It is important, however, to keep in mind that meditation is NOT…
- …vigorous concentration. There are numerous mindfulness techniques that use an effort to actively fix attention on a particular object or idea. Although those are beneficial in their own unique way, such practices are not considered meditation in the traditional context, and are more in-line with the practice of cultivating concentration.
- …cognitive effort. The core concept of meditation is thoughtless awareness, as opposed to mental effort, the meditator learns to calm his mind by letting go of thoughts effortlessly.
- …exercises. Although certain transitional exercises, such as postures and breathing, are extremely helpful to achieve the meditative state, they don’t constitute the practise on their own.
- …loss of control. If during the practice your mind starts to wander too much, and you start experiencing voices/sounds/colourful “visions”/etc., this means you’ve missed the point of absolute awareness, which is not what meditation is for. It’s easy to be distracted, but the art of meditation is to bring your awareness back to the present.
These are more general overviews of how someone can misinterpret meditation, and now that you know what to look out for, it’s time to discover the benefits of meditation for battling depression. Before we connect the dots, let’s have a look at the underlying mechanisms of depression, which will help understand the positive effects of meditation better.
The origins of depression
The truth is, unfortunately, we are yet to find out what exactly causes depression. There certainly are links to depressive behavior based on one’s perception, and perspective, of the world, and often limiting beliefs can get into the way of seeing things clearly.
Thinking of it broadly, depression is likely to have been an evolutionary process — the same bodily response ancient people experienced when not catching a mammoth occurs when we’re stressing before an important work meeting.
The difference is that while back in those days depression could easily be reversed by a successful hunting bout, in today’s world we don’t really know what true happiness is (it’s not necessarily being taught to us, either!), as there are simply too many distractions and things to pursue in life, some of which aren’t adding anything to our authentic growth as conscious human beings. As a result, our minds start to overflow with “junk” and “emotional baggage” that starts to creep up as depression in the long run.
Specialists agree that factors provoking the onset of depression vary between individuals, as we are all different. Some key triggers include :
- Family history of depression
- Certain personality traits
- Distressing life events
- Drug and alcohol use
More often than not, a combination of factors, rather than a single one, is observed.
Although depression clearly can’t be 100% attributed to chemical imbalances in the brain , there are certain mechanisms that are likely involved in depression onset in most sufferers. You’ve probably heard that depression originates in the brain, and it is likely part of the picture.
Our brain uses certain substances called neurotransmitters to communicate with other parts of itself, as well as with the nervous system as a whole .
Some of the key identified messengers involved in onset of depressions are:
- Serotonin – regulates functions such as sleep, aggression, eating, sexual behaviour, and mood
- Norepinephrine – helps our bodies to recognize and respond to stressful situations
- Dopamine – plays important role in “rewarding” us when we do something “good”, generating positive emotions
Medications such as antidepressants help balance the neurotransmitters and their effects – however, there are many side effects linked to prolonged use of those, other than the fact that suppressing pain isn’t a solution to dealing with problems mindfully, which is something that we gradually learn in meditation.
Incorporating complimentary self-help techniques such as meditation in your routine may help reduce the dosage and/or the length of the treatment course if you’re already taking antidepressants, or even avoid going on them if you haven’t already.
Does that sound familiar? Keep reading to find out more.
How meditation can help to combat depression and depressive behaviour
- Meditation stimulates serotonin release, resulting in effects similar to those of many antidepressants. Serotonin neutralizes depressing thoughts and helps you feel better quickly.
- In addition, meditation stimulated dopamine release , which results in positive emotions as well.
- Depression thrives on fears related to the future and regrets about the past. Meditation, on the other side, helps you focus on present, extracting happiness and positivity, it’s also a tool of reflection within which you can reflect on the past and release anything that is holding you back.
- Meditation makes you aware of the negative thoughts crossing your mind, helping differentiate between those thoughts and reality.
- By learning how to meditate, you will also gain valuable knowledge about how your mind works. Knowledge is power, and you’ll soon have much more control over your negative thoughts than you’ve ever imagined.
If you go through our Meditation section of the site, you will find a ton of reliable information that’s going to help you start your own meditation habit. The bottom line is, strive to practice meditation at least 5-10 minutes per day, preferably on daily basis, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly things that to improve.
That is not to say that you should avoid medication, certainly there can be benefits to medicating, but mindful approach is really important if you’re to remain healthy, and optimistic about your process of healing.
References : Botha E, et al (2015) “The effectiveness of mindfulness based programs in reducing stress experienced by nurses in adult hospital settings: a systematic review of quantitative evidence protocol”. JBI Database System Rev Implement Rep. 2015 Oct;13(10):21-9. doi: 10.11124/jbisrir-2015-2380. : Lao SA, et al (2016) “Cognitive effects of MBSR/MBCT: A systematic review of neuropsychological outcomes.” Conscious Cogn. 2016 Oct;45:109-123. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.08.017. Epub 2016 Aug 28. : Beyond Blue. “What causes depression?” Source: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/depression/what-causes-depression : Nemade R, et al (2007) “Biology Of Depression - Neurotransmitters”. Source: https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/biology-of-depression-neurotransmitters/ : Kjaer TW, et al (2002) “Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness.” Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2002 Apr;13(2):255-9.