The Question: I experience depression and anxiety. Will meditation really help me?
The Answer: Depression and anxiety can make everyday life very challenging. And research suggests that healthy lifestyle habits like meditation may help with some of its symptoms.
Case in point: A small study published earlier this year in the journal Psychiatry Research. Researchers randomized 70 adult participants with generalized anxiety disorder into two groups. One group received mindfulness-based stress reduction as a technique to cope. The other group, acting as the control, did not receive any sort of meditation training.
The scientists found that participants who learned the mindfulness techniques showed much lower levels of a specific biomarker for stress in the body. This could suggest meditation can not only help how someone feels over time, but also may leave an impression on a cellular level.
This potentially corroborates a large body of meditation research that suggests the practice is a wunderkind for mental health issues. But it’s important to note that previous research outcomes also had its flaws. Some early studies lacked a control group. Other research potentially fell victim to “expectancy bias,” which is when participants expected meditation to work and thus reported feeling better after the experiment.
The recent Psychiatry Research study took all of this into account, which is why it seems promising. To solve for bias, the researchers said the study was simply about stress reduction without mentioning a meditation component. Mindfulness was introduced later on, and only to some of the participants. This is so researchers could separate out meditation as an active component, according to Elizabeth Hoge, the study’s lead author and associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.
So, recent research shows it works. But how do you do it?
It all comes down to your thoughts, according to Hoge. Start by sitting in a quiet room and try to focus on your breath. Thoughts will inevitably pop up but the key is to not push them away or give up.
For example, if you are meditating and start to ruminate on a major work mistake or an unfounded fear, notice what’s happening but don’t get frustrated. The thoughts won’t disappear but you will learn to create distance from them, Hoge said.
“Mindfulness meditation is based on the idea of paying attention one’s own inner experience, whether that’s thoughts or sensations or emotions,” she told HuffPost. “Anything that passes through the mind is the internal stimuli that you’re paying attention to.”
Ideally, with enough practice, you’ll learn to create space between negative thoughts and your reactions.
“See them as distinct objects from yourself,” Hoge said. “As in, ‘My thoughts are not myself.’ That allows a layer of separation so that the person has a little bit more freedom in how to respond to the thoughts or how to cope with them.”
There is a slight catch
The practice does have some really great mental health perks. But if you truly suffer from anxiety and depression, meditation is likely something you should consider as part of a larger form of treatment like therapy, according to Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist based in New York City.
Carmichael, who specializes in treating anxiety and depression, was a yoga instructor before she became a mental health professional. She uses a blend of mindfulness meditation and psychology tools to treat her clients.
“When you just sit there and follow your breath, that is a mindfulness meditation. It’s one of the early steps of learning how to follow our thoughts,” Carmichael said. “Once you have mindful awareness of what your thoughts are, you’re able to observe them without reacting to them.”
Depression has a tendency to make people think they’re worthless and then they tend to ruminate on that negative idea. People who have anxiety are prone to excessive worrying. Meditation can be a tool to help observe those thoughts, but medical support can provide the methods that help replace those thoughts altogether, according to Carmichael.
“That’s one of the cornerstones of cognitive behavioral therapy: To analyze someone’s automatic thoughts,” she said. “So they work together really well ― psychology and mindfulness meditation.”
Ultimately, implementing mindfulness into anxiety or depression treatment can have a very positive impact, according to Sharon Salzburg, a meditation teacher and author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28 Day Program.
“You try different things to relieve suffering,” she said. “You can celebrate whatever method, or combo of methods, [that] help.”
Just a little something to meditate on.