Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Meditation and Depression

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What is depression?

Depression is a mental state characterized by extreme feelings of sadness, despair, hopelessness, and low self-esteem, often accompanied by physical symptoms such as loss of appetite and energy; the negative mood is out of proportion to any actual event or condition that may have precipitated it.

(Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology)

One thing that has struck me often is that the word depression (like that other over-used term, stress) is a very imprecise term. To deal more effectively with our mental states, we have to be able to make fairly precise distinctions – and “depression” is pretty vague categorization. “Depression” encompasses such diverse states as sadness, anxiety, guilt, lethargy, despair, etc.

It might not seem much of an advance to move from talking about “depression” to saying that you feel “despondent” and “worthless,” but the more precise the description of the mental state, then the easier it’s going to be to do something about it (“easier” of course being a relative term).

It’s a bit like if you went to the doctor and he said, “Ah, yes, your problem is that you’re ill.” That diagnosis would be accurate, but not precise enough to be helpful. Just as the treatment for a cold is going to be different from that for food-poisoning, the way to work with anxiety is not the same as the way to work with sadness; although both can be what people mean when they say they are “depressed.”

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that a particular “depressed” person will not experience a wide range of emotions! Any depressed person will experience a variety of states. But this relates to another observation: if the category of “depression” is used in a very indiscriminate way (i.e. the particular mental state is not more precisely identified) then the sufferer can have the impression that his/her mood is unchanging and fixed, when in fact it might be have shifted somewhat from despair to sadness. That feeling of being stuck can be deeply frightening and demoralizing, helping to deepen any existing depression.

On the rare occasions that I have been “depressed,” one of the most distressing elements has been the feeling of being stuck in a mood from which I will never escape. This seems to be a common feature of depression. I think that realizing that one’s mood is in fact changing, fluid, and dynamic – rather than fixed and static – is likely to be helpful. But if we don’t probe to identify our mental states more specifically, then we won’t see the finer gradations.

If you tell yourself that you feel “depressed,” then you won’t know what’s really going on. Try to make finer distinctions in describing your mental states.

Comments

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Comment from patrick wilcox
Time: December 2, 2008, 3:53 pm

I have suffered from depression for countless years, and the single most important thing to be said about it is this: depression is not a mood. It is a brain disorder characterised by imperfectly understood changes in biochemical funstioning. Just like a physical disease, it can generate a wide range of symptoms: lethargy, sucidal thoughts, pain in the spine and joints (caused by a dearth of the neurotransmitters that are meant to dampen down ever-present wear-and-tear pain,) loss of interest in – you name it, sleeplessness, and so on. Negative moods are only another symptom, thus subtle distinctions between them are not especially important. What matters is the underlying brain-chemistry.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 4, 2008, 8:32 pm

Hi Patrick,

You’re certainly correct that depression is not a mood, although it is a mood disorder.

I think it’s wise to be wary of seeing “brain chemistry” as the only factor involved in depression. Even when the chemistry is primary our thinking can exacerbate the situation. Our thoughts, posture, etc, have an effect on what happens chemically in our brains.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and since meditation has been proven clinically to help with depression I think it’s clear that paying attention to how we interact with our experience (including how we label our emotions) can play an important role in dealing with depression. You might want to explore Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, which employs meditative tools.

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Comment from Loes
Time: December 26, 2008, 4:22 pm

I have been severely depressed for many years, so I can agree that depression is defintely more than one emotion… and one of it characteristics is indeed that it is perceived as a monolithic, unchanging, unmoving state. It has always been, is always, and will always be like that. Even if part of you still remembers that there where times when the depression was absent or lighter, it makes you feel like that was just a second. This depression is the truth…

What I found fascinating in the teachings is the expression “surpressing out of ignorance.” Depression is depressing. More and more I come to realize that the whole “trick” of depression is to keep you stuck and blind, distorting every information that comes at you. Before you can even clearly see a potential door it slams it right in your face: there is no way out. No solution. But it is wild to see how imaginitative depression can suddenly become when it comes to turning even “pleasant information” into something to hit yourself over the head with.

Knowing that helps. You need to really record every time when you wake up out of that crazy daze and realize how our depression lied to you, because it is lying to you all the time. Stopping to believe it is a major feat. So I try to ridicule my depressed thoughts (not myself!). Tell them to “talk to the hand.” “I guess your answer to everything is to kill myself again, you are becoming quite boring.”

Because even with a physical illness, how you approach your condition makes all the difference. The Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has also been succesfully used by people with chronic pain, lung diseases and so on. Don’t ever believe that depression is “just” an inescapable fact, and that you can do nothing about it. That your fate is no longer in your hands. That is exactly what your depression would like you to believe!

As far as I am concerned, if I am indeed chronically depressed (which is apparently the case), I guess I will just have to set myself up to participate in the mental paralympics… ;-) and I will be dragging my depression and anxieties with me over the finish line, kicking and screaming!

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Comment from Ahania
Time: January 3, 2009, 8:43 am

Loes, thanks so much for your comments. I know exactly what you mean when you say that our depression lies to us and can twist any situation into something negative. I, too, watch for those moments of clarity when I can step outside of the depression and see it as this separate, manipulative entity that deceives me. Thanks also for reminding me that my approach to this makes all the difference — your resolution to fight its manipulation really made me feel better. Always good to know someone else is fighting the same fight!

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Comment from ed
Time: September 22, 2009, 4:07 pm

Bodhipaksa,

I was wondering what you thought of the term chronic depression?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 22, 2009, 9:36 pm

As I’ve mentioned, I think we need to look deeper than the label “depression” to see what emotions and thoughts are actually going on, but clearly there there are people who experience painful states of mind for long periods of time, which is what the label “Chronic Depression” indicates. What did you have in mind?

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Comment from Oscar Jazdai
Time: October 13, 2009, 12:45 pm

When i meditate, i can achieve a thoughtless state, which is when you have no or almost no thoughts.
But the background feeling is still there, which is depressive(sadness, darkness, fear, unjoyfull) how can i change
that what i call background feeling?

please help me.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 13, 2009, 12:53 pm

Hi Oscar,

This is why mindfulness is not sufficient for most people. I’d strongly suggest that you take up lovingkindness meditation as well, and perhaps focus mainly on that form of meditation for some time. If the depressive feelings don’t begin to show any sign of lessening then you might want to talk to a mental health professional. Sometimes meditation isn’t enough.

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