Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Meditation and Depression

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When not to use meditation

Wood Carved BuddhaAlthough meditation can be very helpful in relieving depression or in preventing depression from arising, the act of focusing inwards can actually heighten feelings of despair. I would suggest not trying to meditate when you are extremely depressed, and especially not at times that you are having any thoughts of self-harm.

It’s also best even if you are feeling mildly depressed that you try to find a teacher with whom you can work closely. By this I mean someone that you can have close to daily contact with, either by phone or email. Even when someone’s not depressed it can be challenging to learn new skills, and the depressive tendency to focus on what’s wrong can lead to feelings that the meditation isn’t working, even when it is. You may need an experienced coach to help you work with your frustration.

Although such opportunities are unfortunately very rare, an experienced meditation teacher who is on hand to give you step by step guidance can probably help you even when you are experiencing severe depression.

One woman recently wrote to me saying that she’d experienced profound anxiety and depression all her life, and that she’d recently tried meditating with the help of a CD. She went on to say, “I feel great when I have done about 20 minutes of meditation but it lasts maybe an hour or so then I feel just the same. Am I hopeless at meditation? Am I doing something wrong?”

This kind of response is not unusual when someone is depressed. A lifetime of mental habit is shifting, but only for an hour. Rather than focus on the positive (things are changing) she ends up homing in on the negative (it only lasts for an hour). This is where a teacher is indispensable, because without guidance the benefits of meditation can end up being ignored, while a positive is turned into a negative.

As one experienced meditator said, “Meditation while clinically depressed can result in intensification of feelings of despondency, hopelessness, and negativity generally. The metta practice is theoretically a good thing, but in practice it can be a nightmare if all you feel is self-hatred!”

I agree, and if meditation seems to be making things worse, then I would advise you to stop immediately.

However, I have worked with several extremely depressed students who have benefited from meditation when they have had constant guidance and feedback from an experienced teacher to make sure that they are using meditative techniques in a helpful way.



Comment from Loes
Time: December 26, 2008, 3:59 pm

I would advice anyone with serious depression or other mental turbulence to not go at it alone! You always need a friend, teacher… a refuge! Meditation done wrong can unravel you, throw you into groundlessness.

Any teacher will tell you that to meditate to achieve anything is a senseless activity anyway… Meditation is not a pill. And you can not learn proper meditation from a book. Just like you can’t learn how to swim or ride a bike from a book or CD alone.

But on the other hand, if you know how to meditate, and you know your illness, it is always good to meditate. You can just observe your mind turning against itself, and see it fall apart. It is very useful. How incredible real and serious it appears, and than how ridiculous and absurd it actually is when you look at it later. I am not saying it is easy… not all… it is amazing how you keep falling into the same traps. But it is extremely useful to get to know your crazy mind (especially if you have to live with it anyway… I am a long-time sufferer from severe depression and anxiety)


Comment from Linda
Time: January 4, 2010, 9:36 pm

I am wondering if anyone can recommend an experienced meditation teacher who would be on hand to give me guidance as needed. I am currently in counselling with a gentle, warm and buddhist practicing therapy, but I can only converse with her in our 50 minute sessions, weekly or less. It would also be wonderful if this person was female, and local to me (Greater Portland, ME, USA area), so that I could meet them face to face sometimes.
Thank you~


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 4, 2010, 10:36 pm

Sure. I have a friend, Dharmasuri, who teaches at Nagaloka Buddhist Center. You can find them at http://www.nagalokabuddhistcenter.org. She’s a lovely woman, although she’s in Georgia for a few months. I believe Karunasara, a woman who happens to be a neighbor of mine, may be teaching at Nagaloka as well. I’d suggest contacting the center through their website.

All the best,


Comment from Sarah
Time: March 22, 2010, 3:50 pm

Hi Bodhipaksa,

This was a really interesting and helpful post.

At the moment I am suffering from what I think is depression, and I have had anxiety problems for as long as I can remember! I also have OCD. I have been meditating for just over a year, and in the last few months have had a fairly regular practice.

I can see / feel that I have got some benefits from it, but it is true to say that I have come closer to my depression and negative feelings than ever before, and this has been very frightening at times. There have been times where I was scared I might do something awful, to myself or others.

It is very, very difficult to say whether this is caused by my external circumstances (which haven’t been easy recently – financial and job-related stress, as well as living in a foreign country away from family and friends), my underlying genetic / biochemical problems, or the meditation. Probably a combination of the first two, somewhat exacerbated by the third.

So – I was wondering what you would advise me to do. I have moved back to the UK to live with family and be around friends, and my financial / professional situation is looking up. The depression, anxiety, OCD and severe concerns about meditation persist.

Do you know of any teachers in my area (north east England – Teesside, more specifically) who would be prepared to take me on as a student? I don’t mind if it’s through the FWBO or other groups, as long as the person is a very experienced meditator and teacher.

If you have any other advice about my situation I would be very grateful. I don’t really want to have to give up on meditation, as I am on a fairly intense “spiritual” search and in Buddhism have found some sense. I’m just not sure what to do for the best at the moment.

Best wishes and thank you in advance,

Sarah (not my real name)


Comment from Sunada
Time: March 24, 2010, 4:34 pm

Dear Sarah,
I’m sorry to hear of all your difficulties, and at the same time impressed with your determination. That more than anything else will get you through this. I don’t know if you consider taking a course online through Wildmind a viable option. I’m the teacher of those courses. You’d be able to discuss your practice with me via a public discussion forum, plus you’d have one opportunity to write me a private email.

I really don’t know of specific teachers to recommend otherwise, but I can refer you to the FWBO website listing of centers in the UK, here: http://www.fwbo.org/contacts/addresses-uk.html. If you find a center near you, I’m sure they could help point you further.

I wish you all the best in finding something that will be helpful to you.


Comment from Kyria
Time: November 8, 2011, 7:04 am

I have suffered from clinical depression and anxiety in the past, and have also been meditating for around five years. I can say that in my experience, meditating during an episode can definitely make things worse. I find that it can feed negative feelings, and also push one into an introverted and ‘spacey’ head space.

By comparison, meditating when well has only ever brought me benefit.

I think that it is important to really observe whether meditation is helping or harming in these situations, and have the courage to stop. My brother is a Buddhist monk, and his abbot recommends physical exercise, spending time with friends, and ‘wholesome activities’ when depression is severe – and ‘not too much meditation’ – none if it is making things worse. I do find, however, that giving myself Metta through the day is really helpful when depressed. What have other people found re: Metta, mindfulness and mental illness?


Comment from Cereszal
Time: February 20, 2012, 10:30 pm

I had been depressed for a long time but i’ve managed to get it under control. Recently, i had started meditating again and the depression got worse. This isn’t the first time it has happened to me. So i’m quite confused as i don’t beat myself up during meditation. Instead, i fill myself with light and love and understanding. So the last thing i would think is to get depressed due to meditating. It doesn’t happen immediately after meditation but after a while and it stays constant. Sometimes, it can lead to suicidal thinking which is not where i go to usually.
I know for sure meditation isn’t linked to depression and it had even once helped lessen my depression. How can i get it not to worsen my depression this time since i had already managed to heal a lot of it?


Comment from Loes
Time: February 21, 2012, 8:41 am

I would seek advice from a teacher. Meditation in depression is very hard and has so many pitfalls because depression is very crafty in turning things nasty. And in always trying to escape from having to experience depression. Maybe the light and love and understanding are used that way. Wanting to heal where as the meditation is about sitting with it (an impossible task…)

For me it helps to anchor myself by focusing more on (neutral) physical sensations (breath and heart link right into anxiety at those moments in there, although there are very helpful breathing techniques to bring that lower into your abdomen), feel your feet or feeling your butt on the cushion and take that as the object of your meditation. Make sure your back is straight.

Although I have also had times when I was just rolled up in a ball of misery, surrendering and crying out to Buddha’s and teachers to please help me, guide me. And it always helped, not right away and not in the way expected, but I always found later something had moved. Praying really helps me, but I guess that only came for me after having trained and understood the meaning of devotion a bit.

I find that a very precious and helpful ‘replacement/alternative’ of meditation is listening to teachings on buddha nature, as well as powerful teachings on the absolute. I can’t always grasp them, but the voice and energy of my teacher do inevitably create some space between me and my depression and can serve very well as an inspiration for meditation.

(for now you’d probably should stay away from the ones about karma, precious human birth, and perhaps even bodhichitta, because your depression is very crafty on using these as a tool to punish yourself with!)

Many short meditations through the day are usually better than one long one. And personally reading/listening to Pema Chodron especially always makes me unworry some of my worries.


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 21, 2012, 12:36 pm

Hi, Cereszal.

It’s very hard to know what’s going on, and it might take a lot of work with a therapist to get to the bottom of it. The kind of thing that can happen sometimes is that we get into a good state when meditating, but our overall sense of wellbeing is dependent upon our experiencing that state. When we face some difficulty, and we no longer feel calm and happy, we react to the change, and our mental states plummet. I’m not saying this is what’s going on, but it’s the kind of thing that can happen. I’ve been there myself. Just to give you an example of how to deal with this sort of thing, it’s important to cultivate not just happiness, but a state of equanimity that allows us to handle life’s ups and downs, neither becoming elated by the ups nor despondent about the downs. And one thing that can help with this is a sense of self-compassion toward the discomfort and suffering that we experience when something pleasant slips away from us.

If you’d like to write to me further, then you can simply reply to the notification email (if you signed up for notifications to replies to your post) or use the contact form. Either of those will reach me.


Comment from Dave
Time: May 15, 2013, 4:17 am

I am wondering if anyone can recommend a centre in/near Sydney, Australia. My partner suffers major clinical depression and often uses meditation in an attempt to ease her suffering. She is desperate for any help she can find.


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 15, 2013, 9:44 am

Hi, Dave.

Your partner would probably benefit from a course in MBSR or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. If you Google those you’ll hopefully find a program in your area. The only meditation center I know of is the Sydney Buddhist Center (http://www.sydneybuddhistcentre.org.au/), which is part of the same Buddhist community I’m a member of. But not all Buddhists understand clinical depression, so that may or may not be a good option for her. You might want to talk to them and see if anyone teaching there has experience in the mental healthy field.


Comment from Ben
Time: August 2, 2013, 7:27 pm

Some helpful comments here.
I am a novice meditator with mild depression and low self-esteem. I find that sometimes meditation can ruin my day. Other times it makes me euphoric.
Yesterday I did it and felt like I was being sucked physically into a vortex – quite disturbing. This made me suddenly come out of the meditation with elevated heartbeat. It was like the exact opposite of observing my thoughts. It was more like something grabbed me and pulled me deeper. Almost like a separate entity did it, although I am not superstitious. This most extreme reaction has happened to me 3 times before, but not often.
I am a strong believer in the healing power of mindfulness and I know I will eventually learn to enjoy my life. However, sometimes I wonder if meditation is the best thing right now. I tried prozac twice but I don’t take it now because I am sure it is a placebo with side affects and not good for the brain.
Good luck to all depressed people here trying to help themselves :-)


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 3, 2013, 12:20 pm

Hi, Ben.

I notice that you talk about “meditation” almost as if it’s something separate from you that’s doing something to you. I’d suggest talking about “meditating” instead. Meditating is something you do, so the question changes from whether this “thing” called “meditation” is a good thing to whether the way you’re meditating is helpful or unhelpful.

All the best,


Comment from nischaie
Time: February 27, 2014, 8:58 am

Whenever i meditate,after a couple of days i start feeling depressed and slow.so i have many a times begun but later left meditation.i have a past history of prophylactic lithium therapy for bipolar disorder..really confused..please guide ..


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 27, 2014, 4:44 pm

Hi, Nischaie.

I really can’t give advice in this case. If you have a tendency to experience depression then I’d strongly suggest meditating under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

Good luck!


Comment from Rina
Time: March 6, 2014, 11:56 am

I can also talk from experience – have a long history of depression with a very severe and acute bout of depression recently. Problem is that in the area where I live people are staunch Christians with very few Buddhists around and no teachers to talk of. So I have to choose: either I learn to meditate with the depression or not at all.
What I have found is that listening to a gentle and skillful teacher online works wonders when I feel particularly low. Another wonder is guided meditation.
There are incredible recordings available online. Try Audiodharma. One of the many good teachers on the site will be right for you.


Comment from Corbie
Time: June 8, 2014, 2:30 pm

Depression runs in the family; so does suicidal ideation. And yet I am a teacher/facilitator/inspirational speaker that a lot of people look up to. That makes it very difficult for me to be public about any of my own problems, and even more difficult to find a teacher (shouldn’t I know all this already? After all, I teach all about changing your thoughts, courage, authenticity, etc.). Just sitting down to try to meditate makes me want to cry, yet my old mentor says that I should just wallow in the pain and get rid of it. Not helpful.

What do we do when we teach and are so public and our work is so consuming that we have no safe space to be vulnerable?


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 9, 2014, 12:13 pm

I think the best type of teaching comes from us, as teachers, honestly discussing what we’re working with and how we’re working with it. Teaching that comes from wanting to pretend we have all the answers isn’t the most helpful. It’s not useless, but it doesn’t touch lives in the same way as honest communication.


Comment from meera
Time: August 22, 2014, 2:23 am

Can you suggest teacher in sydney, Australia.Suffering with deep depression and thoughts of self harm. regular meditator from many years.


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 25, 2014, 12:23 am

I’m afraid I don’t have any personal connections in Sydney, Meera who have the kind of expertise you need. I do know of meditation teachers there, but I doubt they have experience in working with depression and thoughts of self-harm. You might want to look for a therapist skilled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has much in common with meditation and Buddhism.

All the best,


Comment from Kathryn
Time: December 4, 2014, 7:28 am

Hi, I have always toyed with taking up meditation and have been to one session at a local run meditation centre. I enjoyed it. My mum died 6yrs ago and I have battled with coming to terms with it. I slip in and out of depression and right now I’m probably feeling lower than I have ever felt, so looked towards getting back into it. I was all set to until reading this and now I am really confused, I was expecting meditation to be my saviour the doorway to a more calm existence but I’m scared as I hadn’t realised it actually could be harmful for me. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts but I don’t want to trigger them if I pursue meditation, should I think twice?


Comment from Mary
Time: December 7, 2014, 1:39 pm

I meditated and did tai chi for over thirty yrs and stopped because of life conditions, illness, pain, depression, lack of time or space, but miss it. I am old, disabled and in pain. I have little or no money. My volunteer work constantly disrupted chances to find a space to be still, and my volunteer work is as important to me as breathing. It is perhaps valid that one should not meditate when depressed, or should seek a teacher, but many do not have money, and teachers need payment or donations. It’s big business, which was not the way it was traditionally in the past. There also is a paucity of valid, close centers where I live. Basically what I am getting from you directly and indirectly is that I’m screwed, which isn’t fair. It would be as if a physician tells you that he won’t see you unless you only have minor medical issues. There’s got to be a way around this. Yes, my depression interfered with meditation, making it so messy that I stopped. But I cannot access a teacher and your advice excludes people like myself. It just doesn’t feel right.


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 10, 2014, 10:00 am

No, I think you’re fine, Kathryn. It’s only when people are very seriously depressed that meditation might be unhelpful — and even then, perhaps not for everyone.


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 10, 2014, 10:49 am

Hi, Mary.

I’m sorry to hear of your difficulties. My advice, though, is just advice. I’m not stopping anyone from doing anything, but simply giving my opinion. What I said what “I would suggest not trying to meditate when you are extremely depressed, and especially not at times that you are having any thoughts of self-harm.” So if you’re not suffering from intense depression, and aren’t having suicidal thoughts, then go right ahead.

I did also say it’s “best,” if you have mild depression, to work with a teacher, but we don’t have to only do things when conditions are ideal. And anyway, I’m spending an entire morning writing to people (yourself included) who are neither paying me nor making donations. You’re already availing yourself of a teacher :)


Comment from Nobadia
Time: January 19, 2015, 12:08 pm

I just want to say thank you. Thank you, thank you…


Comment from mani
Time: February 14, 2015, 9:20 am

I have been doing meditation for 3-4 mnths but had anxiety attack recently then I realized prehaps I was doing it wrong can you please help me out I don’t know where I am going with this


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 14, 2015, 10:29 am

Hi, Mani.

You don’t say if you’ve had panic attacks before, or whether this was your first time. If you are prone to them, it may be that you should start with something like walking meditation, and then gradually introduce sitting meditation. If this was your first time, then it may have just been a freak incident. But if it recurs, then again I’d suggest trying walking meditation in order to become more grounded in the body, and then perhaps trying lovingkindness meditation while walking, and then gradually introducing shorter sits. The trouble with panic is that it can become a habit — the anticipation of a panic attack can induce one… Moving to walking meditation might help in breaking the habit.


Comment from mani
Time: February 14, 2015, 11:27 am

Thanks for your advice it was actually first time I had this attack I will try walking meditation as you adviced


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 14, 2015, 2:15 pm

Please do let me know how you get on, Mani.


Comment from Ben
Time: February 15, 2015, 10:06 am

Anxiety attacks can happen when practicing meditation. I have experienced them several times myself. From my own personal experience with this, I believe the primitive, emotional, unconcous part of the mind can become alarmed during meditation. Possibly by a disturbing thought, or simply by the sensation of letting go – of surrendering. It reacts by attempting to regain control, causing adrenalin to kick in and this in turn, triggers anxiety. No idea if this is scientifically correct, just my own experience. I wish good luck to everyone here who is sufferring depression and persevering with their meditation practice.


Comment from mani
Time: February 19, 2015, 1:20 pm

Open eyes can be a distraction in walking meditation can you suggest something else?


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 22, 2015, 4:27 pm

Doing walking meditation with your eyes closed isn’t recommended, Mani :) [Just joking!]

In what way is it a distraction to have your eyes open during walking meditation? People have been doing this practice for thousands of years.


Comment from mani
Time: February 24, 2015, 2:07 am

Mind gets a bit confused while watching things in front and feeling the feet and it ends up being blank and stressed afterwards.


Comment from Ann
Time: March 7, 2015, 9:26 am

I just started regularly meditating a few weeks ago, and I found that it helps and then it doesn’t. I’ve recently started taking medication for OCD/Panic Disorder/Anxiety. My psychiatrist hasn’t given me an exact diagnosis, but my panic comes from having suicidal ideation and thoughts of self-harm. I’ve never experienced these things before going to graduate school, so they’ve been a really big challenge. And I was nearly raped a few months ago, which made everything worse. I’m trying meditation, and I’ve noticed that, while meditating, I experience more anxiety/suicidal ideation. I’m wondering if I should just push through and keep doing it–despite these thoughts–because I’ve NEVER been depressed in 25 years of living, or if I should stop. These comments have been very helpful, and they make me feel like I’m not alone! XOXO


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 11, 2015, 9:56 am

Hi, Ann.

You don’t say what kind of meditation you’re doing. I’d very much encourage you to do some form of lovingkindness meditation along with whatever you’re currently doing. And if anxious or suicidal thoughts arise, step back from them and recognize that they’re just stories that a frightened part of your mind is creating. Sometimes when I have catastrophizing thoughts (for example a couple of weeks ago I had a cancerous growth removed from inside my ear, and there was a tendency to create stories around that) I’d find it useful to say, “Yeah, right!” in a wry, skeptical, kind of a way — just to let the anxious part of my mind know that I’m not prepared to buy into its stories.


Comment from jackson
Time: March 26, 2015, 12:41 am

Yeah ,It is true .From my experience i can say ,meditating during a period of depression can harm you.


Comment from ansie
Time: March 29, 2015, 4:18 pm

I think I might be suffering from mild depression or
Biopolar and I can get quite neurotic at time. It’s difficult for me to express myself and I’m struggling to find out what it is The cause me to feel so unhappy although I know I have a lot of undealt issues it’s difficult to get to the root of it and probably need. Therapist for that.I’ve been getting bursts of violent outrage where I’m slapping and pushing my boyfriend because I just get so upset with him and it scares me just as it scares me that I want to end my life. I get good days but the bad oness eare much more.
I thought. Of starting meditation but am now unsure and think I should rather do it with a teacher do you have someone to recommend for me in Cape Town. Please.


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 29, 2015, 4:52 pm

Hi, Ansie.

If you’re only suffering from mild depression, I think you should go ahead and get started. I’d recommend beginning with lovingkindness practice, and then maybe a couple of weeks later, learning mindfulness of breathing.

As you’re learning lovingkindness meditation, I’d suggest that you become more aware of the pain you’re experiencing around the heart and solar plexus. Regard that as a part of you that is suffering, and send it your love.

And please stop hitting your boyfriend. I know you’re in pain, but domestic violence is not a way to do anything but make your problems worse, and it’s unfair to him. May you both be well and happy.


Comment from Jay
Time: April 8, 2015, 5:59 pm

I feel as though I have meditated incorrectly for too long and it has caused me to feel as though I am in a detached state with high anxiety and feeling as though I have no thoughts which is almost unbearable to live with. My time perception is completely warped and I don’t know what to do anymore. Has anyone heard of this happening or know of any way to get my mental clarity back!?


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 10, 2015, 7:06 pm

Hi, Jay.

I’m sorry to hear about the detached state in which you find yourself. I’d be interested in hearing more about what you were doing in your practice.

I’d highly recommend a few things:

  • Working more on heart-based meditations like the cultivation of lovingkindness, compassion, and appreciation. (Some of our online events work with these practices.)
  • Exercise, walking meditation, and physical meditations like yoga or tai chi.
  • Doing things that might bring you pleasure, like watching comedy shows or listening to pleasant music.

I doubt if there’s anything that’s happened to you that’s permanent. It’s just that you’ve over-developed some parts of your brain and left others under-developed.

Please do feel free to check in with me in order to let me know how you’re getting on.

All the best,

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