Meditation and depression

Along with stress (which I’ve written about elsewhere on Wildmind), depression is another deeply unpleasant, and sometimes devastating, experience that motivates people to learn to meditate.

Can meditation be useful for those who have a tendency to feel depressed? And can those whose depression is caused by chemical imbalances (e.g. those who live with bipolar disorder or manic-depression) usefully meditate?

I am convinced that meditation can be very helpful for depression, whether the depression is situational (caused by external events) or organic (caused by chemical imbalances in the brain). Research has also shown that learning to meditate can dramatically reduce the chances of relapse into depression for those who have suffered repeated bouts.

I am not a mental health professional, and make no claims for any expertise in the field of mental health in general, or with depression in particular. However, I know meditators who have struggled with depression, and they have found their practice to be a great support. I’ve also experienced periods of depression myself, and mindfulness has been an invaluable tool for emerging from that state.

There may be some kinds of meditation which are not of benefit to those who have a tendency to experience depression, and I will mention those in this section. The Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana practices however, are certainly useful for anyone to practice.

In fact the Metta Bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice is highly recommended for those who experience depression.

However there may also be times when it’s best for those who are depressed not to meditate — for example when experiencing an extreme bout of depression it is probably not a good idea to try to meditate. One reason for this are that learning to meditate is a challenging experience, and because when one is very depressed one has few inner resources to fall back on, any difficulties experienced while learning meditation are likely to be taken too seriously and interpreted as a sign of personal failure. Another reason is that when we’re depressed we tend to over-indulge in what’s called “rumination,” or the endless turning over in the mind of thoughts about what’s wrong with our lives. Because meditation is an inward-turned activity it may actually give people who are experiencing depression yet another opportunity to ruminate.

In cases of milder depression it’s quite possible to meditate effectively, building on whatever inner resources one has in order to lift oneself into a more positive frame of mind.

137 Comments. Leave new

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,

    First, i would like to offer my gratitude for this website and for the care that is so central to your practice. I have read most of this thread on depression, and have previously visited readings you have posted on adapting the practice of metta when experiencing self-loathing, among other things. All of the information has been helpful — including the questions of those suffering and sharing their vulnerability in order to elicit helpful advice. I hope that the posters are able to receive this gratitude as well.

    I am interested in finding someone to guide my practice, as i find myself to be very prone to self flagellation and often need a sounding board to help sustain my ability to practice compassion while pursuing understanding and/or acceptance. I do see a therapist who has been helpful, but like some of the posters here, i feel like i have made very little progress over the years. I am choosing to use this frustration to seek out more avenues of support, and not see this as an indication that i am failing to learn the lesson of self-reliance.

    This is one of my self perceived major failings: i expect more from friendship, and even at times friendliness, than i ought for my own well-being. That said, i am currently feeling profoundly lonely. I would guess a good mentor would help me to address the unacknowledged need for validation of my inherent goodness from others within myself, but i at the same time question my motives in seeking additional support.

    Sigh. If you do not know of where i might seek guidance from an individual, could you please suggest a place to start in terms of guided meditations which balance mindfulness with metta?

    Thank you again for this wonderful forum. I hope to one day join you on a retreat (though am fearful that the withdrawal i will experience upon returning from such an experience will interfere with my ability to function at work….as a teacher i often struggle with depression before and after holidays, as strange as that may seem. And this is something that is not best for the students, who often have their own emotional issues peak at these times.)


    • Hi, Jenifer.

      Thanks for your kind comments, and apologies for the delayed reply, but in the last two weeks I’ve moved house and also had surgery. You might want to try a couple of things: One is joining the Wildmind community on Google Plus, which is a wonderful place to find support and encouragement — wonderful because of the cool people that hang out there rather than because of anything I do there! The other is signing up for the events we’re running as part of our Year of Going Deeper. At the moment we’re just over a week into our 28-day lovingkindness event, but the 28-day event on compassion and self-compassion starts on April 1st, and you’d be welcome to join that. Each of those events has a G+ community as well…

  • Hi
    I have suffered from the obesivve compulsive disorder……

    So Meditation will be really helpful?

    • Yes, it certainly can be, ch12. If you search on this site for OCD you’ll find several articles.

  • Thank you for all of the information. In March I lost my son while I was 6 months pregnant. The pain was so terrible I turned to painkillers to try to kill my emotional pain and developed an addiction. On top of that I was fired from a job I love for reasons outside of my control. This has been the hardest period of my life, and I don’t want to rely on antidepressants. I will be patient and meditate in hopes it helps clear my mind and my heart.
    Will meditation also help with anxiety?

    • Hi, Chelsea.

      First, let me apologize for the long delay in replying. Sometimes the comments mount up and there isn’t enough time to deal with them.

      Second, I’m very sorry to hear of the loss of your son. I went through a miscarriage with a former partner, and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. You have my total sympathy.

      Meditation can certainly help with anxiety. That’s one of the things that it’s most well-known for. But at the same time it can make us more aware of our anxieties and if we have a tendency to anxiety then we can end up being anxious about being anxious and get into a vicious cycle. So if you do decide to take up meditation I’d highly recommend doing so with a teacher, so that you can get advice and support.

      All the best,

  • Hi, Bodhipaksa!
    I was really glad when i found this site, where you can find really great guided meditations and I started practice immediately both Lovingkindness meditation and Mindfulness of Breathing. One in the morning and the other before sleep. Already after two days i felt much better, much calmer (i was under lot of stress before), so i continued.. But after one week of practising it, the depression kicked in.. Like all kind of negative emotions bursted out, with intensity..In addition i`ve got badly urinary tract infection, which doesn`t seem to go away even after antibiotic treatment. Maybe that`s not even connected, but i had to mention. So, now i am a bit confused and wondering if that is normal, if i did something wrong, should i continue with meditations, stop it or just postpone it.. Please, help me with some advice, if you can.
    All the best!

    • Have you experienced depression before, and this is a relapse. Velko? Or is this your first time? Is it possible that your infection is sapping your energy and causing your depression?

      • The last time i was really depressed was about 25 years ago. I have to say that i had some anxiety issues every now and then, but i wasn`t depressed since then. So i thought it could be connected with my current meditation sessions. Maybe it brought some underlying, unresolved emotion issue up, i guess. Just wondering, if that is common.. Thank you for the answer.

        • Well, it’s possible that you’re getting in touch with something that’s been present but that you’ve not been aware of, but it’s good to seek simpler answers first. If I feel depressed I’ll check out first of all whether I’m tired or hungry (or possibly in your case getting sick). All of those things can leave us feeling bad.

          You haven’t said whether you’ve entered what seems like a prolonged period of depression or whether you just had a brief experience that has now passed. It’s not uncommon for people to come face to face with self-doubt in meditation, and to feel down for a while until they figure out how to stand back from those thoughts. It’s much rarer for meditation to trigger a full-fledged attack of depression.

          • I am still dealing with the infection/inflammation i mentioned. And with this type of illness you barely sleep, cause there is constant urge to urinate, even if you just emptied your bladder. So it`s probably normal that i feel depressed. What makes it worse is that i don`t know how long could that last. What i wanted to say is, that i started to feel down, even before first symptoms occured. Now i don`t know if i should continue to meditate, should i wait for improvement… Maybe better so, cause i have problem concentrating, because of lack of sleep.

          • It would be normal to feel tired and run down before you even noticed the symptoms of your infection, so I think that’s the most likely explanation for how you’re feeling. It’s probably safe to keep on meditating, unless you find it becomes an opportunity for you to ruminate and spin stories, in which case wait until you’re feeling better. In other words, play it by ear.

  • Appreciate this effort. I’m a Buddhist and I’m interested in learning new methods to cope with depression. I’m sure if mind is the reason for our problems, only mind can provide the solutions. Meditation is just a part of Buddhism(dhana, seela, bhawana) and I’m sure that there are proven and tested methods to end suffering.

  • Great fabulous awesome article thanks for giving this article

  • Depression is causing concern these days as the youth are getting highly ambitious and a little failure can push them to depression very badly. Thankfully we have meditation to help our young generation. Thank you for the post shared.


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