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.

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