Keeping depression at bay is a big concern for anyone who’s suffered a bout of depression in their past. But a new study offers a surprising finding: meditation is an effective alternative to antidepressants when it comes to a preventing a patient’s relapse into depression. A report by Zindel Segal, Ph.D., and colleagues in the December 2010 Archives of General Psychiatry concluded that for individuals who are unable or unwilling to use antidepressants as maintenance treatment for depression, a form of meditation called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) offers equal protection.
“It’s not so far-fetched that both antidepressants and mindfulness meditation can have similar effects,” says Alice Boyes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist practicing in Christchurch, New Zealand. “Both antidepressants and mindfulness help calm people’s systems so their responses to daily stressors are less spiky. When someone’s mood is low or their anxiety is high, their thoughts tend to become sticky. Mindfulness can help reduce this stickiness/rumination just as antidepressants do.”
In other words, meditation gives the mind time off from constant activity, and both meditation and medication are known to have direct effects on brain functioning.
“People typically see their thoughts as facts,” says Boyes. “Traditional cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people to reality-test their thoughts. However, even when people recognize that a thought isn’t logically true, they might still be bothered by intrusions of that thought, usually when their mood is low or their anxiety is high.”
MBCT can help a person develop awareness skills to more quickly recognize when they are ruminating or dwelling on negative thoughts; learn to shift their attention when they notice themselves ruminating; and become less avoidant in the presence of difficult emotions. When individuals experience low mood and high anxiety, MBCT helps them choose actions that are antidepressive (like meditation) rather than stress-generating (like obsessing over your overflowing in-box).
“You get absorbed in thought, you notice, and you bring your attention back to whatever you really want to focus on,” Boyes explains.
It’s important to note that meditation is helpful for everyone, but MBCT is recommended only for relapse prevention, not for the general treatment of depression.