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What it’s like to meditate with depression

George Bell

The World Health Organization recently listed depression as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. It’s a global problem, and one for which many possible solutions have been explored; meditation and mindfulness are examples of solutions that have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years.

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The effect of meditation on anxiety and depression, two illnesses which are often closely interlinked, is promising. One 2017 study focused on two groups of adults suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), one of which explored treatment using mindfulness-based stress reduction. This group reported lower levels of stress in the body, as compared with a similar group who didn’t receive the same meditation training. Despite the clear science and benefits, many are hesitant to take up meditation as a form of recovery. I know, because I was one of these people. My journey with depression involved a long struggle, and my recovery was hindered by many internal battles. I was forced to wrestle with the notion that I wasn’t the strong-minded character that I previously believed myself to be. And that, perhaps, I didn’t quite fit with the preconceived societal ideas of what it means to “be a man”. I now know this to be untrue, but this internal conflict left me fighting my depression, as though it were a war to be won. When meditation was recommended by a therapist as a way of taking time to relax, reflect, and accept my current situation, I immediately shunned it. I first read about acceptance in Claire Weekes’s book “Self Help for Your Nerves”. At the time, it didn’t quite align with my desire to wage warfare on what was happening inside my head. Initially, meditation and acceptance drew connotations of long, silent retreats at temples in distant mountains. I’ve always been a practically minded person, but having been young and naïve at the time, I wasn’t prepared to be persuaded otherwise. Especially when that thinking was clouded by the logic-stripping nature of depression. Months passed, and I wasn’t finding relief; instead, desperation made me feel iller, and it became clear that my strategy of “fighting” wasn’t working. It was then that I turned back to the ideas of mindfulness, relaxation, and acceptance. I again picked up Weekes’s book, which became my recovery bible, and committed myself to a routine of daily meditation.

I won’t lie, it was incredibly tough to meditate at first. Trying to relax and accept thoughts of suicide and depression felt like an impossible task, and I awkwardly fidgeted my way through meditation. However, once I began to distance myself from depression, and to see it as an external problem that didn’t define me, it became much easier to practice meditation. I won’t say that I enjoyed reflecting on my darker thoughts, but I began to realize that they didn’t have to be permanent. These periods of reflection became a great time for me to take stock of where I was at with my mental health. I could assess the highs and lows that I’d experienced during that day or week. Better yet, I could actually feel the positive impacts of meditation. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that meditation physically changes our brains. Research has found that those who meditate daily can experience a breakdown in the neural connections in the brain that induce feelings of fear or anxiety. Additionally, it builds connections in the brain that relate to our level of empathy, as well as our ability to assess problems rationally. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that positive changes can take place after just eight weeks of beginning a meditation practice. These changes also have the added benefit of strengthening our memory and increasing our levels of happiness. It became clear to me that meditation was the perfect skill to develop when experiencing depression. While sometimes tough, practicing meditation would help to encourage contentment when depression loomed large. And to learn that meditation could be just as effective as antidepressant medication was hugely encouraging, as I never felt comfortable taking pills.

I realized that meditation needed to be a regular fixture in my life. Especially now—when I can happily say that meditation remains part of my daily routine and allows me to navigate depression with a greater sense of ease. If you’re suffering, and unsure where to turn, here are two crucial pieces of advice: Firstly, you may feel that meditation isn’t for you, and that’s OK. It’s important to understand that it’s not a necessity, but it certainly helped me. What is important is to learn to accept a situation, rather than fight it, and to also understand that all things change. Although there may be dark clouds currently, the blue sky is never too far behind, which has been an instrumental new perspective for me. Secondly, try not to overwhelm yourself with thoughts about what the right routine might be. There are many avenues available, and I often (and unnecessarily) stressed myself out about whether a combination of routines was the “right” one. Meditation is one excellent tool, and it can be helpful to use it in conjunction with other routines. Consider other elements such as daily exercise and therapy. For me, I found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) extremely useful, especially when used in combination with the mindfulness-based approach of meditation. Find a routine that sits well with you, and try to stick with it. While it may take time, a routine, along with acceptance, can greatly improve mental health.

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