The extraordinary effect of mindfulness on depression

Mindfulness practices can considerably improve the symptoms of depression and anxiety, especially when used with psychotherapy.

Daniel Goleman: One of the strong benefits of meditation generally has to do with the ordinary ways in which we suffer depression, anxiety, the angst of life. It turns out that meditation generally makes people feel more positively, it helps diminish anxiety, but it becomes particularly powerful when it's combined with a psychotherapy. The way this is usually done is with mindfulness on the one hand and what's called cognitive therapy on the other. Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience. Instead of getting sucked into our emotions or our thoughts, which is what happens when we're depressed or anxious, we see them as “those thoughts again" or “those feelings again," and that disempowers them. There's actually research at UCLA that shows when you can name that feeling, “Oh, I'm feeling depressed again," you have shifted the activity levels neurologically in the part of the brain which is depressed to the part of the brain which notices, which is aware—the prefrontal cortex. And that diminishes the depression and enhances your ability to be able to understand it or to see it as just a feeling. So if you combine that ability with cognitive therapy, cognitive therapy helps you talk back to your thoughts. The basic realization in cognitive therapy is: “I don't have to believe my thoughts." This is extremely important in people with chronic anxiety or chronic depression because it's our thoughts that trigger the anxiety, that trigger the depression. The depressive thoughts are classic; “I'm no good; my life is worthless," whatever it is. Those thoughts actually make us depressed. So if you use mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on the one hand you can see, “Oh, there's that thought again." On the other hand cognitive therapy lets you talk back to that thought, “Oh I'm not so worthless, I've done some pretty good things in my life; there are people who love me," whatever it may be. You can develop a habit of not letting those thoughts take you over, but countering them with actual evidence from your life that says “Oh they're not true. I don't have to believe them!" And that is very relieving. The first study that used mindfulness-based cognitive therapy with depression it was pretty spectacular. It was done at Oxford University and it was done with people whose depression is so severe that nothing helps, no medication helps, electric shock doesn't help, psychiatry doesn't know what to do. People get depressed very deeply, they recover, and then they get depressed again. So with that group they use mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and they found that it cut the rate of relapse (of having depression again) by 50 percent. If this were a drug some pharmaceutical company would be making billions of dollars, but it's not a drug. It's free basically. So mindfulness-based cognitive therapy works very well for depression. Better-designed studies afterwards shows that it wasn't 50 percent, but still the impact is palpable and it turns out that mindfulness and other meditations, particularly combined with cognitive therapy, work just as well for anxiety or depression as the medications do, but they don't have those side effects.

  • Being mindful of depressing thoughts disempowers them
  • Meditation becomes particularly powerful when it's combined with a cognitive therapy
  • Mindfulness and other meditations can work as well as pills but without the side effects

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