Yoga and Meditation for Depression

Major depression is the most common mental health condition in the United States. With more than 16.2 million people reporting at least one major depressive episode in the last year, major depression can wreak havoc on lives. Symptoms of a depressed mood include loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, or self-image, or recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. While a person has to experience several of these symptoms for at least two weeks to be diagnosed with major depression, some people may experience micro-moments of depressed mood or thought patterns.

A growing amount of research investigates whether yoga and meditation can help with depression. And clinicians across the country, who have heard about the benefits of meditation and yoga, are bringing these tools to their patients and seeing the positive impact.

Meditation May Help to Ward off a Relapse

A study conducted in 2004 explored whether mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) could prevent relapse in people who had suffered major depressive episodes. Interestingly, they found that MBCT was effective in significantly reducing the risk for relapse (from 78 percent to 36 percent) for those subjects who had experienced three or more depressive episodes. However, for those with two or fewer episodes, the findings showed an increase in relapse, from 20 to 50 percent.

The difference, in this study, seemed to be related to cause. For those whose depression was brought on by a significant event—the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, etc.—the mindfulness approach was not as beneficial as it was for those whose relapse had no clear cause. This makes sense: If you’ve recently experienced a significant loss and are grieving, then talking with someone about the experience might be more helpful than the practice of observing the experience. However, if your brain wiring pushes you to habitually fall into rumination, a practice that allows you to notice that rumination is arising might be more beneficial—it allows you to not believe the thought, and gives you important information on what you might need to pull yourself out of the experience.

In fact, there is consistent empirical evidence to show that MBCT can decrease the potential of relapse for those who suffer from depressive episodes. One study showed that participants in a MBCT group were 26 percent less likely to fall into another depressive episode within a year compared to a “treatment as usual” group. Another study found a similar outcome—those in the MBCT group were 13 percent less likely to experience another episode. The results of both studies are statistically significant, indicating this was not by chance alone.

Mindfulness may be more helpful in preventing relapse than getting people out of a depressive episode. In an article written in Mindful, clinicians posited that mindfulness may not be the best approach when someone is depressed. When people are depressed, their brains are compromised in ways that make true mindfulness practice more difficult. Trying to genuinely observe experience without judgment and let it go, as mindfulness is often defined, may simply not be feasible for a person in a major depressive episode. In my own experience working in a psychiatric hospital, I found that patients were sometimes overwhelmed by the negative self-talk that came up when they tried to practice mindfulness. Without the ability to step back and observe it as “not real,” they were left in their suffering.

Yoga May Benefit Mild to Moderate Depression

A recent study using both yoga postures and breathing techniques found some positive benefits for those with mild to moderate depression, when practiced twice or three times a week at home. In both the twice-weekly and thrice-weekly groups, participants showed a significant decrease in depression at the end of the study—depression scores went from moderate to minimal. Another study, conducted by the University of California and Johns Hopkins, found similar results—for those with mild to moderate depression levels, yoga practice seemed to help pull people back to minimal to mild depression levels.

Three Tips for Working with Depression

While it is always helpful to talk with a professional if you continue to feel down, here are three tips to try in working with more depressed states of mind.

  1. Watch for the early signs. Mindfulness can help us bring more awareness to our personal warning signs. Does your body give you a cue? Does the depression start with negative thinking? If you can pick up these cues and take positive action earlier, you may be able to avoid entering a deeper depression.
  2. Get moving. Whether it is through yoga practice, a walk, or a swim, moving the body helps to ward off negative thinking and the heaviness of depression. If it’s hard to find motivation because you feel down, do something for a shorter time; remind yourself that taking just a few minutes out of your day has a good chance of helping you feel a little better. Or come up with a way to reward yourself once you’re done.
  3. Be gentle with yourself. It’s not easy to sit with a self-critical state of mind. It’s painful, and it can feel like it will last forever. It takes a lot of courage to tolerate and even explore these feelings. Offer yourself kindness, compassion, and encouragement. Don’t feel like you have to do change everything right now. And though it may not feel like it at the moment, remember, eventually these feelings will pass.

Find out about The Science of Yoga with Angela Wilson at Kripalu.

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Angela Wilson, LMHC, RYT 500, is a Kripalu faculty member who has conducted research and written about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

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