A new study suggests that mindfulness practices may help boost mood and prevent full-on depression.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated March 14, 2018

When someone has clinical depression, it’s important they see a doctor or a mental-health professional who can evaluate them properly and provide effective options for treatment. But there’s also something known in the psychology world as subthreshold depression—a condition in which people exhibit some symptoms of depression, but not enough for a clinical diagnosis.

It’s estimated that between 10% and 24% of the population has subthreshold depression (sometimes referred to as mild depression) at some point in their lives. And for those people, a new study suggests, practicing mindfulness meditation may help improve their mood and reduce their risk of developing full-blown depression. The study, published in the Annals of Family Medicine, highlights yet another reason why meditation may be good for both physical and mental health.

The study included 231 Chinese adults with subthreshold depression, meaning they scored between five and nine out of a total of 27 points on a standard depression scale. Half received mindfulness training two hours a week for eight weeks, while the other half received no special treatment but continued to receive their usual medical care.

During the mindfulness training, participants were instructed on setting short- and long-term goals; monitoring their activity and mood; planning out their activities; body scanning; and both sitting and walking meditations. They were also provided a CD of audio recordings for guided meditations and were asked to practice at home at least six days a week.

These techniques combine traditional meditation with behavioral activation, a type of therapy that uses an “outside in” approach to help people change the way they act and aims to increase rewarding experiences in their lives. Behavioral activation has been shown to be an effective treatment for moderate to severe depression in other studies, and the researchers wanted to know if it would work as a preventive measure as well.

At the end of those eight weeks, the group that received mindfulness training reported a significant decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms compared to the group that did not. And a year after the study began, only 11% of participants in the mindfulness group had developed clinical depression (also known as major depressive disorder), compared to 27% in the control group.

The authors say that mindfulness training seems to be a feasible way for people with mild or subthreshold depression to protect against their symptoms getting worse. There is one caveat though: Their study was limited to people who hadn’t had a major depressive episode in the past six months, so their recommendations can’t extend beyond this group.

Mindfulness training can “generate positive emotions by cultivating self-compassion and self-confidence through an upward spiral process,” the authors wrote in their paper. They also point out that, “although behavioral activation is action oriented while mindfulness emphasizes the acceptance and awareness of present moment emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations, the two can be complementary.”

Another plus, they say, is the fact that health professionals only need about a week of training in order to provide this type of treatment. It can also be practiced in a primary-care setting, suggesting that it could be cost-effective and made widely available.

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The authors are working on another study now to further improve their intervention and increase its reach among patients who could be helped by it. In the meantime, if you haven’t yet tried meditation on your own (or if you've tried it but given up!), this may be yet another reason to give it a go—especially if you've been feeling down in the dumps lately.