Transcendental meditation, mindfulness, and other practices may help alleviate symptoms and improve mood.

By Amanda Gardner
June 26, 2018

The ancient practice of meditation–used for centuries in India and China–now shows promise as a treatment in the toolbox for depression.

The dozens of different types of meditation all seek a state of heightened awareness, says E. Robert Schwartz, MD, director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and that heightened awareness could have far-ranging benefits for people with depression and anxiety.

“There is a strong feeling in the neuroscience area and the psychology realm that meditation and meditative practices can change your brain physiology,” Dr. Schwartz says.

Of course, you have to actually do it. “Learning how to manage your thoughts takes time, energy, and dedication,” Dr. Schwartz says.

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Keep in mind that adopting a meditation practice doesn't mean you abandon medications and other treatments for depression that you may already be using. "Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, has been shown to be helpful in treating depression, but it should be used as a part of conventional medical care under the supervision of a physician, and not as a substitute for conventional medical care,” says Aditi Nerurkar, MD, medical director of the Cheng-Tsui Integrated Health Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Here’s a guide to some of the more popular and more studied types of meditation that can benefit people with depression.

Loving-kindness meditation

Loving-kindness meditation focuses on creating an attitude of love and kindness towards yourself and others. Several studies have found that people who practice this type of meditation have less depression, a more positive outlook, fewer negative emotions, and greater compassion.

Loving-kindness meditation may also help quell self-criticism, which underlies a number of different mental health disorders. One study found reductions in self-criticism lasted for at least three months after the actual meditation sessions had ended.

A related type of meditation, compassion meditation, stresses unconditional compassion and has also been linked with better mood and fewer negative feelings.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation might be considered the mother of all meditation. Many other types of meditation have stemmed from mindfulness, and it may have the most scientific evidence supporting it.

“Mindfulness meditation is a moment-to-moment awareness of the present moment,” says Dr. Nerurkar. “It uses your breath to create an anchor to keep bringing your attention back to the present moment and help with cognitive retraining.”

Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation may reduce depression, as well as anxiety and stress. The Society for Integrative Oncology recommends using mindfulness meditation to ease depression and anxiety in cancer patients, and studies have even documented ways in which mindfulness changes the brain.

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Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy

This is a subset of mindfulness meditation that blends meditation with cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT is one of the most widely used forms of therapy for depression (and other mental health concerns) and focuses on changing damaging thinking and behavior patterns.

MBCT was first developed to prevent relapses in people with recurrent depression; more recent evidence suggests that it may also help people with active depression.

A recent study of the similar behavioral activation with mindfulness (BAM), which incorporates behavioral therapy with a mindfulness practice, found that it reduced symptoms of depression like changes in sleep, appetite, and mood. “BAM is an innovative type of intervention,” says Samuel Y.S. Wong, MD, lead author of the study and professor and head of family medicine and primary health care at the JC School of Public Health and Primary Care at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The two components are like ‘yin’ and ‘yang.’”

Breath awareness meditation

Awareness of your breath is a fundamental component of many different forms of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation.

“Mindfulness meditation uses the object of your breath to focus on, to help with mind training,” says Dr. Nerurkar. Breath awareness meditation may also be called mindful breathing.

As little as 15 minutes a day of focusing on inhaling and exhaling can yield mood benefits, including lessened emotional reactivity. And you don’t necessarily have to set aside special time to pay attention to your breathing: Many people find ways to incorporate awareness of their breath throughout the day. It can be done sitting, standing, or lying down, and with your eyes open or closed.

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Yoga

Yoga combines physical postures with breathing techniques and meditation, and it seems to have an effect on depression and anxiety. Studies have found that Kundalini yoga in particular–which incorporates chanting–is helpful in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Kundalini yoga includes specific techniques to manage fear, banish anger, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

Another study found that yoga, when combined with CBT, eased anxiety, depression, and panic while improving sleep and quality of life in people with generalized anxiety disorder.

Talk to your doctor before starting yoga. Unlike meditation, which is generally safe, yoga can cause injury, although this isn’t common. Make sure you practice yoga with a qualified instructor.

Transcendental meditation

Transcendental meditation, or TM as it is known, has a large following around the world.

Instead of using the breath to anchor your attention, "transcendental meditation uses sound or a personal mantra, often one or two syllables, as the anchor,” Dr. Nerurkar explains.

One study of teachers and staff at a residential school for students with severe behavioral problems–in other words, people with high-stress jobs–found that transcendental meditation improved stress, depression, and burnout, and that the benefits lasted four months.

Visualization

Many people find that focusing on pleasant images rather than negative ones stimulates calm. Visualization or guided imagery meditation can be led by another person, or you can direct your own session using one of scores of recordings available online.

Imagery can also be used to change how you recall negative memories. Imagining happy endings in place of such memories–a process called rescripting–resulted in better quality of life and self-esteem in at least one study. The participants were asked to revise past events in their imagination; visualize their moods as symbols or creatures, then transform them into something more positive; and find positive phrases and words to replace negative ones.

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Body scan meditation

Body scan meditation involves focusing on different parts of your body sequentially. Like breathing awareness, you can do this lying down, sitting, or in other postures, and with your eyes open or closed. As you shift your attention to different parts of your body, you also focus on inhaling and exhaling deeply.

Body scanning seems to be linked with better observation of thoughts, feelings, and sensations and less intense reactions to stress.

One study that looked at body scan meditation among other forms of mindfulness found fewer depression relapses in people with bipolar disorder from a formal practice of just once a week.

Repetitive activity

Barack Obama once said he found washing dishes soothing. Cleaning up may not be a formal meditation practice, but repetitive activity–including scrubbing pots and pans–may induce a certain calmer mental state, if you do it mindfully.

At least one study supports this idea, finding "mindful dishwashers" did show more mindfulness and less nervousness than those who didn't wash up mindfully.

"It's the repetitive action that doesn't require any real thought,” says Dr. Schwartz. "It's the same as physical exercise. You're using the exercise or the manual labor as a way of calming your mind, focusing, and removing all of the extraneous thoughts that most of us have during waking hours.”

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Chanting

Many meditation traditions use chanting or periodic chimes of a gong as a way to focus the mind.

“Chanting is a modality to arrive at the same type of meditative state,” says Dr. Schwartz. “You use that … to gain your ability to focus.”

One study found that “active-type meditative practices” like chanting and yoga seemed to activate parts of the brain involved in regulation of mood and emotional control.

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Walking meditation

Walking, of course, is good for both your physical and mental health. But a walking meditation may take you to another level.

Aerobic walking coupled with Buddhist meditation three times a week for 12 weeks not only reduced depression but also improved flexibility and balance in a small group of older adults in one study. Meditating before or after walking (for as little as 10 minutes at a time) also lowered anxiety in younger adults in other research.

“Meditation is [about] learning how to not just focus your mind but also to relax your mind,” says Dr. Schwartz. “You’re learning now to bring [your mind] back to neutral,” and you can do that not just while walking but with many forms of exercise, he adds.