How meditation might rival medication as a treatment for depression
Sandra (not her real name) had battled depression for years before discovering meditation. She was first diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder while in college, when what started out as chronic stress over a broken relationship spiralled into overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and despair. Before turning to meditation she recalls having gone the medicine route twice, after her doctor prescribed her Prozac, the world’s most recognized anti-depressant.
It was the nineties and the memoir Prozac Nation had become a bestseller. Nearly everybody she knew didn’t think twice before reaching for a prescription bottle. It seemed cool even, among her Psychology major friends, to be on SSRI’s or pop a Ritalin before exams. To her it felt like gaming the system, taking pills to feel better instead of dealing with the anxiety and emotional turmoil that was always there, at the back of her mind.
she worried that she would never “feel normal” again
In both cases she felt better for a short period of time, perhaps no longer than three or four months, followed by an invariable sinking into apathy and negative self-thought. It was a vicious cycle, a rollercoaster ride she wanted to get off, but she was afraid of what might happen if she stopped taking her medicine. Over the years she tried a couple of other drugs, with the same effect. It got so bad that she could hardly sleep at night anymore. Secretly, she worried that she would never “feel normal” again.
Then she discovered meditation as a potential treatment for depression. She first heard about it from a friend who also suffered from depression but had decided to go off the pills during her pregnancy. Not willing to take psychiatric medications while pregnant and nursing, Sandra’s friend started doing yoga for stress and pain relief, with life-changing results.
Desperate to try something different that might actually work long-term, Sandra decided to follow a similar plan. It wasn’t easy at first, trying to quiet her mind when her negative self-talk was continuously telling her that she would fail at everything she did. But she stuck to it, training herself to minimize distraction, and soon discovered a newfound sense of peace.
more and more people are choosing to add a mindful practice to their daily routine
She has now developed a routine that works for her, which consists of meditating for 30 minutes twice a day. So far the depression has not returned. Anxiety, stressors and bad feelings occasionally still come up, but she is able to observe them and work out their trigger, which allows them to pass, rather than allow stress and negativity to take over.
Sandra isn’t alone in her quest to tackle the terrible symptoms of chronic depression with a holistic alternative to psychiatric drugs. After battling suicidal thoughts, alcoholism and despair, many sufferers who didn’t initially respond to conventional medication are turning to non-pharmaceutical alternatives as a way to complement or even replace anti-depressant treatment.
With research now starting to show a positive correlation between meditation and depression relief, more and more people are choosing to add a mindful practice to their daily routine.
And surprisingly, after decades of criticism over the hit-or-miss effectiveness of psychotropic drugs, the medical field itself has become increasingly receptive to exploring alternative avenues of treating depression and mood disorders.
A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing
Questioning standard approaches
A new report in the Medical Journal of Australia said that while use of antidepressants was continuing to rise, there was growing evidence the drugs were not as effective as once thought. According to the doctors who conducted the study, the gap between responses to medication and placebos was narrowing.
While medication can still produce extremely positive results in many patients, new research data is starting to reveal the enormous benefit of alternative approaches such as meditation.
A 2014 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Medicine, found that mindfulness meditation may rival antidepressants in easing the symptoms of depression. The research team from John Hopkins University looked back at nearly 18,000 earlier studies before conducting a randomized trial that assigned over 3,500 participants to practice meditation or to enroll in another treatment, such as exercise.
Results showed the same effect size on depression – 0.3% – for both medication and mindfulness.
“A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” said Dr. Goyal, head of the research team. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
Mindfulness over Matter
A 2015 study published in The Lancet involved a group of 424 adults from south-west England who were willing to try either pills or cognitive therapy. The group assigned cognitive therapy underwent mindfulness training, group discussion and cognitive behaviour exercises. Those assigned to the medication group stayed on the tablets for two years.
After the two-year study was completed, results showed mindfulness-based therapy to be equally as good as drugs, which could offer a new option for those who do not want to be on medication for years.
Study co-author Richard Byng, a professor from the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine, said: “Currently, maintenance antidepressant medication is the key treatment for preventing relapse, reducing the likelihood of relapse or recurrence by up to two-thirds when taken correctly. However, there are many people who, for a number of different reasons, are unable to keep on a course of medication for depression. Moreover, many people do not wish to remain on medication for indefinite periods, or cannot tolerate its side-effects.”
Though the mechanism behind the effect of meditation on depression isn’t totally clear, researchers speculate that mindfulness may enhance “attention regulation, body awareness, emotional regulation, and changes in self-perspective,” which may all play a role in depression.
Strengthening one’s ability to focus attention can help with concentration and memory
Strengthening the Mind
Focusing on the present helps individuals become aware of their negative thoughts, acknowledge them without judgment and realize they’re not accurate reflections of reality, writes William Marchand, M.D., in his book Depression and Bipolar Disorder: Your Guide to Recovery, which recounts the benefits of mindfulness interventions.
Mindfulness meditation is essentially training one’s attention to maintain focus and avoid mind wandering
“Mindfulness meditation is essentially training one’s attention to maintain focus and avoid mind wandering,” says Marchand, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, as well as a cognitive therapy provider who practices Zen meditation.
“Strengthening one’s ability to focus attention can help with concentration and memory. The key is to focus on your physical sensations, such as “sight, taste, touch and smell.” Focus on the moment, instead of the past or future.”
Mindfulness meditation may not be a cure-all, but when it comes to the treatment of depression, anxiety and even chronic pain, the practice may be just as effective as medication.
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