May 05 2014

Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My Depression

I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. I am not a mental health care professional, or indeed a health care professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. If these ideas resonate with you, and you’re thinking of trying this practice, talk with your mental health care provider. Also, while evidence does suggest that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of a treatment plan for depression, it is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Content note: Depression. Obviously. (Also note that this post has a somewhat different comment policy than usual: it’s at the end of the post.)

I was on Facebook a little while ago, and the subject of depression and mindfulness/ meditation came up. And someone (of course I now can’t remember who it was, or what their exact words were) said that they were baffled about how meditation could possibly help with depression. How, they wondered, could focusing their full awareness on their experience of the present moment do anything other than catapult them even deeper into the depression?

I can see that reaction. There is something counter-intuitive about this. Sure, there’s a reasonable amount of research suggesting that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of treatment for depression — but I can see how some people might go, “But how on earth would that even work?” So I want to write a little about how, exactly, using meditation to help manage my depression works for me. There’s almost certainly neurological and neuro-psychological stuff going on that I don’t know about or understand — but this is what my subjective experience of it is like.

camera lens1) Practice in shifting focus. I’ve written before that meditation is a practice — not in a vague woo-ish sense, but in the most literal sense of the word. It’s like practicing a tennis stroke, or practicing the piano. I set aside time to practice certain skills, so I can get better at those skills and use them when I want them or need them.

And among those skills is the ability to shift my focus. Much of what I do when I meditate — in fact, the core of what I do — is to focus my awareness on something (my breath, a part of my body, an activity); notice when my awareness has drifted away; observe this without judgment; and gently return my awareness to its intended focus. So in my everyday life, if my awareness has drifted into something that tends to drop me into a cycle of depression (pessimistic thoughts, worst-case scenarios, terrible memories, etc.), it’s now easier to shift it into something else. I am, literally, more practiced at moving my focus to where I want it. I’m far from perfect at it, but I’m better than I was. And that helps with my depression enormously.

no judgment2) Acknowledging my experience without judgment. One of the central features of MBSR meditation isn’t just focusing awareness on one object or experience — it’s noticing when that awareness has drifted, observing this drift without judgment, and gently returning the focus. And when it comes to helping with my depression, the “observe without judgment” part is, I think, almost as important as the “focus” part.

For me, a big part of what makes depression worse is judging myself for it. That can turn into a nasty feedback loop: I get down on myself for being unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then that self-judgment makes me feel worse about myself, and adds to my depression… and then I get more unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then I get down on myself for it… around and around and around. Depression can be very self-perpetuating, and a lot of what I’m looking for in depression treatments are ways to cut into these vicious circles.

And the “observe without judgment” part of meditation is one of those ways. When I notice that my awareness has drifted from my intended focus into feelings of torpor or pessimism or despair — and instead of hammering myself for that, I observe these feelings, acknowledge them without judgment, and return my focus to my breath or whatever — it’s extremely liberating. It doesn’t make the feelings of depression go away — but it makes them less all-encompassing. It makes the depression feel more like something I have, rather than something that has me, or that is me.

This even helps with the meta aspects of depression. If I notice that I’m getting down on myself for being depressed or for having a hard time keeping my focus where I want it… that’s also something I can observe, and acknowledge without judgment, before returning to my focus as best I can.

serenity-rock3) Letting my feelings be, instead of frantically trying to fix them. MBSR isn’t just about formal, set-aside meditation sessions. It’s also about being more present in everyday life. So in everyday life, if I’m having a moment where I’m feeling anxious or restless or sad for no reason, I’m now better able to just notice that, and acknowledge it, and let it be. I’m less likely to desperately search for the non-existent reasons behind my anxiety, restlessness, or sadness. And I’m less likely to immediately try to fix the feeling or distract myself from it.

I don’t know about any of you, but for me, the frantic search for things that make me feel better is often part of what makes me feel worse. (Especially since things that make me feel better in the short run — television, junk food, long stretches on Facebook — often make me feel worse in the long run, and even the medium run.) The frantic search to fix my feelings and perfect my life just makes me feel anxious. It makes me even more aware of all the ways that my life falls short of perfection. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me, because I feel anxious or restless or sad for no reason, and because I can’t find a way to make myself feel better. And it makes it nearly impossible to really savor, and really experience, the parts of my life that are wonderful and satisfying. (Plus, it’s just fucking exhausting.)

Since I’ve started practicing mindfulness, I’m better able to just sit with the anxiety, the restlessness, the sadness. I’m better able to let myself simply… have it. I’m better able to say to myself, “I’m just sad right now. I don’t know why. My brain sometimes gets sad for no real reason. I don’t have to fix this feeling. I don’t have to figure out what’s wrong. There isn’t anything wrong, other than the fact that I feel sad for no reason.” This doesn’t make the sadness or restlessness or anxiety go away. But it does help keep me from throwing gasoline on the flames. It helps keep me from adding self-judgment to the mix, or anxious and exhausting and utterly pointless attempts to find the non-existent problem and fix it. And that makes it easier for the anxiety or restlessness or sadness to pass. It doesn’t make the emotions better, exactly, but it helps keep me from making them worse.

question mark sign4) I don’t know how or why it works — it just does. Apart from everything I’ve been talking about here, there seems to be something going on, on a deep neurological and neuro-psychological level, when I meditate. I don’t know what, and I don’t know why. I just know that when I meditate, I feel better. I feel both calmer and more energetic. (Very much the opposite of depression, which tends to make me feel both twitchy and torpid.) I feel more focused. I feel more at peace.

Meditation helps with my depression in the long run and the middle run, in the sense that when I meditate every day, I’m less likely to get depressed, and my depressive episodes tend to be shorter and less severe. But it also helps in the short run, in the sense that if I felt depressed when I started meditating, I almost always feel less depressed when I’m done. I don’t entirely know why it helps me. I just know that it does.

Again — your mileage may vary. I really am just talking about my own experiences here. And again, if any of this resonates with you and you think you might like to try it, do talk with your mental health care provider, and remember that this is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Other posts that might interest you:
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn’t Actually Need to Be
Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Comment policy for this post: It sucks that I should have to spell this out, but past experience has taught me that I do: Please do not give unsolicited amateur medical advice, to me or to anyone else with mental illness, in the comments. Or anywhere, for that matter. Talk about your own experiences until the cows come home; ask questions until you’re blue in the face (except for douchy passive-aggressive question like “Why don’t you understand that psych meds are poison?” or “Will you read this article explaining why psych meds are poison?”). If you need this spelled out in more detail, please read Why You Really, Seriously, No Fooling, Should Not Give Unsolicited Amateur Medical Advice to People with Mental Illness (Or to Anyone, Really), Episode 563,305. Thanks.


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  1. 1

    Good article! In the past two years of my forty years on this earth, I am leaning toward the opinion that I have some focus issues (ADD possible). I have always had a hard time finishing what I started, my memory is horrible, and I get very moody at times for very stupid and petty reasons. Maybe it is something else other than ADD. I have avoided going to a mental health professional to get an expert opinion but maybe it’s about time I do. To tie in my comment to your article, I am going to pursue learning secular meditation to possibly assist me in tackling this issue. It seems like a practice that could possibly alleviate the symptoms of a wide range of mental health issues.

  2. 2

    Great post!

    And someone … said that they were baffled about how meditation could possibly help with depression. How, they wondered, could focusing their full awareness on their experience of the present moment do anything other than catapult them even deeper into the depression?

    I don’t know, I think depression ultimately comes from attempting to *not* experience what one is feeling in the present moment. I don’t mean consciously, but more subconsciously as an ingrained learned behavior trying to shut down the feelings. To me it feels like a building pressure, a feeling of impending doom.

    I don’t have to fix this feeling. I don’t have to figure out what’s wrong. There isn’t anything wrong, other than the fact that I feel sad for no reason.” This doesn’t make the sadness or restlessness or anxiety go away. But it does help keep me from throwing gasoline on the flames.


    Just like how at first you want to shift position every few seconds or scratch every time something itches. That’s also judgement: Oh, an uncomfortable feeling–that is bad–I must make it stop. The more you fidget the more it happens. But then as you train the mind to just notice the sensations without doing something about them, they pass away and you settle into concentration. That capacity also applies to emotional feelings.

    Unfortunately I’m not consistent with my meditation; just like with physical exercise, I go through phases of sticking with it alternating with dropping it for periods of time. I can definitely tell the difference during the periods when I am doing it consistently versus the periods when I am throwing gasoline on the flames.

  3. 3
    A Hermit

    Number 3 is the big one for me too; just being able to step back and accept that, OK, this is how I feel right now, I don’t have to look for a reason or try to fix it…that just makes me focus on it and makes it worse. Just acknowledge the feeling and carry on.

  4. 4

    I’ve read about (and listened to podcasts about) mindfulness meditation and have tried it some. My depression isn’t bad and I’m not on medication for it, but I have a horrible problem with focus. For instance, I’m reading your blog right now instead of getting work done! If I have small things to do at work, I’m good, but anything that’s going to take time is hard to start, and hard to continue working on.

    Unfortunately, what I’ve found is that I had a hard time continuing with the mindfulness practice and didn’t keep it up for long. Did you have a hump to get over when you first started? If you have a routine, how do you (or how did you at first) stick with it?

    As far as using it at work, what I think I’m supposed to do is notice the distracting thoughts creeping into my head (hey, I could check my newsfeed right now!) and think to myself “that was a distracting thought, but I’m not going to act on it.” That sort-of worked a couple of times, but getting myself to do that all of the time is the problem. I need to practice so that I can use it, but I need more practice so that I can use it, , but I need more practice so that I can use it… .

  5. 5
    Georgia Sam

    I may be wandering off topic here, but I think this supports the broader principle that people suffering from depression can effectively help themselves.

    I’ve been fighting depression off and on for about 40 years. I’ve done medications and psychotherapy, and both have helped me. I’ve also found something I can do on my own that is very therapeutic. The main way that depression diminishes my quality of life is though inaction brought on by indecisiveness and pessimism. My approach to attacking those symptoms has two basic steps. Step1: I identify one thing in my life that is bothering me — something that is making me unhappy, that I’m worried about, something I need to do that I’ve been putting off, or that I want to change for whatever reason. Not everything, not a list of things — just one thing. It doesn’t even have to be the one thing that is bothering me the most, although it certainly can be. Step 2: I take one concrete step toward fixing that one thing. I don’t attack all of my problems at once, and I don’t try to completely solve the one I’m working on today. All I have to do is to take one step toward fixing one thing. That doesn’t mean that I only do that one thing and then take the rest of the day off, but taking that one step consistently alleviates my depressive symptoms.

    I don’t claim that this is an original idea, and I don’t offer it as an alternative to meditation or any other kind of therapy. It’s just another example of a self-help method that may work for some people. Medications and professional therapy are fine, but we don’t have to rely entirely on them.

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