Mindfulness & meditation
What is it?
There are many types of meditation, but all involve focusing attention on something, such as a word, a phrase, an image, an idea or the act of breathing. Mindfulness is a commonly practiced type of mediation. Mindfulness meditation might involve sitting in a quiet environment for around 20 minutes a day and focusing on being calm. Mindfulness can also be incorporated into daily activities, such as eating a meal and really focusing on the textures and taste of the food. For some people, meditation is a spiritual or religious activity and they use meaningful thoughts as the focus of their meditation. However, mindfulness and meditation can also be practiced without any spiritual or religious goal.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a particular type of therapy which incorporates meditation, body awareness and yoga.
Mindfulness can also be incorporated into other psychological therapies – see mindfulness based cognitive behaviour therapy.
How does it work?
Meditation can be used as a relaxation method to relieve stress and anxiety. Practicing calm, deep breathing creates physiological changes in the body which may help reduce stress. Many people who have depression also experience stress and anxiety, so reducing these symptoms could improve their depressive symptoms also. Being mindful involves awareness without judgement or reaction. This may help change people’s attitudes towards their feelings or events to be more positive and help them develop better coping skills.
Is it effective?
There has been a lot of research looking at how mindfulness and meditation affects wellbeing generally, but not many studies which have looked at it as a specific treatment for depression.
One systematic review of 21 studies found that mindfulness therapies were effective at reducing depression symptoms in 10 studies, but in 4 studies the treatment was no more effective than a control condition. Another meta-analysis of 39 studies found that in general, mindfulness therapies were moderately effective in reducing depression symptoms. In this review, the mindfulness therapies were more effective for people who had a primary diagnosis of clinical depression, compared to people who had another diagnosis (e.g., cancer).
Many of the therapies which incorporate mindfulness also include aspects of cognitive therapies as well – for example, cognitive behavioural therapy. There is little scientific evidence on how simple mindlessness and meditation exercises might benefit people with depression.
Are there any disadvantages?
Some health professionals do not recommend meditation for people with severe depression or for people who might be at risk of schizophrenia. If you feel worse during or after practicing meditation or mindfulness, it’s best to stop the practice.
Where do you get it?
Popular books on how to meditate are available in many bookshops and guided meditation videos can be found online. Various organisations, generally with spiritual goals, also offer training in meditation – for example, local Buddhist temples. Mindfulness and meditation is also incorporated into some yoga classes.
Here is a simple technique of meditation that is similar to those taught in these books and courses:
- Sit in a quiet room in a comfortable position with eyes closed.
- Choose a word which is relaxing for you (for example, 'One' or 'Calm') and repeat it silently over and over in your mind. Do not force yourself to concentrate on the word.
- If your mind wanders, turn your attention back to the word.
- Do this for around 20 minutes each day.
Mindfulness and meditation practices appear to be a promising treatment for depression, but more research is needed to be sure it is effective.
- Fjorback, L. O., Arendt, M., Ornbol, E., Fink, P., & Walach, H. (2011). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatr Scand, 124(2), 102-119.
- Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169-183.
Last reviewed and updated: 1 December 2016