Mindfulness & meditation

Our rating
 One smiley: This treatment is promising and may be useful. It has some evidence to support it, but more evidence is needed to be sure it works.

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 meditation. Mindfulness meditation might involve sitting in a quiet environment for around 20 minutes a day and focusing your attention on your breath. 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 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.

Several reviews of research have found that mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can be helpful at reducing depression symptoms. These types of therapy also include aspects of cognitive therapies as well – for example, cognitive behaviour therapy.

There is less scientific evidence on how simple mindlessness and meditation exercises might benefit people with depression. However, some small studies have found that mindfulness and meditation can be effective in reducing depression symptoms.

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?

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 your 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.  Alternatively, you can focus on the sensation of breathing in and out.
  • If your mind wanders, turn your attention back to the word or your breath.
  • Do this for around 10-20 minutes each day.

Recommendation

Mindfulness and meditation practices appear to be a promising treatment for depression, but more research is needed to be sure it is effective.

Key references

  • Ahmadpanah M, Akbari T, Akhondi A, Haghighi M, Jahangard L, Sadeghi Bahmani D, et al. Detached mindfulness reduced both depression and anxiety in elderly women with major depressive disorders. Psychiatry Res. 2017; 257: 87-94.
  • Falsafi N. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Versus Yoga: Effects on Depression and/or Anxiety in College Students. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association. 2016; 22(6): 483-97.
  • Fjorback LO, Arendt M, Ornbol E, Fink P, Walach H. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 2011; 124(2): 102-19.
  • Gallego J, Aguilar-Parra JM, Cangas AJ, Langer AI, Manas I. Effect of a mindfulness program on stress, anxiety and depression in university students. The Spanish Journal of Psychology. 2015; 17: E109.
  • Hofmann SG, Gómez AF. Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Anxiety and Depression. The Psychiatric clinics of North America. 2017; 40(4): 739-49.
  • Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D. The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2010; 78(2): 169-83.
  • Jain FA, Walsh RN, Eisendrath SJ, Christensen S, Rael Cahn B. Critical analysis of the efficacy of meditation therapies for acute and subacute phase treatment of depressive disorders: a systematic review. Psychosomatics. 2015; 56(2): 140-52.
  • Sharma A, Barrett MS, Cucchiara AJ, Gooneratne NS, Thase ME. A Breathing-Based Meditation Intervention for Patients With Major Depressive Disorder Following Inadequate Response to Antidepressants: A Randomized Pilot Study. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2017; 78(1): e59-e63.

Last reviewed and updated: 1 November 2019