The term “depression” has entered the colloquial lexicon, but it is actually a recognized mental health disorder with a consistent series of symptoms that can be evaluated and measured. The symptoms of depression typically include some or all of the following:
The word “mindfulness” is most often used to describe a state in which an individual is aware of what is going on internally and externally, rather than skipping ahead to the future, or lingering on the past. Mindfulness has also been called “being present,” as its focus is primarily on living in the present, rather than ruminating on the past or future. It is precisely this part of mindfulness that has attracted people to it as a potential intervention for depression.
Mindfulness and depression intersect primarily where rumination and worry are concerned. Depression is marked by significant periods of worry and rumination, or focusing on a particular set of thoughts and ideas. Mindfulness can directly and indirectly address worry and ruination and improve the expression of both in people with depression.
Now that we have established that mindfulness can help alleviate symptoms of depression, we can take a closer look at specific types of mindfulness you can utilize to manage and reduce symptoms of depression. Mindfulness as a whole is valuable, but different practices require different levels of effort, and may have differing levels of success in addressing symptoms.
Yoga has seen a spike in popularity in the past several decades. From dedicated yoga studios to gyms to community centers, most towns of all shapes and sizes have some access to yoga classes. In the absence of a physical class, there are numerous teachers online who aim to bring safe yoga classes into homes around the world. The precise school of yoga used has not been identified as significant in determining how effective yoga is in reducing symptoms. Instead, studies have largely relied on duration of use. Duration ranges from 15 minutes to over 2 hours of a daily yoga practice in most studies, and all demonstrate a measurable difference in depression scores pre-and-post practice.
When evaluating yoga as an intervention for depression, studies focus primarily on the limb of yoga called asana, or the limb that describes the physical postures most commonly associated with yoga. Other yogic limbs include (but are not limited to) breathing, living according to a series of principles, and devotion. While these can be a more holistic approach to practicing yoga, research has focused on the physical practice of asana and its significant effect on depression.
Meditation is a multi-faceted practice that has been linked to improvements in general health, which may extend to mental health. Meditation can be done in a virtually limitless number of ways. Some meditation practices were developed as part of a religious belief system as might be the case with the lovingkindness meditation and the Buddhist belief system. Others have been developed to assist in checking in with yourself and soothing physical symptoms of depression and anxiety.
At its core, meditation is designed to help people learn how to quiet their thoughts and focus or relax. Meditation has been likened to “clearing your mind,” or cutting through all of the thoughts, impressions, and ideas that you experience on a daily basis—some of which may be rooted in low self-esteem, inaccurate perceptions, or unhealthy processes.
Meditating is often visualized as someone sitting on a cushion on the floor, eyes closed and face serene, as they hold their hands in a Audra, or a position with roots in Vedic texts. While this is certainly one way to meditate, meditation does not require any special circumstances, tools, or locations. Meditating can be done on a cushion on the floor, but it can also be done while sitting in the grass, going on a walk, or even lying in bed.
Meditation can be done with a guide, such as using an app on your phone to be led through meditation exercises, or it can be done alone. The core of meditation simply involves checking in with yourself and taking note of what you are thinking and feeling, and actively practicing letting those thoughts and feelings go in order to let your mind relax and take a break from resting in hold thought patterns and beliefs.
Grounding (also called “earthing”) is another type of mindfulness practice that has gained traction in recent years. Grounding is the term used to describe the practice of “getting into the earth,” or physical coming into contact with the earth. This can be accomplished by taking a walk, barefoot, along the beach, or even simply sitting on the front lawn of your home. The studies on the subject are far fewer than those for yoga and meditation, but the existing literature does show some promise. Grounding is said to elevate depressed mood and increase general feelings of happiness and well-being.
Given the small number of studies currently available to evaluate the usefulness of grounding as an intervention of depression, knowing the precise “prescription” for the practice can be difficult. Existing studies typically utilize the practice for between 30 minutes and 1 hour in order to obtain measurable results.
Part of mindful living is engaging in mindfulness exercises in daily life. They don’t have to be long or elaborate techniques. Simple mindfulness exercises can make a big difference in your mental health. One of those mindfulness exercises is mindful walking. Depression can be challenging because it’s difficult to get out of your head. But when you practice mindfulness exercises, it helps to remove you from your thoughts. It’s a much-needed break from the weight of depression. Part of mindfulness-based stress reduction is to alleviate some of the anxiety surrounding thoughts. One way to do that is by practicing mindfulness exercises, including getting outside and taking a walk. It’s time to get out of your funk and into the present moment. Take a walk wherever you are, whether you’re in a busy urban area or strolling down a country road. These are two places (among many) where you can practice mindfulness exercises. Find a place to walk and observe your surroundings. Depressive thoughts will go through your mind, but you can always bring yourself back to the moment. Don’t try to stop thinking, because that’s not possible. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Breathe in and out and keep moving. Look at the houses around you, or notice the colors of the plants you see. All the while, keep breathing in and out and walking. When you practice mindfulness exercises, they can be full-body experiences. Mindful walking is a great sensory awareness exercise and is a welcome distraction from depression. You’re out of your house and away from the claustrophobic environment of your mind. Mindful walking is also a form of physical exercise. When you’re depressed, you need those endorphins that come out when you’re exercising. Taking a walk is a great way to get them. You’re also producing serotonin when you take walks. These are great things for your mind and body. Depression makes it difficult to move. You don’t have to control your thoughts. Depression will be there, but it takes the strain off of trying to control your thoughts when you practice mindfulness. Remind yourself that all you need to do is take a mindful walk and feel better.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a type of therapy that combines cognitive therapy, meditation, and non-judgmental thinking. You may have heard of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). In this type of treatment, individuals learn to reframe their negative thoughts into productive ones. MBCT takes this concept and integrates mindfulness. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is an ideal type of mental health treatment for someone who struggles with repetitive negative thought patterns or depressive symptoms. You learn many different mindfulness exercises that can help with anxiety and depression. You’re not just going to therapy to talk about your problems. You’re learning techniques that will help you with depression-based thoughts. When you have an arsenal of mindfulness exercises to choose from, you will be better able to handle your mental health. MBCT is an excellent form of treatment for people with depression. The objective of MBCT is to help patients with chronic depression. Your therapist is also a mindfulness teacher. They’re supporting you in learning to work through depressive symptoms. At the end of MBCT treatment, you will know many different mindfulness exercises you learned from your therapist and mindfulness teacher. You can select the ones that treat your symptoms best. When individuals engage in the treatment, they learn to target automatic thoughts that contribute to depression. If you’re struggling with negative self-talk or ruminating in depressive thoughts, MBCT is an excellent form of treatment for you. You’re practicing mindfulness while learning cognitive reframing.
Breath work is often a component of meditation and yoga, but can be a mindfulness practice in and of itself. Breath work can look different work everyone. For some, breath work means utilizing specific pranayama practices, such as alternate nostril breathing. For others, breath work involves paying close attention to breath and slowing down and consciously controlling breath in order to bring awareness to the body and calm feelings of anxiety or upset.
Breath work has been linked to improvements in mental and physical health, and has been described in some literature as a beneficial practice for depression symptoms. Breath work can also be used in clinical settings, and may be utilized by professionals as part of a holistic and well-rounded intervention strategy.
Mindfulness practices are thought to aid in mitigating depression symptoms primarily through their ability to regulate the nervous system. Mindfulness has been tied to changes in the body’s heart and respiratory rates over time, improving the overall function of both. When the heart and lungs are better able to regulate and remain consistent over time, spikes and falls are less likely to occur, and corresponding spikes and falls in mental states are less likely to occur.
Emotional states significantly impact physical states, but the reverse is also true. When the body is fine-tuned and capable of consistent regulation, fewer changes to an individual’s emotional state will occur, and emotional control and regulation will increase. In short, mindfulness practices may help people develop greater control over the expression of depression and anxiety symptoms.
Mindfulness practices have been studied increasingly often in recent years, and have demonstrated immense promise as supplementary treatment options for people who have been diagnosed with depression. From utilizing yoga’s eight limbs to daily meditation, mindfulness can help people develop coping and management tools to address their symptoms of depression. Mindfulness can also be used as part of depression treatment with a mental health professional, in an intervention called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Therapists who utilize this therapy recognize the value of mindfulness and its role in improving depression symptoms, and combine standard cognitive therapy techniques with mindfulness techniques.
If you are interested in addressing your depression symptoms with a mental health professional and want to incorporate mindfulness, consider reaching out to one of the professionals working with BetterHelp. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that allows you to speak to a health professional from the comfort and safety of your home. BetterHelp’s platform adheres to all of the same rigorous requirements and laws as a standard therapy practice, allowing users to feel comfortable and protected. Get started addressing your depression symptoms today!