How meditation helps with depression

Regular exercise can help your brain better manage stress and anxiety that can cause depression.


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Depression remains a major health problem for the elderly. It affects about 20% of adults age 65 and older, and regular depression can lead to higher risks of heart disease and death from disease. It also affects people’s daily lives by making them more socially isolated and affecting cognitive function, especially memory.

In fact, a study of 1,111 people (average age 71), published online May 9, 2018, by Neurologyfound that those with more depressive symptoms also had poorer episodic memory — the ability to recall specific experiences and events.

There are many ways to treat depression. Antidepressants and psychotherapy are the usual first-line treatments, but ongoing research has suggested that regular meditation practice may help by changing the way the brain responds to stress and anxiety.

How your brain reacts

Stress and anxiety are major triggers of depression, and meditation can change your response to those feelings. “Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions, and physical sensations creep in — which often happens when you’re feeling stressed and anxious,” says Dr. John W. Denninger, director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Meditation has been found to alter certain brain areas specifically related to depression. For example, scientists have shown that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) becomes hyperactive in depressed people. The mPFC is often referred to as the “me center” because this is where you process information about yourself, such as worrying about the future and worrying about the past. When people get stressed about life, the mPFC goes into overdrive.

Another brain region associated with depression is the amygdala, or “fear center.” This is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which triggers the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol in response to fear and perceived danger.

These two brain areas interact to cause depression. The ego center gets excited by responding to stress and anxiety, and the fear center’s response leads to a spike in cortisol levels to fight off a danger that’s only in your head. Research has shown that meditation helps break the connection between these two brain regions. “When you meditate, you are better able to ignore the negative sensations of stress and anxiety, which partly explains why stress levels go down when you meditate,” says Dr. Denninger.

Another way meditation helps the brain is by protecting the hippocampus (a brain region involved in memory). One study found that people who meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks increased the volume of gray matter in their hippocampus, and other research has shown that people who suffer from recurrent depression often have a smaller hippocampus.

Learning about meditation

There are many online tutorials that teach you the basics of meditation. (You can find guided meditations from the Benson-Henry Institute at /bhi.) You can also gain more insight and instruction by reading books by top meditation experts like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, and Tara Brach. Many local yoga studios also offer beginner and advanced meditation classes.

Change your thinking

The purpose of meditation is not to set aside stress or block negative thinking, but rather to notice those thoughts and feelings while understanding that you don’t have to act on them. This can be as simple as closing your eyes and repeating a single phrase or word, or counting breaths. “This helps take some distance from those negative thoughts or stressful feelings, helping you recognize that even though they’re affecting you, they’re not you,” says Dr. Denninger.

Meditation can also help prepare the brain for stressful situations. For example, meditating for a few moments before a doctor’s appointment or social situation can help take the brain and body out of the stress response and into a state of relative calm.

But just like following a proper diet and exercise, it takes time to feel results from regular meditation. “But with practice, meditation can help many people control how they respond to the stress and anxiety that often lead to depression,” says Dr. Denninger.

How meditation helps with depression

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