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How to use mindfulness for depression

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How to use mindfulness for depression

Quick guide to medication-free mindfulness treatment

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10 minutes a day is all it takes to gain better control of your thoughts and strengthen your ability to handle strong emotions. A fact is: you only get one mind. Mindfulness will help you take good care of it.

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Complete at-home depression treatment​

The benefits of using mindfulness for depression are extensive. Practicing mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day can change the structure of your brain and prevent you from falling back into depression after getting well. Better yet, your mindfulness practice won’t produce the uncomfortable side effects that usually come with antidepressant medication (read more about medication, its effectiveness and side effects, in the science-based article Do antidepressants work?)

This read provides you with the basic strategies you need to start using mindfulness for depression, including step-by-step instructions for how to practice mindfulness meditation and your first meditation exercise. It also prepares you for the common difficulties with mindfulness practice. 

If you want to start your mindfulness practice with the help of a virtual therapist, get the 100% free depression app from Flow Neuroscience. Or, if you already have a deep understanding of mindfulness for depression, you can skip right to the next article: Top 3 beginner meditations for depression – A psychologist’s guide on how to use meditation for depression.

The benefits of mindfulness for depression

Learn to feel without fear

The benefits of mindfulness for depression are quite extensive, but not nearly given the proper amount of attention in modern health care. In 2016, a large research study including 1258 patients with recurrent depression showed that patients given mindfulness-based treatment had a significantly lower risk of falling back into depression, than those given usual care. 

There are many studies showing how regular mindfulness meditation practice changes the brain. One of them tells us that people who meditate regularly react differently to sadness than those who don’t. The study from 2010 showed that experienced meditators used the “present moment network” in their brains when feeling sad. This helped them experience the pure feeling of sadness, without becoming caught up in it or making it worse with worrying thoughts. The non-meditators used another part of the brain when feeling sad; the “evaluation network”. They frequently got caught up in thoughts about sadness, such as “why do I feel this way?”, “how can I stop this?”, “there’s something wrong”. These differences in brain function could be observed when taking pictures of the participants’ brains. Red means high brain activity and blue means low brain activity:

Mindfulness for depression with meditation

So, what is special about mindfulness? Why does mindfulness practice prevent depressive relapses? Well, an important part of mindfulness is to pay attention to thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. When meditating, you are trained to explore negative experiences without making them worse. This helps you handle strong emotions better and prevents negative experiences from triggering depressive episodes. Another beneficial effect of using mindfulness for depression is that mindfulness helps you discover early signs of depression, offering you the opportunity to treat those symptoms early, maybe even before they’ve developed into a depressive episode. As you probably know, it is usually much easier to treat depression at an early stage.

Mindfulness for depression in 5 simple steps

Are you a fan of learning by doing? If so, do the following exercise before we go on exploring the five simple steps of mindfulness for depression:

  • Focus on your breathing for about 10 seconds
  • Pay attention to the sensations in your body when you breathe in and out
  • Without judging if they’re good or bad, try to describe the sensations to yourself (e.g. you may feel expanding and contracting, chest and stomach moving, your heartbeat, tightness, relaxation…).

Congratulations! You just completed a 10-second mindfulness practice. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. When practicing mindfulness for depression, there is no need for incense, crossed legs or chanting. It’s easiest to start your mindfulness practice with recorded meditation exercises (find one below), but mindfulness can also be practiced in every-day situations, for example when taking a walk or a shower. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment without judging what you find. This can be achieved by simply closing your eyes and notice what’s going on inside you. Actually, you don’t even need to close your eyes. Some mindfulness practitioners prefer to stare into a flame or at the floor when meditating. Also, you can practice mindfulness simply by noticing the things around you, such as the colour of the sky, the smell of your coffee or the sensation of wind on your face. This means that mindfulness basically is to notice what happens, whatever that is. And you do this in five simple steps:

  1. Direct your focus to the present moment (for example by noticing sounds, smells, your breathing or the emotions in your body).
  2. Try not to judge what you find. 
  3. Get distracted by thoughts (this is part of the deal and simply how the human mind works).
  4. When you get distracted (because you will), kindly bring back your focus to the present moment.
  5. Repeat step 1-4 over and over again.

This short video (4 mins) will help explain the life changing effects of mindfulness meditation:

Teach your brain how to pay attention with mindfulness

Simply put, mindfulness is a way to practice paying attention. Are you easily distracted by thoughts? Most people are. And when going through depression, those thoughts tend to become extra negative and persistent. Using mindfulness for depression will help you become more aware of your usual automatic thought processes and you’ll discover that it’s possible to actually choose what to pay attention to. Perhaps this short audio exercise (2.5 mins) can help explain:

Depression makes us pay special attention to negative experiences, thoughts and feelings. And sometimes a depressed mind will automatically turn neutral happenings into negative ones. By practicing mindfulness we train the brain to give us a more realistic view of ourselves and others. We take control of our minds, instead of letting the autopilot decide what to focus on. 

Mindfulness meditation exercise. The 5-minute mindfulness meditation exercise below, offers you the opportunity to practice these skills. Let’s begin right away. It doesn’t matter if you sit or lie down, but if you easily fall asleep, it’s best to remain seated with both feet firmly on the ground. 

Best enjoyed with headphones:

Good work. How was it? If mindfulness meditation is new to you, perhaps you noticed some restlessness or other discomfort, or perhaps you noticed that your mind became more relaxed. Whatever experience you had, I’m pleased to inform you that it doesn’t matter. Luckily, mindfulness meditation is not supposed to feel a certain way. It can help you even though it feels boring or scary. Your only task is to pay attention to whatever happens here and now. With time, you’ll gain all the benefits.

So, how much mindfulness is enough to reduce depression?

If you’re interested in using mindfulness for depression, how much time should you spend on it? The correct answer is: we don’t really know yet. More research is needed to determine what exact dose of mindfulness meditation will most effectively reduce depression. But don’t worry, we do have access to general guidelines. 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day for 8 weeks have proven to be very beneficial for the brain. The recommended mindfulness recipe for depression is:

  • 10-30 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day for as long as you live.

As you may have noticed, the mindfulness exercise above was only 5 minutes. When building new daily routines it’s best to start small. If you’re new to meditation, start with 5-10 minutes a day, not more than that. The most important thing is that you actually do it. You’ll find more mindfulness meditation exercises and a complete mindfulness module in the depression app from Flow Neuroscience. Also, the rest of the Internet is full of meditation exercises of all kinds and lengths.

Common difficulties with mindfulness for depression

Starting a new mindfulness practice can be a difficult task if you’re unprepared for some of the common problems that beginner meditators usually experience. In this section, we’ll go through two common difficulties with using mindfulness for depression: absent-mindedness and high performance.

Absent-mindedness. A common mistake that beginner mindfulness practitioners often make is to think of thoughts as disturbing or distracting, when they’re actually an essential part of mindfulness practice. Did you notice thoughts popping into your head during the meditation exercise above? Then, congratulations! Mindfulness meditation is to constantly note distracting thoughts and bring back your focus. Over and over again. Yes, it can be frustrating, but also great exercise for your brain. Every time you bring back your focus it’s like you’re doing a bicep curl for your mind. When meditating, you will probably have negative thoughts such as “this is stupid”; “I’m too restless”; “this will never work”. All such thoughts give you the opportunity to redirect your attention and exercise your brain. And if they are really crappy thoughts, try to give them a name, such as “the Critic”, “the Judge”, “Mrs Panic” or something else. Naming these intrusive characters in your head can help getting some distance from them.

“Pardon me, Mr Critic, but I don’t have the time. I’m going to redirect my attention to my breathing now.”

That's depression talking

High performance. Some beginner meditators quit early on because they think that mindfulness meditation is supposed to feel a certain way and erroneously interpret common thoughts and feelings as problems when they’re actually a part of the practice. If we are used to thinking in terms of “results” or “achievement”, we often create new and unhelpful goals when practicing mindfulness. For example, imagine that the last three times you meditated you felt really calm and relaxed afterwards. Then you might start expecting to become equally relaxed the next time you’re meditating. It seems perfectly logical, but what’s really happened is that you’ve created a new goal with your mindfulness meditation practice: ‘to become more relaxed’. And you may have lost sight of the original goal: ‘to pay attention to whatever happens here and now without judging’. This is the hardest part of mindfulness meditation for some people, especially people who are used to high performance and achievements. So, during your next mindfulness meditation exercise, try not to expect to achieve a particular result. The best way to do this is to remind yourself of the original task:

  • Pay attention to WHATEVER happens.

In conclusion, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment without judging what you find. Practicing this skill has proven to be very beneficial for the brain and for reducing the risk of depression.

Don’t know how to begin your mindfulness practice?

Don’t worry. The free therapy app from Flow Neuroscience shows you how to make regular meditation a part of your medication-free depression treatment. It includes a complete mindfulness module with both theory and meditation exercises for beginners.

Interested in more mindfulness articles?

Read about Top 3 beginner meditations for depression.

Thank you for your attention!

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