When we are depressed we feel like our whole world has turned around. The things that normally make us happy become loathsome to do. Our appetite for food and intimacy dies down. We lose the energy and interest to keep talking with our friends and family and close ourselves in as we try to look for ways to overcome our depression.
Medication may be our first consideration, or therapy, or sometimes we may result to drugs if we feel nothing is working. All these are ways we try to use to either solve our problems or hide from them.
Mindfulness is an intervention that has shown great potential in dealing with depression and can make a good technique to help with our situations. And here we will see how the practice of mindfulness works in-depth, where current research on mindfulness stands when it comes to handling depression, and how we can build the habit of practicing mindfulness for managing depression and other benefits it is linked to.
The Brain on Depression and Its Negative Effects
According to the World Health Organization, about 5% of adults below the age of 60 and about 5.7% of adults above 60 years old all over the world suffer from depression. This translates to about 280 million people globally who are depressed (1).
Depression is often overlooked and considered an insufficient reason to visit a health care professional because we often tend to think it can’t affect our lives as much. However, the truth is that depression can contribute to low productivity at work that may lead to getting fired or arguments and distance from family members that may cause quarrels and separation, and on the extreme, it may lead to suicide. So it is worth visiting a doctor for professional help.
Depression affects the brain in a big way and causes structural changes that affect us differently.
Firstly, clinical depression can cause reduced oxygen levels in the brain. The brain needs oxygen to function and when there is low supply, there is bound to be trouble and various cognitive functions become problematic. Some of the negative implications of low oxygen in the brain which happen in minutes include temporary memory loss, difficulty with remaining attentive, difficulty with moving various body parts, and inability to make good judgments (2).
Secondly, research has shown that clinical depression, not the regular emotional waves of feeling sad once in a while, may cause shrinkage to different parts of the brain including the thalamus (which is responsible for modulating our levels of alertness, wakefulness, and sleep), the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory and learning abilities) and the prefrontal cortices (which are associated with planning, emotional regulation, and rational thinking) which brings about negative effects like increased anxiety and sense of hopelessness, trouble remembering important details, guilt, having a hard time with making decisions, brain fog, constant mental distraction, and troubled sleep. If the condition persists, worse conditions like brain death, coma, and seizure become a high possibility (3).
Thirdly, brain inflammation is also noted in individuals with depression. And while it has not been fully established whether its the depression that causes the inflammation or the inflammation which brings about the depression, the brain inflammation goes as far as affecting the part of the brain known as the amygdala (which is responsible for the fear and pleasure a person experiences) and increases its size. The increase in size results in social anxiety, panic, self-blaming, restlessness, and guilt not to mention irregular sleeping patterns (4).
Medication and therapy are some of the popular methods that have been used over the years to combat depression but like anything else, their results vary from person to person. Not all people who have clinical depression have benefited entirely from the two techniques. That is why considering the idea of cultivating the habit of practicing mindfulness can come in handy, as an alternative, as it may help control the negative effects of depression and help us manage ourselves and our lives as we seek long-term solutions to the problems leading us to depression.
What Research Says About Mindfulness For Depression
There has been quite some research on how mindfulness influences depression and most of the studies suggest that mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness-based practices such as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program can help to regulate certain factors that contribute to depression.
A review of studies on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy indicates that it helps us become aware of the negative thought patterns and rumination that comes with depression and train us to separate ourselves from them by controlling and switching our attention using different mental exercises. It has been suggested that the MBCT intervention helps to reduce the chances of a relapse in depression for those people who have recovered and also goes a long way in preventing the first incident of depression in people who are about to fall into it (5).
Another study that aimed at investigating the structural, as well as functional brain network changes linked to depression symptoms, that are brought about by 40 days of training in mindfulness meditation, found that the training leads to changes in different brain regions including the precuneus, which is associated with episodic memory retrieval, unifying information linked to our perception of our environment, mental imagery processes and proper reaction to pain. The changes led to a reduction in depressive symptoms (6).
Yet another meta-analysis of more than 200 studies on mindfulness-based therapy and depression worked with PubMed and PsychInfo studies and reviewed 209 studies. 207 of the studies were post-treatment assessments while the other two were followed up studies. The analysis concluded that mindfulness-based therapy shows effectiveness in treating different psychological issues and is most helpful with bringing high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression (7).
A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry sought to find out the clinical effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) on late-life depression and its mechanism of action. The experiment involved 60 participants that were divided into 2 groups. The first group received the MBCT treatment plus the Treatment As Usual approach while the second group only received the Treatment As Usual approach. After 8 weeks of the treatment, they then had a 3 months follow-up. The study found that the MBCT group showed more improvements when it came to anxiety and late-life depressive symptoms. The improvements can be attributed to how MBCT reinforced the structural and functional connections between the middle frontal gyrus and the amygdala in the brain (8).
There are other various studies that point to the possible effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions in handling depression and its variations by influencing different parts of our brain and certain traits within us (9)(10)(11)(12)(13).
The Importance of Mindfulness in Our Lives
Mindfulness is a practice that goes a long way in our lives. It helps us regulate our emotions, improves our focus and attention levels, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves our overall cognitive performance. That is why we are encouraged to consider getting into mindfulness, not just to help us handle depression but also because of the other added benefits of the practice.
Now getting into mindfulness does not involve a lot of work. It is a practice you can engage in for a few minutes during your break without it affecting your daily schedule. There are different ways to practice mindfulness.
1. Mindfulness meditation – You can work with mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is pretty much training in mindfulness through meditation in a controlled way. Here, you take as little as 1 to 2 minutes and sit down to observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the present moment. Here is a detailed guide for beginners on mindfulness meditation.
2. Mindfulness techniques – You can choose to work with mindfulness techniques such as mindful walking, mindful eating, mindful working, mindful speaking and listening, mindful showering, and mindful cooking among others. Resting awareness, body scan meditation, loving-kindness meditation, note-taking are other forms of mindfulness that help to cultivate the attribute of mindfulness in our lives. The idea behind these practices is to get us to incorporate mindfulness in our everyday activities so as to be more mindful through the day and in turn improve the quality of our daily experiences and our overall wellbeing.
3. MBSR or MBCT – You can also choose to engage in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. These mindfulness-based therapies are administered by trained, qualified, and experienced experts so you may have to visit a nearby health center in your locality that offers any of them or the one you are interested in depending on your needs and desires.
Making the effort of engaging in any form of mindfulness and cultivating the habit of doing it frequently and making it a routine can improve our mental, physical, and even emotional health in a big way and can reduce the many visits to the doctor that you would otherwise have to make.