How Mindfulness and Meditation Help My Depression

A morning routine that includes self-awareness and living in the moment helps this Austin woman control negative thinking and reduce depression symptoms.

Spike Gillespie, 52, of Austin, Texas, has been living with depression for much of her life. It goes way back, she says. “Probably to my teens, because that’s when I started binge drinking as a way of self-medicating,” she recalls.  But Gillespie says it wasn’t until she started seeing a therapist in 1995 that she was diagnosed with major depression.

In the beginning years of her depressive episodes, Gillespie would fall into bed and could barely function for weeks at a time.

Her life changed almost 15 years ago when she started practicing mindfulness and meditation as part of her depression management. Now, she spends time every day meditating and being mindful, or living in the moment.

Mindfulness meditation is about staying in the present and becoming aware of your body, says Anne McVey, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. You can use this practice to train your mind so that when negative thoughts and emotions start to creep in, you recognize them and are able to push them out, she says.

Lara Fielding, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and clinical supervisor at UCLA, explains that mindfulness meditation “helps individuals step back from the ruminative thinking processes widely found to underlie a depressive episode.”

Gillespie is convinced her daily devotion to mindfulness and meditation has helped her prevent recurrent depressive episodes. “I just don’t get deeply depressed anymore,” she says.

Devoting More Time to Meditation

Gillespie was introduced to meditation when she was in her mid-30s. It was part of a taekwondo class she took. “We would open and close each class with 60 seconds of mindful breathing,” she says. In 2000, she added yoga to her routine. Each class ended with a guided meditation, deepening her interest in the concept.

For the first few years of her home practice, she meditated just three to five minutes most days. Realizing how much it helped, she began meditating for longer and more often.

“Just this year I bumped up my schedule even more,” she says. Now it’s up to two hours most days. She sets bells on her meditation app, Insight Timer, for three minutes, and they ring at least seven times — and usually much more — before her session is over.

She practices meditation and mindfulness exercises each morning before other priorities get in the way: “It’s like exercise, if I don’t do it now, I won’t do it,” she says. Also, she adds, “it’s a nice transition between sleeping and bustling about.”

After Gillespie wakes and has coffee, she sits on a pillow in her pajamas and meditates. She focuses on her breathing and body sensations and on the moment at hand; she doesn’t let her mind wander to depressive thoughts. “It gives me this very grounding start to the day,” she says. “It gives me the feeling, ‘I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.’ It has a very calming effect and carries me through the day.”

Gillespie’s passion for meditation led her to start the blog Meditation Kicks Ass in 2013, and a year later she published a memoir, Sit. Stay. Heal: How Meditation Changed My Mind, Grew My Heart, and Saved My Ass.

Meditation and Medication

Mindfulness meditation training — also called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy — can be effective in treating major depressive disorder and a viable alternative toantidepressant medication in some people, Fielding says. “But if you’re experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms, which are impeding your ability to function, antidepressant medication remains the first line of defense, she says.

For many people, she says, a combination — medication taken together with a formal meditation practice — can change the nature of their depressive thinking.

Just 30 minutes of meditation a day appears to improve symptoms of depression, says Madhav Goyal, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and lead author on an analysis of previously published research in JAMA Internal Medicine in March 2014. The Hopkins researchers found meditation appeared to provide as much relief from depression symptoms as antidepressants did in other studies.

And mindfulness meditation may be just as good as maintenance medication when tapering off antidepressants, according to a study published in The Lancet in July 2015.

Starting informally and building to longer practices (like Gillespie did) can be very effective, Fielding says. The more you practice mindfulness and meditation, the more it helps, McVey adds.

“If meditation doesn’t become a practice that you do every day, you’re going to lose the benefit because like anything else, practice makes perfect,” she says.

Last Updated: 2/22/2016

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