Meditation is often celebrated for its positive effects on well-being. But can it play a role in easing symptoms of depression?

Although people have been practicing meditation for thousands of years, it has recently gained more mainstream popularity as a way to reduce symptoms of stress, enhance focus, and boost productivity, among other benefits.

Some people have also turned to meditation for managing mental health conditions — such as anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and depression — with the aim of “retraining” the mind and subduing unhelpful thoughts and difficult emotions.

Because meditation is something anyone can do, anywhere and at any time, it certainly seems worth considering. But can it really have an impact on depression?

If you live with depression, you may experience a range of signs and symptoms, from deep feelings of loneliness and worthlessness to trouble sleeping, eating, and socializing. Meditation is believed to help support you through some of these effects.

“At its core, it’s a way of training your attention so that, instead of finding yourself lost in difficult thoughts and feelings, you can gain new perspective and insight,” says Laura Coleman, meditation expert and founder of Be. Modern Meditation.

“As you train your ability to stay in the present moment, without judging it and getting caught up in your mind, the symptoms of depression become more manageable,” she continues. “[It] wakes up your awareness to the full range of your experience, rather than focusing on the negative.”

The benefits of meditation extend further than just helping you become more “in tune” with your thoughts. Research indicates that meditation can have a positive physical influence on the mind and body — including in some areas involved with depression.

It may reduce inflammation

In recent years, scientists have associated depression with inflammation in the brain and body. The relationship is cyclical: Higher inflammation is linked to worsened depressive symptoms, while depressive symptoms (such as stress and poor sleep) are believed to increase inflammation.

Research indicates that meditation can help lower inflammation.

In a 2017 analysis of 18 studies, the authors concluded that meditation and similar mind-body techniques, like yoga, may significantly reduce inflammation. The authors note, though, that more studies are needed that account for lifestyle factors such as sleep, diet, and exercise.

A 2019 study on 79 males found that those who engaged in regular yoga-meditation had notably lower inflammation and stress levels than age-matched controls. But this study had a small sample size, so again, more research is needed to support these results.

It could alter the brain’s shape and size

Scans have shown that people with depression often experience changes in the structure of key parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus (memory), thalamus (sleep and wakefulness), and amygdala (fear).

Some research suggests that regular meditation could change the brain too.

A 2020 study of 27 meditation newcomers found the amount of gray matter — brain tissue that processes and passes on signals — had increased in several areas after just 7 weeks of practice.

Meanwhile, research from 2014 found that 8 weeks of mindfulness training led to greater cortical thickness (thinner measures are related to cognitive impairment).

It helps stimulate the vagus nerve

Running between the brain to the abdomen, the vagus nerve plays a part in everything from heart rate and inflammation to fear and mood — and low activity within it has been linked with depression.

Research suggests that meditation can play a role in activating this nerve, which in turn can lead to improved mood and an enhanced sense of relaxation.

Variety is the spice of life, so you’ll be pleased to hear that there’s more than one approach to meditation, and a number of these approaches have been shown to benefit people experiencing depression.

Mindfulness meditation

Perhaps the most recognized and commonly practiced variety, this “is particularly effective in easing depression symptoms,” says Coleman.

Why? “It has a focus on your here-and-now experience with a quality of curious awareness,” she explains. “This helps you to notice patterns of rumination and overthinking. You can then make a choice about how to respond, rather than being consumed by it.”

Breathing meditation

Focusing on your breath can help steer your brain away from negative thoughts, improve oxygen intake, and lower cortisol levels.

A 2017 study found that individuals with major depressive disorder who engaged in this form of meditation for 2 months saw a significant decrease in symptoms.

Loving-kindness meditation

Perhaps the most heartwarming of all meditations, this requires you to focus on happy, loving thoughts about yourself and others.

“Just like mindfulness meditation, it trains your brain to respond differently to the stressors of depression,” Coleman explains. “But it also cultivates increased feelings of connection with others that can help combat the isolation of depression.”

Body scan meditation

Whether you want to move from your head down or from your toes up, this approach involves slowly bringing awareness to each body part — noticing any sensations and then consciously easing the muscles into relaxation.

A 2016 study of U.S. veterans found that body scan meditation in combination with mindfulness was particularly effective in reducing symptoms of depression.

Walking meditation

Walking isn’t just good for your physical health — it’s great for your mental well-being too. And you can combine it with meditation for a double whammy of goodness. This approach is exactly as it sounds: recognizing and appreciating the smells, sights, and sounds of everything around you.

A small 2014 study of older adults with depression found that symptoms significantly decreased among those who walked mindfully but did not decrease in those who simply went for a walk.

Thanks to its increased popularity, there’s no shortage of great resources offering all kinds of meditations.

Apps:

  • Headspace offers a wide range of guided sessions, which can be particularly helpful if you’re new to the practice. The app has meditations to aid in specific areas, such as sadness, sleep, anxiety, and loneliness.
  • Calm provides a variety of guided sessions with topics including easing depression, mindful walking, loving kindness, and self-esteem.
  • Breathly is free to download and use. It’s simple in design and content, offering brief explanations of different breathing meditation techniques and a timer function, so you can engage in meditations without being distracted by counting.

YouTube:

  • The Mindful Movement offers hundreds of free videos covering positivity, calmness, reducing anxiety, and everything in between.
  • Goodful has a partially guided 10-minute meditation for depression.
  • Mindful Peace provides a 20-minute depression-specific practice.

Books:

Meditation in a variety of forms can be a great support in helping ease symptoms of depression. It’s worth considering as a complementary approach to professional treatments.

If you’re a beginner or overwhelmed with thoughts, the prospect of meditating can be daunting. Try to be patient and avoid putting pressure on yourself. You might also need to try a few techniques before you find one that resonates and feels comfortable.

However, research suggests that some people experience adverse side effects from meditation, such as increased anxiety, so if engaging in the practice makes your symptoms worse, it’s best to discontinue and speak with a healthcare professional if you’re concerned.

Remember: Meditation is meant to be a positive experience. So try to take your time, be kind to your mind, and enjoy the calm.