Experiencing Depression? How Meditation can help.

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Composed by Rebecca Bourhill

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Introduction to Depression.

Depression is a worldwide problem that can occur at any age. Although more common in people in their 30’s and 40’s, depression is now reaching our younger population due to various factors discussed later in the blog.

Depression drains the life-force from your body, leaving you with little to no energy, lethargy, deep sadness, despair, and hopelessness. If not addressed, extended bouts of depression can cause an individual to be house-bound, secluded, and with chronic health-related conditions.

There are many different forms of depression ranging from chronic mild depression to more severe major depressive disorders like manic depression or bipolar disorder.

Although the exact causes of depression are not known, there are three components that are known to contribute to its development. Factors include chemical or hormone imbalance, genetics and trauma.

Importance of applying Buddhist practices such as mindfulness, compassion, and empathy have been shown to have numerous benefits for mental and emotional well-being.

Also read: Convalescence and Meditation and Masking – How to unmask and uncover the true you


The Origin of Depression: chemical explanations; trauma; and genetics.

Chemical

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers used by nerve cells in the brain to communicate between neurons. In states of depression three primary neurotransmitters are out of balance.

The first is Dopamine. When an individual reaches a milestone, gets a work promotion or accomplishes a goal, dopamine is responsible for the ‘happy feeling’ that pulses through the body. Dopamine is the brain’s reward chemical.

Second, norepinephrine – the fight/flight chemical, if constantly raised due to long or regular exposure to trauma, an individual will tend to live in a state of hypervigilance in preparation for the next trauma inducing event to happen.

The third chemical is serotonin, known as the “feel-good chemical”. If there is an imbalance of serotonin, which can often be the case in depression, SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are sometimes used to increase serotonin levels. Not only is this chemical responsible for one’s mood but it also plays a role in other important body functions.

Although it was thought that low levels of these neurotransmitters were the primary cause, research is showing that there are other factors that can bring about depression.

Trauma

A traumatic life event can trigger a depressive episode, along with anxiety. Extended periods of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) caused by trauma, creates a continuous negative thought pattern which can lead to depression. Symptoms of both depression and PTSD overlap and often exist together.

Genetics

Another relatively recent field of study is intergenerational trauma. Evidence is emerging which shows that trauma can be passed from one generation down through the next five generations. 

A well-known study of intergenerational trauma using children of Holocaust survivors was published in 1966 by a Canadian psychiatrist. In the article children of Holocaust survivors had an increased likelihood of depression, PTSD and anxiety. Trauma from the Holocaust created a change in the survivor’s genetics due to heightened exposure to the stress hormone cortisol. These genes were passed down to offspring.


Meditation and depression: How the brain responds to meditation

Although the practice of meditation can be traced back in time for many thousands of years, it is only recently that it has become a widely acknowledged tool to manage depression, anxiety, and mental health challenges.

The question needs to be asked: “Why or how does meditation help depression?”

To help understand how the brain changes during meditation, we look at the brain’s neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences and environmental changes.

In order for the brain to adapt and change, new neural pathways need to be created. Originally believed to only happen in childhood, it has been proven that new neural pathways are created throughout one’s lifetime. During bouts of depression, the creation of new pathways are disrupted. This is where meditation comes in.

Meditation can not only stop these depression induced pathway disruptors, it is now known that meditation can help rewire the brain and create new neural pathways. These physiological pathways created through meditation enable us to regulate and manage emotions more effectively by changing the structure of the brain’s hippocampus which controls emotional regulation and in the amygdala which manages our flight/flight responses to signs of danger in our environment.

Chemically, meditation reduces cortisol levels. High levels of stress can lead to stress-induced depression. Ultimately, lowering cortisol levels through meditation may reduce the risk of depression.


Meditation as a tool to manage depression

Through meditation we learn to observe our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations without reactivity. Through meditation, the meditator is able to interrupt the unconscious stimulus/response cycle. Learning to recognize, acknowledge and let the stimuli – the thoughts and feelings go and detach from them can help break the cycle of uncontrolled reactive responses.

Having a single focus for the mind, either the breath or a physical sensation, gives you an anchor to come back to when distracting thoughts or emotions arise. Meditation creates space between stimulus and response patterning helping you respond to stressful, emotionally charged situations in new, creative and potentially healing ways. By being able to return to a grounded and centred state we are able to respond from a state of calm instead of from a place of defence or panic.

Extra reading: The Path of Compassion


Conclusion

Depression has become a common mental condition through the world. It occurs in all ages, races, and cultures. The common causes of depression are known to be chemical imbalance, exposure to trauma, and inherited genetic dispositions. There is a growing field of response to help alleviate the consequence of depression in one’s life, work and family constellations. Psychological and psychiatric therapies, natural medicines, diet, and physical exercise are all know to help.

Born as the Earth School, a Zen School of the Heart, offers several free training programs related to meditation, authentic communication, and Nature Based Wisdom Teachings (NBWT) to help you or someone close to you manage the effects of depression.


Referencing

Schimelpfening, N., (2022), The Chemistry of Depression, Very Well Mind,

https://www.verywellmind.com/the-chemistry-of-depression-1065137

Iliades, C., (2016). How Trauma can Lead to Depression. Everyday Health,

https://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/how-trauma-leads-to-depression.aspx

DeAngelis, T., (2019). The Legacy of Trauma, American Psychological Association,

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-

trauma#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20first%20articles,14).

Coelho, S., (2022). Cortisol and Depression: What to know, PsychCentral,

https://psychcentral.com/depression/cortisol-and-depression