Meditation may positively affect the brain and support mental health. An individual who finds a type of meditation that suits them and that they can practice daily may find some relief from depression.

Depression affects around 16 million adults in the United States every year. Doctors treat depression with medication or psychological therapies. In addition, there is some evidence that meditation may be helpful.

This article reviews the potential positive effects of meditation on the body and mind and how this may be beneficial for symptoms of depression.

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The term meditation refers to various practices that focus on mind and body integration to calm the mind and enhance overall well-being. Some types of meditation focus on mindfulness or a particular sensation, such as breathing.

There are various potential positive effects of meditation on the mind and benefits on the symptoms of depression.

May reduce inflammation

Studies indicate that depression may be linked to inflammation. Chronic inflammation may trigger changes and damage the brain’s networks, causing dysfunction.

According to a 2017 review, mind-body interventions (MBI) such as mindfulness meditation may downregulate the expression of genes involved in inflammation. The authors suggest that MBIs have the opposite effect of chronic stress and may reduce the risk of inflammation-related conditions such as depression.

Another study found that people who practiced regular yoga and meditation were more easily able to manage stress and inflammatory responses compared to those who did not practice.

May alter the brain’s structure

A 2020 study examined the effects of focused attention meditation (FAM) on participants that had never tried it before. The meditation sessions consisted of 14 guided sessions, each lasting 45 minutes, and home practice over 7 weeks. Participants used elements of breathing and retracting the senses by blending out environmental stimuli.

The study found changes to gray matter, neurons, and signaling in the brain. This positively impacted anxiety scores and behavior.

The authors suggest that dynamic alterations in brain structure can occur very rapidly within a time range of a few weeks. Further, the results indicate that FAM induces brain changes that are different from other meditation techniques and positively influence health and well-being.

Stimulates the vagus nerve

According to a 2018 review, meditation and mindfulness may positively affect the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts to “rest and digest” the body and mind. The vagus nerve activity is modulated by breathing, and the review explains that breathing exercises such as meditation can calm the mind and benefit mental health.

Changes in responses to negative thinking

Part of the practice of meditation and mindfulness is not responding to thoughts. Instead, meditations may involve simply observing thoughts and letting them pass without emotion. This may be helpful for someone who has patterns of negative thinking.

However, people with mental health conditions or past traumatic experiences should consult a qualified healthcare or mental health professional about the most suitable way to address negative thought patterns.

Read more about the benefits of meditation.

There are several different types of meditation and approaches to mindfulness. Certain types may benefit the symptoms of depression.

Mindfulness meditation

The practice of mindfulness involves maintaining attention or awareness of the present moment without making judgments.

Programs that teach meditation may combine mindfulness into other activities. For example, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy integrates mindfulness practices with aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and may be beneficial for depression.

Breathing meditation

Focusing on the breath as a form of meditation can help someone relax or fall asleep if they are anxious or have trouble sleeping. However, for most types of meditation, the aim is to stay alert for the most benefits.

Loving-kindness meditation

Loving-kindness meditation focuses on compassion, care, and tenderness for oneself and others.

This type of meditation directs well wishes and goodwill first to oneself and then to others. This may have positive effects on self-esteem and accepting others.

Body scan meditation

A body scan meditation focuses on body parts from the top of the head to the toes.

For example, someone may begin by breathing meditation and then guide the mind to different areas of the body, becoming curious about any sensations, pain, or discomfort, and simply acknowledging this. They may also consciously aim to relax the muscles or let go of any negativity.

A 2015 study found that the body scan and breathing meditations improved depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in veterans.

Walking meditation

Walking meditation involves using mindfulness practices while walking. For example, someone may focus on the breath and then notice the senses individually. This may include listening to birdsong or feeling the breeze on the skin.

There are plenty of resources to help someone start meditating. The following tips may be beneficial.

Find a comfortable position

Finding a position that allows someone to stay reasonably still for some time is important. Depending on a person’s physical ability, this may include sitting on the floor, sitting in a chair, or lying down.

Practice at the same time each day

Practicing meditation at the same time each day can build it into a healthy habit. It may help to put meditation as a recurring event in the diary or set a reminder at the same time each day.

Start with the breath

The breath is a crucial element of meditation, and trying breathing exercises first may help someone understand the basics. In addition, the breath is always present, so someone can focus on the breath whenever they feel anxious or unable to cope.

Give it time

As with trying anything new, meditation may initially feel odd and can take time to get used to. However, many people use meditation for mental health throughout their life and report benefits, so it’s worth sticking with the practice.

If someone is experiencing symptoms of depression, such as a persistent low mood, loss of interest in activities, and decreased energy or fatigue, they should consult a mental health professional.

A mental health professional may recommend medication or psychotherapy to help treat and manage depression.

Read more about signs and symptoms of depression.

There are various types of meditation that people can try to help manage the symptoms of depression. Evidence indicates that meditation may have positive effects on the brain and overall well-being.

Individuals may need to try more than one type of meditation to find the most effective one for them. Practicing daily and giving it time to become familiar may help someone to incorporate meditation as a healthy practice to support their mental health.