Benefits of Meditation for Depression: Why It Works So Well

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Evidence shows that meditation is as effective as standard medical treatments for depression. Learn about effective guided meditation resources.

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No one knows for sure what causes depression.

The prevailing theories are that it’s caused by a neurotransmitter imbalance, structural or functional changes in the brain, underlying health conditions, genetic propensity, emotional trauma, or stressful life circumstances. (12, 3, 4)

One thing that makes meditation a standout depression treatment is that it brings relief regardless of the cause.

The proven benefits of meditation are so impressive that if drug companies could bottle them, it would rival their best-selling antidepressant!

Meditation Outperforms Standard Medical Treatments for Depression

There’s an abundance of evidence that meditation is beneficial for depression.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University reviewed over 18,000 mindfulness meditation studies and concluded that, of all the benefits of meditation, its three best uses are for depression, anxiety, and pain relief. (5)

Currently, the two standard medical treatments for depression are antidepressant medications and cognitive behavioral therapy. (6)

Research confirms that meditation can be as effective as either of these and, in some cases, works even better.

Depression is a recurring disorder and up to 80% of people with depression experience a relapse at some point. (7)

Both antidepressants and meditation have prevented relapses in roughly half of patients who use them.

Meditation actually performed somewhat better, and without the unwanted side effects of antidepressants. (8)

Meditation has been found to be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for both depression and anxiety. (9)

When appropriate, meditation also makes a useful adjunct to CBT.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a technique that integrates Eastern meditation with Western cognitive therapy.

It was developed by a team of psychologists at three prestigious universities — the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Toronto.

Research on MBCT has found it to work better than antidepressants or counseling for depression. (10)

Four months into one MBCT study on depression, three-quarters of the participants felt so much better that they were able to stop taking their antidepressants.

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Meditation Improves Quality of Life

When you’re depressed, life can be a struggle.

Meditation can help your brain work better so that your life flows more smoothly.

A regular meditation practice can deliver substantial improvements in mental well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, and depression symptoms. (11)

It makes you more emotionally stable and resilient to stress. (12, 13)

It diminishes fruitless worry and tames negative mental chatter. (1415)

Meditation can help you think better and work smarter by increasing your creativity, productivity, work performance, ability to focus, memory, and other cognitive skills. (1617, 1819, 2021)

It enables you to make better decisions, which can positively impact all areas of your life. (22)

It boosts willpower so you’re better equipped to build healthy new habits and quit those that aren’t serving you. (23)

Meditation encourages better relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. (24, 25)

It can make you feel less lonely and socially isolated. (26)

It inspires altruism and increases compassion towards both yourself and others. (27, 28)

If depression has you feeling angry or aggressive, meditation can help with that as well. (29)

Meditation reduces suicidal thoughts and self-harming thoughts and behaviors. (30)

Depression is linked to a cluster of other physical and mental health issues.

Sometimes they are the byproduct of depression and sometimes they are a contributing factor.

But either way, meditation reduces symptoms and improves quality of life for anyone with depression-related disorders including: (31323334, 35, 36, 3738)

  • anxiety disorders
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • binge eating
  • bipolar disorder
  • cancer
  • chronic pain
  • depressive relapse
  • fears and phobias
  • postpartum depression
  • psychosis
  • substance abuse
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6 Ways Meditation Works to Alleviate Depression

Now that you know the extent of meditation’s impressive benefits for depression, let’s take a look at the major underlying mechanisms to learn more about how meditation works.

1. Meditation Reduces Stress, a Risk for Depression

Of all the health benefits of meditation, stress reduction is probably the most widely known and readily accepted by both mainstream medicine and the general public.

Stress puts you at greater risk for depression and literally causes your brain to shrink. (3940)

One main way meditation stops the damage of stress is by reducing the output of the stress hormone cortisol.

When your life seems to be one crisis after another, your body pours out cortisol.

Chronically elevated cortisol has some serious health implications.

Excess cortisol significantly contributes to depression and many stress-related disorders including anxiety, digestive upset, heart disease, sleep disorders, obesity, and memory loss. (41)

Cortisol kills existing brain cells and halts the production of new ones, thereby increasing your risk for degenerative brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life. (42)

Stress creates more neural connections in the fear center of your brain, the amygdala. (43, 44)

This makes you more fearful, causing even more stress.

Meditation minimizes or stops cortisol production to halt the stress response. (45)

2. Meditation Balances Brain Chemicals and Hormones

Meditation can help to balance your neurotransmitters, chemicals used by brain cells to communicate with each other.

There are two neurotransmitters strongly linked to depression — serotonin and dopamine.

Serotonin-based depression is usually accompanied by feelings of anxiety, while dopamine-based depression is characterized by feelings of listlessness and apathy.

Most antidepressant drugs work by increasing serotonin; a few increase dopamine instead.

Finding the right antidepressant is hit-or-miss.

But meditation can balance your neurotransmitter levels whether your depression is due to serotonin or dopamine deficiency. (46, 47)

Another way meditation can help depression is by increasing DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone).

DHEA is a master hormone associated with youth and vigor, and levels naturally decrease with age. (48)

Treating depression with DHEA supplements resulted in a 50% reduction in depression symptoms in half of study participants. (49)

Meditation increases your body’s own levels of DHEA naturally. (50)

3. Meditation Calms Inflammation, a Root Cause of Depression

One emerging theory of depression is that it’s caused by brain inflammation.

Brain inflammation is now thought to be, at least in part, responsible for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. (51)

Meditation has been found to specifically reduce inflammation of the nervous system. (52)

Inflammation is controlled in part by certain genes.

You might expect that changing gene expression could take a long time, but measurable changes in the activity of pro-inflammatory genes has been detected after as few as eight hours of meditation. (53)

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4. Meditation Quiets Depression’s Negative Mental Chatter

The average person thinks roughly 60,000 thoughts per day.

Alarmingly, 90% of them are repetitive and 70% of them are negative. (5455)

Unsurprisingly, all this negative mental chatter does your mental health and happiness no good.

People who are depressed are particularly prone to rumination — obsessing over problems without resolution — which further entrenches their depression. (56)

Meditation can quiet your mind and help control the negative thoughts that fuel depression.

Meditation can even stop the cycle of depression and rumination in those with lifelong mood disorders. (57)

5. Meditation Builds a Healthier Brain

A healthy brain is the first line of defense against depression.

Here are the most notable ways that meditation optimizes the function and structure of your brain.

Meditation increases circulation to the brain. (58)

Blood flow delivers the nutrients, energy, hormones, neurotransmitters, and oxygen the brain needs to function.

Meditation puts your brain in a desirable brainwave state which enhances the ability to learn, improves focus and concentration, inspires creativity, and induces a state of deep relaxation. (59)

Meditation supports the brain’s ability to regenerate new brain cells and new neural connections.

It measurably increases brain volume, especially in the hippocampus (the seat of memory) and in the cortex (the area of the brain associated with attention). (606162)

People who meditate have stronger neural connections between different parts of the brain. (63)

Their brains show less atrophy due to age and have more neural synapses. (64)

Brain scans reveal that meditators have reduced activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, even when they’re not meditating. (65)

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6. Meditation Helps Depression-Related Insomnia

One common symptom of depression is insomnia.

No one feels their best when they can’t sleep and lack of sleep can certainly make depression symptoms worse. (66)

It’s well established that chronic insomnia contributes to depression and anxiety disorders. (67)

Lack of sleep can leave you feeling stressed out, easily angered, and mentally exhausted.

It destroys optimism, skews judgment, and makes you less social.

Insomnia undermines the long-term health and function of your brain since it’s during sleep that your brain washes away toxins and metabolic debris, repairs itself, consolidates memories, and creates new brain cells. (686970)

Meditation improves both the quality and quantity of sleep. (71)

It puts you in a brainwave state similar to sleep, shuts down mental chatter, and naturally increases the sleep hormone melatonin. (72)

Sources of Meditations for Depression

An easy way to find guided meditations for depression is with the free music streaming service Spotify.

Begin by searching for “meditation for depression” or “loving kindness meditation,” which is widely considered one of the most effective kinds of meditations for depression. (73)

You’ll find plenty of meditations here to get you started.

Guided Meditation Apps for Depression

There are numerous meditation apps, but few offer meditations specifically for depression.

One exception is InsightTimer.

Whether you are new to meditation or a seasoned meditator, you can’t go wrong with this extremely popular app.

It’s the #1 free meditation app for both Android and iOS.

It gives you access to thousands of free guided meditations, music tracks, talks, and courses by some of the most well-known names in meditation, including Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

InsightTimer offers playlists for over 60 categories of meditations organized by benefits.

These include boosting or managing stress, sleep quality, strength and resilience, anger, compassion, patience, happiness, and just about any other positive trait you might aspire to develop.

It has a collection of over 100 guided meditations and music tracks to relieve depression.

BuddhifyOmvana, and Headspace are other popular apps that have meditations on depression-related topics such as stress, compassion, and insomnia.

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Meditation Courses for Depression

Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace for online educational courses.

A quick search for “meditation for depression” reveals dozens of results.

A few are free, but most are in the $10 range.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a precursor of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. (74)

He founded the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness which now offers an online course, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

While you can take the course at the university, it’s also available online, delivered live via video conference.

This program is not inexpensive, but is particularly beneficial for anyone suffering from recurrent depression.

A more affordable option is to pick up a copy of The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn is one of this book’s co-authors.

The core of this book outlines an 8-week program that uses mindfulness to control negative thought patterns that fuel depression, cutting the risk of depression relapse in half.

The feedback for this program on Amazon is overwhelmingly positive.

Is Meditation Right for Everyone with Depression?

You may rightly question whether everyone with depression can benefit from meditation.

Meditation professionals and researchers agree that there are times that meditation could make depression worse.

It’s best not to start a meditation practice while in the middle of a bout of extreme depression.

According to Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist teacher, author, and founder of Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, there are two reasons meditation can be problematic.

First, learning to meditate can be hard and when you’re very depressed, you have few inner resources to fall back on.

It’s easy to feel like a failure which can fuel negative thoughts and depression.

Also, people who are depressed are prone to ruminate and meditation can inadvertently provide another opportunity to do so.

Lastly, be aware that meditation is not a quick fix.

Ideally, you should start meditating when you feel well enough to do the following:

  • You must be patient. It generally takes up to eight weeks to experience any positive changes. (75)
  • You must be persistent. You must meditate regularly to reap the benefits.
  • You must be compassionate towards yourself. Meditation is not always easy and being hard on yourself will be counterproductive.

Finding Professional Meditation Help for Depression

If you are not certain meditation is right for you, seek professional guidance.

There are many mental health care professionals that use meditation in their practice.

You can find mindfulness-based (MBCT) psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, support groups and treatment centers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom using Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist tool.

Meditation for Depression: Take the Next Step

The evidence is clear. Regular meditation can make you happier and improve your quality of life, in spite of depression.

Meditation outperforms the standard medical treatments for depression — antidepressant drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Meditation works by reducing stress, balancing brain chemicals, and building a healthier, more resilient brain.

There are a number of free or inexpensive apps and courses online to help you start meditating for depression.

There is also professional help available to guide you with your meditation.

Recommended: If you're feeling over-stressed, anxious, or depressed, talk therapy with a professional can help you cope better with life.

BetterHelp online counseling is the better choice vs in-person therapy:

  • BetterHelp is more affordable & convenient.
  • It's discreet, private, secure & COVID-19 safe.
  • Same professionalism & effectiveness as traditional therapy.

REVIEW: Why we recommend online counseling and BetterHelp.