The importance of mental health is gradually being realized. While there’s still a stigma attached, things seem to be slowly changing. According to data collated by the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, around 17 million adults in the US experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. Nearly 50 percent of people diagnosed with depression also have an anxiety disorder. Why is this so significant? Because depression can make everyday life difficult. It can interfere with work life, social life and lead to physical ailments. It can also increase the risk of self-harm and suicide. However, seeking treatment (the earlier, the better!) can make a big difference. One option that doctors often prescribe is mindfulness therapy. It’s a holistic form of treatment that has the potential to help patients cope with negative emotions and thoughts.
Depression is a mental health disorder that affects the way you think, feel and behave. It can be mild to moderate to severe. It’s characterized by symptoms that last for at least two weeks such as –
While these symptoms are typical of depression, they can also be due to vitamin deficiency and medical conditions so it’s important to consult with a physician and get a medical diagnosis.
Depression can be caused by a number of factors. While it’s believed that chemical imbalances in the brain are to blame, it’s not always the case. Stress, some medications, and medical conditions are also culprits that can contribute to depression. Interestingly, research shows that certain regions of the brain look and behave differently in some depressed people. For example, a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that the hippocampus – an area in the brain involved in the formation of new memories and also associated with learning and emotions – was 9 to 13 per cent smaller in depressed women compared to those who weren’t depressed.
Researchers are also examining links between the slow production of new neurons in the hippocampus and low moods. Medications like antidepressants rapidly increase the concentration of neurotransmitters. However, people who take antidepressants don’t feel better until several weeks. This could be because new neurons take weeks to grow and form connections. The theory is that antidepressants increase the rate of neurogenesis – the rate at which neurons are created.
The effects of mindfulness therapy or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) haven’t been fully explored. However, it’s often used as a way to prevent recurrent depression. MBCT involves awareness of thoughts and emotions that are being felt. Instead of suppressing them, it teaches coping skills by acknowledging these thoughts and emotions while seeing them as separate from the individuals who are experiencing them. This disconnect helps people become liberated from negative thought patterns.
A study by Gaelle Desbordes explores mindfulness-based meditation and its effects on brain activity. In 2012, she demonstrated that subjects who have learnt to meditate show good changes in brain activity even when they’re not meditating. She took brain scans of before and after they learnt to meditate over the course of two months. The subjects showed the same brain activity during meditation and even when they performed everyday tasks.
In another study by the University of Oxford, patients suffering from chronic-recurrent depression received either MBCT delivered in addition to treatment-as-usual (TAU) or TAU alone. The patients who received MBCT + TAU reported decreased symptoms of depression while those who received just TAU reported no significant change.
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MBCT is practiced as part of group therapy and is led by an MBCT therapist. It’s typically done once a week over a period of eight weeks. Practitioners learn meditation techniques, the basic principles of cognition and learn about depression. During the rest of the days, practitioners are given homework such as learning mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises. These help control depression before it takes hold.
Depression is a condition that requires professional help to deal with. If your quality of life is being affected by negative thoughts and emotions, seek help immediately. Don’t wait!. A mental health professional can prescribe treatment that involves medication, MBCT, and self-help. Depression affects people differently so there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment. By seeking professional help, you can get the treatment that best fits your case.