This article focuses on the practical use of meditation for depression, specifically on how to manage negative thoughts and strong feelings when depressed. Below, you’ll find a few of the most important insights from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and the last two sections offer you the top 3 meditation exercises for managing depressive symptoms.
If you’re new to meditation, the science-based article How to use mindfulness for depression in 5 simple steps will give you a quick introduction to mindfulness meditation and tell you how meditation for depression can be so beneficial for the brain.
Meditation for depressive thoughts
Thoughts sometimes attack us automatically, they just pop up out of nowhere. When going through depression, such automatic thoughts tend to be negative, sad and critical. Sometimes, particularly nasty thoughts have a huge effect on how we feel. And when we have really strong emotions in our bodies, it changes the way we think. In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, we call this negative thought spirals – when a thought activates an emotion, which then activates even more thoughts and this activates stronger emotions.
With the help of mindfulness meditation for depression, we become more aware of thoughts and feelings and it becomes easier to stop negative thought spirals at an early stage. Before we move on to talk about how to handle these negative thought spirals, let’s clarify the difference between thoughts and feelings. It’s more difficult than you might think.
Thoughts sometimes attack us automatically, they just pop up out of nowhere. When going through depression, such automatic thoughts tend to be negative, sad and critical. Sometimes, particularly nasty thoughts have a huge effect on how we feel. And when we have really strong emotions in our bodies, it changes the way we think.
In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, we call this negative thought spirals – when a thought activates an emotion, which then activates even more thoughts and this activates stronger emotions. With the help of mindfulness meditation for depression, we become more aware of thoughts and feelings and it becomes easier to stop negative thought spirals at an early stage. Before we move on to talk about how to handle these negative thought spirals, let’s clarify the difference between thoughts and feelings. It’s more difficult than you might think.
Separate thoughts from feelings. When managing depression through meditation it’s important to separate thoughts from feelings. So, do you know the difference between a thought and a feeling?
A feeling can usually be described using only one word, for example, “happiness”, “anger” or “sadness”. And if you use several words to describe your inner world, it’s usually a thought, for example “this is unfair”, “I feel so stupid” or “something is wrong”.
You may wonder why it’s important to know this. Well, the short answer is that feelings give us direct contact with the present moment, whereas thoughts can take place anywhere in time. Your thoughts can be in the future, as when you are worrying about what may happen or thinking about the to-do-list, or in the past, as when you are remembering that embarrassing situation seven years ago. In contrast, your feelings live in the body and the body is always in the present. Your body can’t run to the future or go back in time. This means that your body is an expressway to the present moment, which is exactly where we want to be when meditating.
- Thoughts: Can take place in the past, present or the future. Usually consist of more than one word.
- Feelings: Are placed in the body and the body is always in the present moment. Can be described using only one word.
Quick tip: One of the most effective ways to shut up negative thoughts is to focus on the feeling in your body. For example, instead of thinking “oh my God, this is so scary, what am I going to do, I’ll never make it” and creating scenarios in your head, redirect your attention to your body and notice what feeling is present. Feel the fear and watch it eventually leave. (More on this under the headline Meditation for depressive feelings.)
Managing negative thought spirals. When using meditation for depression, you will practice how to pay attention to thoughts and feelings without getting drawn into them or presume that all your thoughts are 100% true. Below, you’ll see two videos explaining how to notice thoughts and feelings and how to watch them leave. The first video shows how a negative thought can turn into a depressive spiral. The second video shows how a person can stop this spiral at an early stage, using mindfulness techniques.
Remember, it takes practice to do what Ethan does in the videos. That’s why it’s important to meditate for 10-30 minutes every day (Read more about this in How to use mindfulness for depression in 5 simple steps). The next section digs deeper into the process of making negative thoughts gain less control over you with the help of meditation. It also tells you what not to do.
The impossible task of erasing negative thoughts
In a moment, you will get the opportunity to explore two meditation exercises that will help you manage depressive thoughts. In preparation for that, let’s focus on what NOT to do. Don't try to erase your thoughts. It is tempting, but please try not to. Mindfulness meditators realised long ago that it’s impossible to erase negative thoughts. Usually, we can distract ourselves for a moment, but often that makes the thoughts come back with an even higher intensity. This audio recording (1 min) illustrates my point quite effectively:
Did you, at any point, think about a white bear? Most people do of course. When we decide to not think about something, the mind constantly has to remind itself about what is forbidden to think about, and the thoughts keep returning. So, if we can’t force negative thoughts to go away, how do we handle them?
Well, the mindful way to do it is to become the Observer. This is a part of ourselves that can observe thoughts and feelings without getting drawn into them. Some mindfulness meditators talk about a “beginner’s mind”. It’s when we observe thoughts and feelings from a curious perspective, just watching them come and go.
You can achieve this state of mind by imagining that you’re a small child, observing something for the first time. A small child explores the world without thinking about how things are supposed to be because it’s never seen them before.
So, when using meditation for depression, we’ll try to curiously and almost naively experience the body. Without judging. In time, you will be able to observe thoughts and feelings without getting drawn into them. You can think of this as looking at the rain through a window, instead of getting soaked outside. But you can’t stop the rain from falling, and you can’t choose what thoughts automatically pop into your head.
Here come our first two meditations for depression!
Meditation #1 – Body scan
Let’s practice the Observer’s perspective right away with the first of 3 meditation exercises for depression. It’s 5 minutes:
Meditation #2 – Leaves on a stream
If you are troubled (or tortured) by negative thoughts going round like a broken record, I recommend you to use this next meditation exercise as often as possible. This well-known meditation for depression helps you to get some distance from negative thoughts, the ones that just pop into your head. It will also help you realise that a thought is “just a thought”, not necessarily 100% true. Here it comes (5 mins):
Quick tip: If negative or stressful thoughts keep you up at night, you can use Leaves on a Stream before going to bed.
Now, let’s focus our attention on how to manage depressive feelings with meditation. The next section includes the third meditation for depression.
Meditation for depressive feelings
An important part of meditation practice is to learn how to explore your feelings without being completely overwhelmed by them. When using meditation for depression, this becomes extra challenging because depression usually comes with strong and painful emotions. Sometimes we’d rather avoid painful feelings than explore them. Here are a few examples:
- Whenever Sebastian gets an uncomfortable sensation in his stomach, he starts cleaning, doing the dishes and other chores to distract himself.
- Whenever Olivia feels lonely, she starts drinking.
- Whenever John feels anxious, he starts obsessing over his relationships.
Now, ask yourself this question:
- What behaviours do I use to distract myself from painful feelings?
Becoming more aware of these behaviours is the first step towards exploring your feelings. If you don’t know when you’re running, it’s very difficult to stop.
It’s easy to understand why we want to do something else instead of feeling sad, hurt or angry, especially if we’ve experienced a lot of negative feelings earlier in life. So, why is running from our emotions such a big problem? Well, a tricky thing about feelings is that ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. They don’t just disappear. Instead, they build up. And when we repeatedly avoid feelings, it gets scarier and scarier to feel anything at all, as if every emotion is a threat. With time, distracting yourself from emotions makes it more difficult to feel positive feelings too.
The good news is that humans are designed to feel and we are fully capable of managing painful feelings. Actually, the biggest problem tends to be our negative interpretations of the painful feelings, that is, our thoughts. Our thoughts can make the pain grow stronger and last longer, for example by saying “I will always feel this way”, “this is horrible”, “it will never get better”. Our fantasies about how uncomfortable it would be to feel fear, sadness or anger are often much worse than the actual experience.
Maybe you’ve noticed that horror-movie makers never let you see the ghost or the monster in the first scene of the film? You get to see a shadow or hear scary noises, not knowing where they come from. This is because our fantasies about the scary monster are much, much worse than the monster itself. At the end of the movie when you finally get to see it, you get used to it quickly. Similarly, we can handle strong emotions when we stare them in the face and don’t listen to the thoughts or fantasies trying to convince us that “it will always be this bad”.
Meditation #3 – Explore feelings
This next meditation for depression (5 min) will help you practice this skill, to feel your feelings instead of distracting yourself from them. If you’re new to meditation, be kind to yourself and try not to push yourself too hard. Place yourself comfortably and press play when you’re ready.
Nice work. You’re on your way to becoming an experienced meditator and helping your mind gain more focus, manage strong emotions and protect you from depression.
Meditation app for depression
Don’t know how to start meditating regularly? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that. If you want more helpful tips and tricks for beginning your meditation practice, you’ll find everything you need in Flow Neuroscience’s depression app. It’s 100% free and shows you how to make regular meditation a part of your depression treatment. It includes a complete meditation module with both theory and meditation exercises for beginners.
Good luck and thank you for your attention!