A great method for reducing the symptoms of depression is mindfulness meditation. To help understand what mindfulness meditation is and how mindfulness meditation can help reduce symptoms of depression, I have interviewed psychotherapist Barbara Heffernan.
Tell me a little bit about yourself?
“I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in Norwalk, CT. I utilize a number of techniques to help clients move towards a more joyful, productive life. These techniques include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, EMDR, mindfulness, meditation and visualization. I have studied meditation in Buddhist, Hindu and Shamanic traditions, and I have practiced meditation for over fifteen years. In my first career, I spent sixteen years in Investment Banking. My degrees include a BA from Yale University, an MBA from Columbia University and an MSW from Southern Connecticut State University.”
What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is paying attention in the moment in a nonjudgmental manner. Mindfulness meditation is a particular type of meditation, which focuses on mindful awareness of exactly what is happening, moment by moment. As thoughts come up, meditators are taught to watch them, not to try to control them or suppress them, but also not to get caught up in them. Mindful awareness extends to sensory input ‘” awareness of what one is feeling (physically and emotionally), smelling, seeing, hearing and thinking.”
How can mindfulness meditation help depression?
“With mindful meditation, people become much more acutely aware of how their thoughts affect how they feel. Since depression is a cycle of negative thinking and depressed body feelings, the sooner someone can become aware of their negative thinking, the better the chance they have of pulling out of depression. A typical depressive cycle might be as follows: a negative event occurs in someone’s life; the person internalizes the event (thinks it is their fault), and speaks to themselves along the lines of ‘you worthless fool, you messed up again’; the internal dialogue is expanded by the thought of all the other times the person has “messed up” or felt worthless; the person becomes more depressed and sinks into the couch with a bag of potato chips, skipping appointments, avoiding the phone; the depressed body feelings are exacerbated; the person begins to say to themselves, ‘See, you are so worthless you can’t even get off the couch’. The cycle continues and exacerbates itself leading to depression.
In the example above, I have used cleaner language than most people use when they speak to themselves. I frequently point out to clients that they speak to themselves in a way that they would never talk to a friend or even a stranger!
Most people have their own individual themes, which they focus on when they get into a depressive cycle and ‘beat themselves up’. However, there are many components of this dialogue, which are common to most depressed people.
Mindfulness meditation will help a person become more aware of when they are falling into this cycle. The sooner this cycle is caught, the easier it is to get out of. This is why mindful meditation has been proven effective as a tool for reducing relapse into depression. The method used in the majority of research on this topic is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a program began by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts. MBSR is offered widely as a 12 week course.”
How do you incorporate mindfulness meditation into sessions?
“In working with clients, I try to find a method of mindful meditation which feels easy and natural for them. Some techniques I will teach first include relaxation breathing, which incorporates breathing deeply into the lungs, and grounding exercises, which incorporates focusing on something concrete in the present moment, such as sound or the feeling of their feet on the ground.
Some clients can initially find it anxiety-provoking to try to relax in meditation. Slowing down for them can speed up racing thoughts. For these clients, I will help them pick a relaxing activity, such as drinking a cup of tea. Then, I will encourage them to try to breathe deeply and consciously while drinking their tea, and increase their awareness of all the sensory input involved with that activity.
Within a therapy session, I may use up to ten minutes to help a client learn and use a mindfulness practice. However, since therapy sessions are time-limited, if a client is interested in pursuing a more formal mindfulness meditation practice, I encourage them to sign up for a weekly class or weekend program.”
What last advice would you like to leave for someone who is considering mindfulness meditation for their depression?
“I would highly suggest taking a course in one of the mindful meditation traditions. It is very difficult to learn meditation on one’s own, and very difficult to stay motivated to practice (even if one isn’t depressed!). Courses are offered weekly or as weekend intensives. Good resources to look into include one of the national programs (Insight Meditation Society, www.dharma.org, or the Shambhala Meditation Centers www.shambhala.org are two possibilities). There are also many local continuing education programs or community groups which offer meditation classes as well as other national and regional Buddhist organizations. For the most part, a belief in Buddhism as a religion is not necessary to take a mindfulness meditation course at a Buddhist center.”
Thank you Barbara for doing the interview on how mindfulness meditation can reduce symptoms of depression. For more information on Barbara Heffernan or her work you can check out her website on www.barbaraheffernan.com.
Eliminating Test Anxiety
Healing Depression Through the Expressive Arts
How to Overcome Depression