Many people have remarked that meditation has help them recover from depression and anxiety. But, what could cause this? There has to be something happening in the mind that explains the improvements.
How Does Meditation Work?
One study on depression and anxiety could hold the key. The study had participants suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, both or neither attempt to focus on their breath for 5 minutes. Beeps went off intermittently throughout the 5 minutes and participants were asked if they were distracted by a thought and if the thought was positive, negative or neutral each time.
Afterwards, participants were asked to complete 2 anagrams where they were to generate as many words as possible from a set of letters. No matter how they did, the experimenter told the participants that they scored in the 39th percentile on the first problem and in the 82nd percentile on the second problem. After each problem was completed, participants were asked to focus on their breath for 5 more minutes.
The researchers found that over 39% of participants experienced negative, uncontrollable thoughts during the baseline focused breathing test. Over 70% experienced negative, uncontrollable thoughts at some point during the study.
More interestingly, experiencing negative intrusive thoughts at baseline predicted a greater negative response to failure (that even persisted after success). It was also predictive of negative mood and the presence and severity of generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.
So negative, uncontrollable thoughts is a risk factor for both anxiety and depression. This could explain how meditation works. Meditation reduces activity in the part of the brain associated with mind wandering (the default mode network). In fact, many types of meditation just practice the breath focus task used in the study over and over. Repeated practice should cause a reduction or even elimination of uncontrollable thoughts (and consequently depression and anxiety). Just don’t do it in the middle of the road.
Brewer, Judson A., et al. “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.50 (2011): 20254-20259.
Ruscio, Ayelet Meron, et al. “Perseverative thought: A robust predictor of response to emotional challenge in generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.” Behaviour research and therapy 49.12 (2011): 867-874.