Meditation May Be Comparable to Exercise in Alleviating Depression
> 12/19/2007 12:40:19 PM

When considering possible methods to manage a chronic case of depression, most do not immediately conjur images of themselves sitting silently for 30-45 minutes, measuring their breath and passively watching thoughts move through the mind. But disciplined meditation, when practiced on a regular basis, may have profoundly positive effects on one's mental health. Most consider meditation an element of religious practice, and it certainly is for some, but many in the west utilize it without subscribing to any perceived religious affiliation. Traditional garb, specially designed settings, chanting and incense are in no way necessary to the mindfulness (or greater awareness of one's mind) experience. They are merely habits that have become intertwined with the general practice in certain cultures.

While some portion of the western fascination with meditation and yoga may be attributed to a near-ignorant sense of new-age exoticism, the fact that the practices have endured long past their early historical inception lends credence to claims of efficiency made on their behalf. And those turned off by the Dalai Lama's often somewhat vague statements of emotional and societal unity can turn to science: repeated studies have noted neurological differences in longtime devotees of the "mindfulness meditation" practice, one based on the principle of observing and quieting the overactive mind. Concepts like love and compassion "envelop[ing] the whole brain" will obviously inspire criticism in many, but researchers performing brain scans on longtime practicioners note that meditation " having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance," and, even though the subjects in their study were Tibetan monks who live in accordance with the strict guidelines of their religion, this general finding applies to all who take up the practice with some regularity. Persistent meditation essentially trains the brain, reforming in its functions in keeping with the neuroplasticity phenomenon. This gradual molding of the brain can greatly affect the prefrontal cortex and the insula, little-known structures believed to be play a fundamental role in the regulation of social emotions (pride, guilt, envy) and compulsive behaviors. The differences in brains of longtime meditators were not temporary, as they were clear to researchers before the actual experiment began.

Meditation's benefits are also very physical: lower blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health via stabilized heart rate, reduced stress, and a stronger immune system. As little as 30 minutes a day can produce noticeable results; patients in a related study who received instruction online and practiced for half an hour every day for 2 weeks reported improved moods, increased confidence, and a renewed desire to help others in some charitable way. A heightened sense of self-awareness and greater degree of control over one's emotions and compulsions is the ultimate goal of meditation. Those expecting to experience a revelatory awakening, newfound spiritual insight or spontaneous satisfaction may need to revise their impressions of the practice.

Consistency is the practice's guiding principle. It does not slim the waistline or clear the skin, though it has been known to improve breathing and posture. It simply allows us to take a moment of time from our otherwise overwhelming days and simply be, accepting ourselves as we are. An inability to do so is central to chronic, debilitating depression; one of the disorder's defining characteristics is a chronic fixation on the negative, particularly relating to one's self image, and many patients find themselves unable to retrain their focus and guide it away from those negative impulses. Obsessing over one's own shortcomings, whether real or imagined, creates a cyclical and destructive way of thinking, and meditation helps stabilize emotional reactivity in the brain, overcoming daily stressors not by denying their existence or providing a means of escape but by allowing patients to accept them and move on, better realizing the truth that agony over inconveniences is largely wasted energy. Mindfulness is obviously not a miracle cure for depression. Many patients suffering from severe depression cannot effectively meditate due to the constant distractions and self-effacing behaviors so common to the condition. Neither is mindfulness a substitute for antidepressant medications or personal therapy. But it can certainly facilitate the recovery process by granting a patient greater control over his or her mind and the moods contained within.

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