Can Buddhism Help with Stress and Depression?

Posted on Oct 22, 2014 |

Ask A Buddhist: Can Buddhism help with depression?

October 22nd 2014By Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

Can Buddhism help you in your everyday life like relieve stress or depression?  I want to learn more about Buddhism because I’m thinking about becoming Buddhist.

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Dear Reader:

Buddhism stands on three foundational legs: virtue, concentration (the meditation practices) and wisdom. The three are inextricable in their effect on each other; however, I’m going to approach your question today through the leg of meditation practice as over the last decade or so a tremendous amount of neuroscience has validated the practical benefits of meditation for mind and body. In fact, achieving lasting contentment by freeing oneself from afflictions (such as stress and depression) is the central promise of Buddhism. I’d like to note, however, that the ultimate goal of Buddhism is liberation, an aspiration much more comprehensive than meditation’s utilitarian aspects: like any religion, Buddhism is a system of salvation and concerns the nature of being, becoming and existence.

Although this article will lean heavily on the available science supporting the positive outcomes of meditation on mind and body, I’m going to juxtapose it with my own experience as a meditator and a meditation teacher for over two decades, offering some cautionary tales to a guaranteed fast and effortless path leading from cyclic depression to a stable contentment. The science is drawn from a summarizing book chapter of scientific findings available on-line titled: “Meditation and Neuroscience: From Research to Clinical Practice.”

To name a few of the down-to-earth meditation benefits supported by science: improving the immune system; growing more grey matter; improving brain plasticity; developing contentment and ease in daily life; increasing compassion; cultivating emotional equanimity; reducing stress; reducing distractedness; improving attention and focus.

First, the present consensual definition of meditation used for its scientific study is: methods that seek to improve self-regulation of attention and emotion. I find this broad description very helpful and clarifying. Under this designation fits the two camps—the attention focusing methods and the receptive methods–of most everything I’ve heard of, read about or experienced across many wisdom traditions. The attention focusing techniques include, but are not limited to, Islamic Zhikr, TM (Transcendental Meditation), Jewish mystic traditions, Tibetan mantra visualizations and yogic breath methods. The cultivation of inward-listening techniques are found in Insight Meditation, Christian Centering Prayer, Zen koan study and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to name just a few. That being said, I could probably exchange the examples I just named and put them in the opposite camp because each fosters the cultivation of both.

The great Thai Forest Buddhist master Ajahn Chah says that meditation is like picking up a single stick—at one end of the stick you’ll find the concentration methods (attention regulation through steadying the mind) and at the other end of the stick are the receptive methods (emotional regulation through receptivity and non-identification with thought and emotion). One can safely say that all Buddhist schools offer teachings that include both self-regulation of attention and emotions, but various traditions may weight one end over the other.

No matter the specific meditation technique, scientists have found that meditation can lead to both state and trait experiences involving a deep sense of peace and calm. State changes signal temporary changes in mind states and mood; trait changes are transformations in brain function seen over an extended period of time.

The experience of state-changes during meditation will be familiar to anyone who has meditated regularly or even for a short while; in fact, Buddhist meditation methods are deliberate pathways to state changes. In groups I facilitate, especially when I use a guided format, state changes seem to occur sometimes as quickly as five minutes into a meditation sitting: when I hear a change in the quality of breathing around me I’ll peek and notice that faces and shoulders are relaxing, surrendering to gravity as people drop the preoccupations with which they arrived.

In regards to mind state changes, scientists have identified five major categories of brain waves, each corresponding to different levels of activities. Meditation allows us to move from higher frequency brain waves to lower frequency, affording access to areas of brain function not used in our everyday lives. Among the benefits of lower, slower brain waves, a meditator may find more time between thoughts and thus an opportunity to more intentionally choose what thoughts to invest in and what actions to take (Ashley Turner, Huffington Post, “Meditation 101”).

I confess to being somewhat of a state-change junkie through meditation. Anyone who knows me would peg my normal level of activity in the red zone of any scale, but after over two decades of Buddhist practice (and probably with the helping hand of age), I savor not only the mental ease arising from more restful mind states, but also the capacity to better anticipate what we Buddhists term, “skillful action.”  Meditation abilities develop slowly over time, and to start discerning mind states and their effect on thought and emotion is central to Buddhist practice (see the Satipattana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness).

The beneficial state changes from activation to relaxation are validated in numbers of scientific experiments that use objective measurements such as in heart rate variability (HRV)—one of the body’s signals that we have moved from the sympathetic nervous system (the opposite of what it sounds like!), known as the fight or flight response, to the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest and digest system. Pressed up against a busy, stressed and distracted world, bumped about by emotions and events, our fight or flight response is the default mode for most of us and over-releases hormones such as cortisol that limit brain function in the moment and over time.

Trait changes are the long-term neurological changes in our brain function noted by scientists studying meditation. Overall, these transformations are distinguished by density increases in gray matter regions and white matter pathways.  “The brain state changes found in meditators are almost exclusively found in higher-order executive and association cortices,” say the authors of “Meditation and Neuroscience: From Research to Clinical Practice.” It turns out that meditation is one of the few pathways that fosters communication between the primitive brain and the brain’s executive functions, supporting the notion that meditation increases self-regulation of emotions and attention.

As regards depression and meditation, meditation may at first intensify both positive and negative feelings. This makes a lot of sense to me: sitting with experience instead of distracting yourself lands you a front-row seat at the mind’s theatre. Episodic depression, as any of us who have dealt with it well know, may have originally occurred with the onset of a traumatic event, but over time, the role the event played becomes more muddled; instead, each new episode of depression seems to have a lower and lower threshold. Ouch. At this point in time, there isn’t much research on meditation’s effectiveness alone vis-à-vis depression: what the stats show is that cognitive therapy that includes a component of meditation can reduce the probability of depressive relapse quite significantly.

And here I’d like to insert some thoughts and observations from personal experience and from a number of people I know that came to meditation for help with recurring depression. Simply said, if you are prone to cyclic depression, you’ll need guidance and you’ll likely need to utilize meditation methods aligned in the attention focusing camp. Without training in self-regulation of attention and emotions (i.e. without meditation instruction), the default mode of the brain is to perseverate rather endlessly, and so the new and experienced meditator may encounter a dark and rather frightening situation. As said above, both negative and positive emotions may intensify when a meditator focuses inward. Scientists call the slide into a space where negative thoughts proliferate cognitive reactivity—the ability of a slight change in mood to degenerate into a series of deeply negative thoughts. The word papancha in Buddhist psychology characterizes the mind’s ability to self-fuel in this way: the etymology comes from the way an ink drop on a cloth spreads outward from fiber to fiber. I’ve encountered this gloom and doom in myself and I’ve seen the same situation for others. Sometimes one is just too raw for that front-row seat without some concentration tools and an encouraging guide

For over a decade, I used to teach a fairly technique-free version of meditation, but over time, I’ve come to understand that people longing for interior solace need some tools to help them achieve peace sooner rather than later. Without some meditational structure, almost everyone is prone to a wandering mind, which it turns out is universally, across cultures, the common denominator of unhappiness (to see the data about this and to track this in your own life go to trackyourhappiness.com, a crowd-sourced world-wide scientific experiment). Even in the foundational teaching mentioned above, the Satipattana Sutta, the Buddha taught at least 40 methods. Many of the other wisdom techniques the Buddha taught, such as the Brahma Viharas, the Sublime States, specifically brighten the mind and heart by cultivating universal love for oneself and others.

Our fundamental need for tranquility became quite obvious to me facilitating a meditation group in Airway Heights Prison: certainly there is little peace to be found in “the block,” within the buildings housing large numbers of inmates. When I first began teaching there, I used a very undirected, open format. Whether or not they were dealing with depression (prison inmates have one of the highest rates of suicide of any population), the hunger for interior peace is palpable. My co-facilitator, a teacher trained through the Spirit Rock Center who began the group at the prison four years previously, taught some of the Buddha’s techniques from both teachings mentioned above, so I was able to see the differences in effectiveness between our two approaches. What I saw over time caused me to change my own meditation practice.

The transformation in these meditators, especially after months of practicing the loving kindness methods from the Brahma Viharas, strikes me as almost miraculous. Faces and dispositions are brighter—everyone seems to have a positive testimonial weekly. One inmate was stunned by the fact that he no longer ate alone, but that others had spontaneously begun to join him. Most recently, an inmate said that before he’d directed loving-kindness to himself, he’d assumed all happiness was found externally—from other people, money, and activities. However, he now realizes that a love for self and others generates from within, peace truly comes from within. Can there be a much more important human insight? My time with the inmates, within the four walls of the prison chapel, inspires my own practice deeply.

We come to meditation searching for rest and solace and a chance to consider and perhaps revise how we live. The seclusion of closing our eyes, tuning into and slowing down our internal world, is one of its great gifts. I’ve not found stress to be much fun at all anymore, so my response these days (when I disengage from a situation enough to remember) is to meditate, to cultivate an intimate and compassionate self-regulation of attention and emotion. That moods and emotions affect thoughts, and visa versa—is an old fact described in Buddhist psychology, but a dawning area of research for scientists.

Mindfulness, a core practice across all schools of Buddhism, is the guardian of harmlessness, a guardian of the way we relate to ourselves and to the world. Minds secrete thoughts the way our bodies secrete many things I won’t detail here: the task of meditation is to alter the way we relate to our minds and hearts. Or, here’s another metaphor that Jon Kabat-Zinn uses: in meditation we are learning to stand on the bank of the mind-stream, watchful and curious, instead of being swept away in its rapids. It turns out there are evolutionary neurological roots to both suffering and happiness, and it turns out that many of the Buddha’s teachings are effective pathways to cultivating happiness. So, yes, Buddhist meditation—as well as other kinds of meditation that incorporate the body more directly such yoga—prove to have very practical, beneficial results in daily life in the short and long term.