Can Doing Nothing Help Depression and Anxiety?
Here is a shocking statement. One solution to depression and anxiety might be doing absolutely nothing. Before I offend someone I had better explain… I don’t mean “nothing” in the way most of us define it. I am talking about a very powerful practice in which a person sits quietly in a state of stillness and peace. I am talking about meditation - the rather challenging process of minimizing activity both internally and externally – i.e. the practice of doing nothing. It has been suggested that meditation can help both depression and anxiety and my professional experiences support this claim. For over twenty years, I have taught meditation and have personally witnessed its impressive healing powers. I have seen how the act of sitting with oneself in stillness can change the way a person thinks, reacts and feels.
The number of individuals currently on antidepressants or anti anxiety medications is staggering and steadily increasing. (1) This seems to suggest that a large portion of our society is unhappy. If the problem is within the society itself then changing it is a daunting task. But what if we focus instead on making the changes within ourselves? One way is through the use of antidepressants and anti anxiety agents. For those experiencing deep depression or disabling anxiety, there are many benefits from these medications especially since results can be felt very quickly. Yet this solution comes at a cost, both financially and physically. Could Meditation be an alternative solution without the negative side effects? It is not a quick fix and it requires a much deeper commitment to personal healing and growth than just remembering to take a pill, but in the long run I believe it to be an effective alternative.
Before I take this any further, let’s be clear about what meditation is. It has nothing to do with cults and does not need to be associated with any religion or spiritual path. It need not be associated with a guru or Eastern Philosophy. In fact, both Christianity and Judaism contain forms of meditation. Meditation is merely the act of quieting the mind and slowing our usually over active thoughts. Sitting quietly and gazing at a beautiful waterfall can be considered meditation, doing yoga can be a form of meditation as is spending quiet time contemplating a meaningful passage from the bible. Yet, these simple acts can have powerful and positive side effects.
I have observed firsthand the remarkable changes meditation brings about and could tell you hundreds of stories from my own personal experience. My credentials includes a PhD in psychology, years of experience as a psychological counselor, twenty+ years of teaching meditation and six years studying and travelling with an Eastern spiritual teacher. I have seen meditation open a person’s eyes, increase their clarity help them gain insights they need to improve the direction their life was taking. I have seen people become happier – though nothing in their lives have changed – except their attitude. I have watched people heal by “doing nothing”.
I remember one gentleman in particular who was anxious and depressed. No matter what the circumstances, he could be counted on to see it in its worst light. He knew that every silver cloud came with a dark lining, and any suggestion that could be seen as positive was met with suspicion. Here was a case where meditation seemed to be making no impact – until he attended a weeklong meditation retreat. The effect was remarkable. Nothing in his life had changed, yet suddenly he was more optimistic and more willing to stop looking for the dark lining. The effects had not taken place overnight and there was still much work he had to do, but the cycle had been broken and hope had replaced despair.
Don’t just take my word for it. Western science supports my observations. Lately studies have shown that meditation actually changes the structure of the brain, activating the part of the brain associated with happiness and emotional stability. One study found that “larger areas of the meditators’ brains were active, particularly in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.”(2) Since people who are depressed or anxious tend to show more activity in their right frontal cortex, science seems to support the idea that meditation can help depression.
Several years ago the Dalai Lama participated in scientific research on the effect of mediation on the brain. Based on this research he is quoted as saying: “Mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger. This raises the possibility that we have a way to create a kind of buffer between the brain’s violent impulses and our actions.”(3) Simply put, meditation can make us happier, calmer, and more peaceful – with none of the side effects of anti anxiety medications.
As we quiet our excessive mind chatter, we gain greater clarity about both ourselves and others and become more in tune with our emotions. It appears that much of our negative behaviors and depressed or anxious feelings are the results of perspectives which are built on past emotional wounds and the ensuing misinterpretations and misperceptions of the world around us. I have seen the psychological correlate to what the Dalia Lama stated about meditations physiological effect on the brain. The clearer and calmer we become, the stronger our tendency to move away from our more violent and negative impulses as well as our more negative, depressed and anxious thoughts.
Through teaching meditation, I have learned that Human Beings are remarkable creatures. We may look around us and see strife and fear and even evil, but at our core we have a strong desire to do what is good and what is right. I have witnessed repeatedly that the clearer and calmer a person becomes, the happier they feel and the more they exhibit compassion, and generosity towards others. We live in trying times; many people are anxious, depressed and fearful. Even if we can’t change society and all of our outer circumstances, we all have the power to change our inner ones. Meditation is one way. There are many wonderful forms of meditation. Perhaps it’s time more people explore them.
1) One study noted that in 2005 there were 170 million prescriptions in the U.S. for antidepressants alone. http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/07/28/antidepressant-use-is-up/2663.html
2) John Geirland. “Buddha on the Brain.” Wired magazine, February 2006, Issue 14.02
3) Tenzin Gyarso Dharamsala, India. “The Monk in the Lab.” The New York Times 2003