Could Mindfulness Therapy Help People With Depression?

In the search for diverse therapeutic techniques to help people who suffer from long-term mood disorders like depression, scientists now think that incorporating mindfulness techniques could help improve sufferer’s lives significantly.

But What Is Mindfulness?

That really depends on who you ask, as the word is often used today to mean a variety of things. At its simplest, mindfulness is keeping our attention on the present moment and experiencing it “as is” without judging the experience. It is, in essence, the experience of experiencing. Mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness techniques, for instance yoga, can help to facilitate that state and so are often mentioned in tandem. Mindfulness also may overlap with spiritual practices–it seems to have roots in several spiritual camps but perhaps most notably Buddhism–though it need not have an overtly religious or spiritual dimension, and a number of secularists also advocate for its use in purely non-religious veins.

Looking at it in the context of therapeutic application for managing our moods, something that is slightly different than general applications, mindfulness has emerged as a potentially promising tool for people who suffer anxiety, depression and phobias. The reason for that is that it promises to give people the tools to objectively look at how they are feeling, to observe their body’s reactions to those feelings, which may then allow them to take control by, for instance, using positive imagery and affirmations. For anyone familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), we immediately see a good overlap with that approach and this is something that clinicians have also recognized. As a result, researchers began working toward a method that might combine the two, mindfulness and CBT, eventually creating Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

If you’d like to find a bit more about the development of mindfulness as a clinical tool, here’s an interesting Ted Talk on the subject:

Essentially, for MBCT purposes, mindfulness is used to break the chain of thoughts that depression/anxiety sufferers face which can catapult them toward a more substantial depressive episode. It then combines the well researched coping mechanisms that cognitive behavioral therapy can offer, thereby hopefully providing a robust self-help system.

But does this technique actually work? A growing body of evidence is saying yes, and what’s more that for some people it might be as effective as drug treatments.

Research Shows That MBCT Has Exciting Potential

A recent study, which was published last month in the Lancet, involved two separate groups of patients who had been diagnosed with recurrent major depressive symptoms and who were recruited from 95 different health practices in Bristol and Devon, in the UK.

The first group comprised of 212 patients who were gradually taken off their antidepressants while attending a course of eight cognitive therapy sessions carried out on consecutive weeks. Those CBT sessions also contained various mindfulness techniques. The patients were then given a total of four refresher courses that took place every three months over the following year. They were also given advice and instructions on how they could implement the mindfulness therapy at home.

The second group of 212 patients instead stayed on their antidepressant medication for the entirety of the two year study. Researchers then compared how well the mindfulness-inclusive cognitive therapy was able to stave off repeat depressive episodes compared to the antidepressant medication.

The researchers found that the relapse rates were actually very similar with 44 percent relapse with MBCT, and 47 percent with antidepressants. This adds to other studies which have shown MBCT seems to have the ability to really help people with depression to manage their daily lives better while keeping depressive symptoms from spiraling into full-blown episodes.

This is the first single-blind study to assess MBCT in this way and while it did slightly outperform antidepressants what we’re really looking at here is an efficacy rate that appears similar to drug interventions for these patients. Does that mean everyone would respond well to MBCT? We can’t possibly know that yet, and we’d have to create strict controls to assess exactly who might benefit the most, but we do know behavioral therapies work very well for some people while there are some for whom medication is the most effective treatment. That said, MBCT seems like it might work for a good number of people, and that’s very exciting.

Co-author Prof Richard Byng, from the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, is quoted as saying:

Currently, maintenance antidepressant medication is the key treatment for preventing relapse, reducing the likelihood of relapse or recurrence by up to two-thirds when taken correctly.

However, there are many people who, for a number of different reasons, are unable to keep on a course of medication for depression. Moreover, many people do not wish to remain on medication for indefinite periods, or cannot tolerate its side-effects.

That said, it’s important to echo comments made by Katherine Delargy, deputy chief pharmacist at Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust, who says that while appreciating and advocating for the use of mindfulness, it is important not to malign antidepressants which for some people continue to be the best treatment option available:

We appreciate the impact of mindfulness, I practice it myself, but would not wish to see people who choose to use medication to achieve recovery from depression being stigmatized for their choice. Some people are unable to access mindfulness-based therapies due to time factors, personality and health beliefs.

With that in mind, mental health advocates are still excited about mindfulness therapies because they appear to offer yet another treatment option, and one that might be used in tandem with other treatments like drug therapies in order to bolster the effects of the treatment regime. For people with chronic depression who have suffered episodes lasting many months and even years, this could represent a new and vital tool to helping them fight the illness.

Mindfulness isn’t a new age cure-all, and it isn’t going to make someone who is depressed get better over night, but it’s also important not to rule out this therapy because, while we need far more trials to understand just how effective MBCT might be, for people dealing with mental health issues like myself, it offers the possibility of more treatment options and that all-important ability to help sufferers take control of their illness on their own terms.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Feather W.
Feather W3 years ago

being mindful helps lots of things.....

Mihaela L.
Mihaela L.3 years ago

I had depression for years, and after so, so long of researching and self-studying I completely recovered using one specific program. I don't know if it can help you but I know that it helped me. If you want to read review of that program go to luck !

Danuta Watola
Danuta W3 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Ben Oscarsito
Ben O3 years ago

Don't think so...

Rachel Nichols
Rachel Nichols3 years ago

I don't think people have a medical condition, I think everyone is experiencing the true meaning of despair by being alive right now.

Arnold B.
arnold B3 years ago


Deborah M.
Deborah M3 years ago

Depression is such a complex problem the way I see it is the more options for people to work with the better! I am not a fan of medications but I do know people who have been helped through the darkness with medication. I abhor ECT but again I know people who have had ECT and credit it with saving their lives. I try to use visualization and cognitive techniques to get me through the darkness. Sometimes it works and sometimes not so much. If mindfulness works then I say celebrate your life, you deserve it.

Ian F.
Ian F3 years ago

Meditation has helped me cope with the stresses and strains of life whilst trying to come to terms with debilitating "chronic pain" for the past 30 years.

Warren Webber
Warren Webber3 years ago

Live long and prosper!

Bernie 2016!