Treating Depression: Mindfulness Therapy Might Break the Cycle

Mindfulness is a word that’s everywhere at the moment, but in mental health and particularly for treating depression, it is a technique that promises to make a meaningful difference for sufferers.

Usually, people being treated for depression may take medication and they may also undergo therapy. In addition to digging into unresolved experiences and potentially traumatic events, therapy often revolves around substituting negative patterns of thoughts for positive ones. This can be useful because while it may not prevent low mood days, it can stop them escalating into longer lasting and potentially more severe episodes.

Unfortunately, depression is a recurring illness. Some people may enjoy long periods in remission and they may even go months or even years without severe episodes, but the threat remains.

The question of how to increase the period of time between episodes and how to hopefully stave off future severe episodes remains an important one for medical science, and new research suggests adding mindfulness techniques to traditional behavioral therapy may be one answer.

Writing in the journal “JAMA Psychiatry,” researchers from Oxford University among several other universities from across the U.K. explain how their review of patient data shows those given Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can fair better, particularly if they had experienced high levels of residual symptoms from their recurring depression. 

The researchers, in what is believed to be the biggest review of MBCT to date, looked at nine studies involving 1258 patients in total. People in the sample had an average age of 47 and 75 percent of the sample was female, which is important to keep in mind while evaluating these results.

The researchers found that patients receiving MBCT appeared to be 31 percent less likely to have a recurring episode after 60 weeks compared to people who were receiving other treatments such as self-help or drug treatments.

When the researchers removed self-help as a variable, they found that patients were still 21 percent less likely to have a recurring episode after 60 weeks when given MBCT. That remained true even if patients ceased taking the medication that they were on.

The researchers attempted to adjust for sociodemographic qualities like age, gender, level of education and relationship status as we know these qualities can introduce different variables in terms of mental health and mental health care. The researchers also adjusted for psychiatric care variables like what age a patient first experienced problems and previous episodes of depression.

On the whole, these factors did not alter the findings. However, when the researchers looked at the severity of depression symptoms prior to the patient being treated, it did appear to tally with MBCT having a more pronounced effect to stave off depression. Essentially, patients who still had significant symptoms from their last depressive episode appeared to have the most to gain from MBCT.

Lead author Doctor Willem Kuyken is quoted as saying: “The results of the meta-analysis tell us that there is a small but significant benefit of MBCT when delivered alongside or as an alternative to antidepressants, in terms of reduced rates of relapse.”

This meta-analysis, while certainly still not proving that mindfulness will help all patients with depression, does signal that the positive buzz around mindfulness may have some substance and crucially could give patients more time between depressive episodes to recover and put in place other care strategies that can prevent mental health collapse before another episode arrives.

That said, the researchers rightly caution against reading things into this study that aren’t there. For example, and as the researchers go on to acknowledge, it would be hasty to suggest that MBCT could be as effective as anti-depression medication because this analysis was not looking at that.

Furthermore, the overall effect of MBCT was significant but small, and further research is needed to ascertain whether these findings remain true on a wider scale and where MBCT might be best targeted if future research does confirm its usefulness.

Nevertheless, for sufferers of depression this analysis provides an interesting and perhaps even exciting prospect of a future treatment that could improve patients’ lives.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

68 comments

Elisa F
Elisa F1 years ago

Thanks for sharing :)

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Maria virokhovsky

Stop this nonsense of "positive thinking"! No kind of thinking will help you, because depression is not a problem of the mind, it's a chemistry problem that can be fixed with chemistry - medications - only. Heard that a regular red wine intake (1-2 glasses per day) also balances this chemistry.

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Elaine W.
Past Member 2 years ago

I used to think one should be able to just talk themselves out of being depressed. Not so easy when it happens to you.

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Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen2 years ago

Thank you

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Carol P.
Carol P2 years ago

I know someone who got a year of cognitive therapy for her depression and it was incredible how much of a difference it made, even without medication. But the problem is that there is no way she would have ever been able to afford the therapy had she not gotten it for free as part of the study. And therapy will only work if you have a good therapist or are receptive to the advice they give. These days she's on antidepressants and they appear to be effective though they do push her over the line into a manic state. Both the drugs and the therapy help make it bearable to be around her so it would make sense that a combination of both would be the most-effective, but she'd probably be a lot better if she'd just stop eating gluten.

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Neville B.
Neville B2 years ago

Thanks to Laurie Mazzeo and others for sharing their strategies! : )

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Neville B.
Neville B2 years ago

As Rachel L. and others have said, there are many manifestations of depression, 'clinical' or otherwise. There are also very many treatments (including medication - and seeing an able medical practitioner should be a priority). These work for different people, and even for the same person but at different times or under different circumstances.

Please, try them with an open mind, and hopefully find those that work for you. Revisit the ones that didn't, after a while, and you may be pleasantly surprised. If you can get, or be taken to, a centralised group such as a recovery college or drop-in centre, you will have a variety of options to try.

Try to keep sociable, and walking gives you a routine of fresh air, sunlight and exercise - with a dog you get companionship too - and these all help for the big hurdle of motivation.

Many people have been helped by mindfulness, eventually; many haven't; don't give up.

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Neville B.
Neville B2 years ago

As a footnote for those who, for alleged religious reasons, shun any mindfulness which may include an OPTIONAL meditation session, please remember:
1) you can sit it out
2) that mindset came from churches denigrating other religions (evil does not require a calm mind for a doorway: that evidence is everywhere
3) Psalms:46:10 says "Be still, and know that I am God". I think that is why 'holy men/women' go out into the wilderness.

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Glennis Whitney
Glennis Whitney2 years ago

Great information. Thank you for caring and sharing.

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