The other day I was stunned when a good friend of mine revealed that he’s been struggling with depression. I’ve always thought of him as one of the most upbeat, funny, and joyful people I know and to learn that he’s been in a very dark place was a real shock. Given that research shows that most people don’t get support until ten years after their first depressive episode, I was relieved to learn that my friend was looking for help. He was interested in meditation as a coping tool and wanted to know what kind of meditation I practice.
This is a question I’m often asked, and was one of the reasons I wrote this comprehensive blog post about different types of meditation and their various benefits. Given that a growing body of research is pointing to mindfulness-based programs as being equally effective in preventing depressive relapses as anti-depressant drugs, I suggested to my friend that mindfulness meditation might be a good place to start, but he shook his head. He’d already given it a try and it hadn’t really resonated with him.
Essentially, mindfulness techniques involve observing your thoughts and emotions from moment to moment without judging or becoming caught up in them. As I’ve written previously, one of the reasons that mindfulness meditation is so effective is that it breaks the train of every day thinking and all those wild and crazy thoughts that trigger your stress response are calmed. It takes practice and persistence, but in time, you learn to tame your mind. And, like going to the gym, the more you do it, the better you get. But I could understand why my friend hadn’t immediately enjoyed mindfulness meditation. When you’re feeling down or anxious, trying to be passive with your thoughts and just ‘let things be’ can be difficult.
While the scientists are favoring mindfulness-based practices as they endeavor to learn more about the power of meditation, mindfulness is not the only type of meditation that can be an effective mood booster. One technique I like to use is called Loving Kindness Meditation, or LKM, which is used to increase feelings of warmth and caring for yourself and others. Like mindfulness, this practice is derived from Buddhist principles, but rather than passively observing thoughts, you concentrate on actively directing a feeling of compassion towards yourself and then extend your focus to an ever-widening circle of others, ultimately radiating warmth and compassion in all directions.
LKM has been shown to boost positivity and life satisfaction as well as reduce depressive and illness symptoms. A Stanford University study found that in just seven minutes of LKM, people reported greater social connection toward others, which is no small thing when we’re in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. A 2008 study led by leading positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil showed that LKM led to shifts in people’s daily experiences of a wide range of positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, and awe. This mood boost was in turn linked to increases in a variety of personal resources, including mindful attention, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, and good physical health. Since then, additional studies have continued to support these results and a 2015 meta-analysis (a study of studies) found that LKM has a medium effect size in improving daily positive emotions.
It’s important to note that a ‘medium effect size’ means that while the technique has been shown to work, it doesn’t always work and it’s interesting that Frederickson’s recent work, published last month is starting to explore the genetic basis for why this type of meditation is effective for some people but not others. But just because mindfulness meditation or LKM don’t work for you, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other techniques that could help lift your mood.
Another type of mood boosting meditation that I practice is called the Inner Smile meditation. The version I practice comes from Taoist traditions and involves intentionally conjuring up the feeling of joy induced by a smile and then allowing it to spread throughout your body. While I haven’t been able to track down specific studies looking at this form of meditation, there is vast research looking at the impact of smiling (even if it’s forced smiling) on our emotions and health. It seems there’s a powerful feedback loop between the brain and our face when we smile. In essence when you feel good, your brain feels good and tells your face to smile, and when you smile, you send a signal to your brain that tells it you feel good.
While depression is a complex illness and I’m not for one second suggesting that all we need do is meditate in order to recover, the point I’m making is that there are many ways you can use meditation to lift your mood. And the great thing about these practices is they can work alongside professional treatment. Taking a moment to either passively ‘let things be’ or actively focus on boosting positive feelings might be just the thing you need to get through a dark day.
To practice these meditations begin by sitting or lying down comfortably. (If you’re prone to sleepiness when you begin to relax, I’d recommend sitting). Take a few deep breaths, filling your chest and stomach and slowly breathing out. Feel any tension in your body begin to release and relax. Close your eyes.
Mindfulness techniques involve paying attention to the present moment. You observe your thoughts and emotions from moment to moment without judging or becoming caught up in them. You can anchor your thoughts by focusing your attention on your breath or body sensations. Try the ‘Body Scan’ technique, which involves mentally scanning your body from your toes to your tip. When your mind wanders, you take note of where it goes and simply return to the moment.
Loving Kindness Meditation
The idea of this practice is to induce a mental state of unselfish and unconditional kindness to all beings. First, focus on directing feelings of warmth, kindness and compassion towards yourself. Next, focus on a good friend, then someone you feel neutrally about (eg; your bus driver or postman), then a “difficult” person (eg; a person you may have negative feelings about); and eventually focus on the entire universe. You might like to silently repeat phrases, such as “may you be happy” or “may you be free from suffering” towards your targets.
Inner Smile Meditation
The general idea of this technique is to begin to outwardly smile, and then allow the feeling of joy to arise and spread throughout your body. It might be helpful to use a positive memory to evoke the feeling of joy to get you started. After you bring a smile to your lips and eyes, you can then direct it to your shoulders, down through your arms and hands. Feel it in your belly, in your hips, in your legs and in your feet. Allow it to spread throughout your body as a feeling of warmth, happiness and joy. As you smile on the inside, make sure you keep the smile on your face. When you finish, try to maintain the sensation of the inner smile throughout the day.