Treating ongoing clinical depression has typically called for therapy and/or prescription antidepressants. But a growing number of studies are showing that mindfulness training can be just as good as meds in effectively helping people alleviate their depression and prevent recurrence.
Mindfulness training, which is often called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or MBCT, could potential be used for treating depression as well as its other growing list of uses. In fact, researchers at the University of Oxford found MBCT to be comparably effective as antidepressants in preventing a depression relapse. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of those who experience a depression episode have another.
The Oxford research echoes results from other studies that showed mindfulness training to be an effective alternative treatment. Some believe the studies strongly encourage using MBCT as a tool to wean people off antidepressants, or avoid them entirely, without the considerable risk of relapse.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which is reportedly growing in popularity in the U.S., is a hybrid of two approaches to treatment. Through guided mindfulness training and meditation people can increase their awareness of when negative spirals are starting. This is also combined with cognitive behavioral training that teaches how to resist or counter damaging thoughts or moods before the spirals turn to crippling sadness or hopelessness.
With mindfulness training, someone learns to observe and acknowledge her or his own thoughts without judgment and then let them go. The person then replaced any negative or destructive thought patterns with more productive, positive ones. The practice impacts depression by dealing with the intrusive and negative thoughts that lead to the most crippling symptoms.
The Oxford researchers equated the program with training the mind and body to prevent another episode by responding more constructively to their experiences. The team published their findings in The Lancet.
The latest research involved 424 people who were already taking antidepressants to treat major down periods. They were divided into two groups: one continued taking a maintenance dose of their meds to prevent relapse and the other titrated off their drugs while simultaneously learning MBCT. The latter group went through eight MBCT group sessions, was given instructions to practice at home, and had four subsequent in-person follow-up appointments. Over the two-year study period, the relapse rates were remarkably similar – 44 percent in the therapy group and 47 percent in the medication group – indicating that the MBCT did keep the depression at bay for those who reduced their medication.
The idea of using meditation-based practice for treating depression is not new. Last year, a Johns Hopkins meta-data analysis reviewed numerous studies on meditation and depression; the results showed meditation to be largely as effective as antidepressants. While it might not work for everyone, the odds of a relapse are comparable.
When the meditation versus medication question arises for treating a new patient, mindfulness is apparently as good as meds for treating depression. Two more pluses from these findings: Mindfulness therapy has no cost beyond the training, whereas people can be on medication for years. In addition, there are no side effects.
By Dyanne Weiss