This article is not just intended for people suffering from depression or panic attacks. It is useful for everyone starting to practise meditation. Here I’ll tell how to apply the skills gained during meditation to overcome any negative emotions, fears and thoughts as exemplified by depression.
On the Russian version of this website, I often receive the following type of comment from people suffering from these conditions: ‘I started meditating two months ago; but my depression (panic attacks, fears, negative emotions etc.) don’t go away? What am I doing wrong?’ In this article, I’ll provide a detailed answer to this question; I’ll also try to teach people who have started meditating to apply the experience gained during the practice correctly, instead of just waiting for some effect to happen itself.
Initially I planned to write an article called ‘The correct use of meditation skills in everyday life’. However I then decided to write the post solely in relation to the issue of depression and panic attacks.
So let’s use this as an alternative name for this article. And I would still strongly encourage anyone to read it, even if you’re just using meditation for self-development, since initially this article was intended for everyone, not only for people with depression.
I’d like to start with the assertion that meditation isn’t just a practice that will lead you to happiness and harmony simply because you’re doing it. Meditation is an exercise that allows you to develop self-control and self-reflection, which are very useful skills when you’re trying to overcome depression.
Some pieces of advice will therefore be useful to you:
Use the skill of awareness not only during meditation sessions
During meditation, you become a passive observer of your emotions and thoughts. The practice teaches you to look at the different manifestations of your inner world from outside without becoming involved in your emotions, feelings or fears. Once you catch yourself thinking, ‘My colleague is such an idiot, he’s so disrespectful…’, you should calmly divert your attention to your breathing (or a mantra, visualisation, etc.) rather than reliving and debating this thought. This is how meditation works: thoughts run through your head, but once you observe that you’re starting to get caught up in one of them, you divert your attention to a point of concentration and contemplate inner silence.
When you observe your breathing, you aren’t able to ruminate on anything. Thoughts can come and go, floating past your attention like clouds overhead, but you don’t chase them away – observing your breathing, you just watch them disappear.
The more you practise meditation and master the skill of disengaging from your thoughts and emotions, the better you become at doing this in everyday life.
It is a mistaken belief that the aim of mediation is to get rid of your thoughts. Meditation teaches you to notice when you’ve started thinking and to become conscious of your thoughts and emotions. If there aren’t any thoughts, how can you learn to recognise them? It is absolutely normal for people to think during meditation.
Use the skill of recognising your feelings against the symptoms of depression and panic attacks. When negative thoughts like ‘I’m worthless’, ‘Everything’s so awful’, ‘I’ll never get out of this’, or even ‘I’m having a heart attack’, ‘I’m dying’, pass through your mind, don’t get caught up in them but refocus your attention on someone else(as you do during meditation). Only then will they disappear!
Through meditation your awareness will develop more rapidly. When you start ruminating, you’ll find it easier to pause and say to yourself: ‘Stop! I’m thinking about it again! What’s the point of that?’
Keep in mind that these thoughts stem not from your true self, but from your consciousness which at the moment is in the shadow of depression. These thoughts are an illusion. You’re thinking in this way because you’re suffering from depression (or panic attacks); you see the world in shades of grey, and this perception sets the tone of your way of thinking. These thoughts don’t reflect things as they really are, they’re just symptoms of a psychological disorder.
Analyse your thoughts instead of ruminating. Why are they coming up? Where do they lead? Do they have any practical benefit for you? Are they helpful in solving your problems? No, they just give rise to a new pointless suffering and keep you permanently chewing painful ‘mental gum’.
If you start to succumb to these thoughts, you’ll just aggravate your condition. This is because your well being depends not only on the symptoms of depression, but also on the way you handle them. The more you worry, the more severe the symptoms of panic attacks and depression become. It is a vicious circle.
If you’re a bit hungry, you’ll start to feel ravenous if you don’t stop thinking about it food. If you feel sexual desire, it’ll become unbearable when you start playing sex scenes in your head. Your needs, desires and fears are simply energy which is fed by your thoughts and fears!
If you don’t succumb to negative feelings and stop constantly obsessing, you’ll feel much better. And those feelings will become less strong and significant.
You need to stop equating yourself with your negative emotions and your depression. Meditation will teach you how to do this! Don’t get drawn into your depression; live your life and let the depression live its own! Don’t let it enter your territory and don’t you enter its space. Depression shouldn’t infiltrate your relationships, your job or your plans. Just keep living, fighting, acting, working, achieving your plans and building relationships. You have this opportunity! Never think, ‘I can’t’; of course, you may not be able to fly, or breathe in space without a spacesuit, grow or shrink through willpower alone – but you can get out of bed, go out, start putting your plans into action and live an active life!
So protect your life from depression with a solid fence: don’t leave any space for depression inside and don’t let it limit you.
I understand that my arguments here may leave you perplexed. When you’re caught by a bout of depression, anxiety or fear, it seems as though it envelops your whole being. How can you get your true self beyond these emotions if it is these emotions?
I felt this way before I started meditating. If you sent my current reasoning in a time machine five years into the past I would find it pretty incomprehensible.
But thanks to meditation I’ve realised that my true self lies outside of my fears and suffering, and consequently I can control these emotions (Update 27.05: “control” is not the best word. It is better to say to accept this emotions but not getting involved in them, not doing everything that your emotions teel you, don’t be a slave to them). It is difficult to really grasp these words if you don’t practise meditation. But if you start, this truth will come out into the open for you. You’ll gain power over your emotions. You’ll learn how to manage your condition. You’ll stop identifying yourself with your depression.
Accept what’s happening to you
In the previous paragraph I emphasised how important it is not to identify yourself with your emotions and fears so as to give yourself the opportunity to manage your condition. But managing does not mean ‘getting rid of’; sometimes you need to just accept what’s happening to you.
I’d like to illustrate this point (as well as the point from the previous paragraph) with an example of my personal life, which I very much like doing. A while back I spent an hour in a sensory deprivation tank or flotation tank. This is a sound- and light-proof chamber, the bottom of which is filled with very salty water. Due to the high density of the water, your body floats on it. This kind of tank is used for relaxation and as a type of therapy.
When I lay down in the tank and its lid closed over me, I felt like I was in a coffin. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t hear a sound. I started to feel fear and panic rising inside me. At first, I tried my best to cope with these feelings. I tried to stop them. My increased heart rate and shallow breathing caused severe discomfort and I tried to convince myself that nothing bad could happen to me.
Then I decided that it would be more appropriate to put my fear out of my head rather than trying to stop it. I said to myself that my response was probably quite natural for a person who’d ended up in a coffin like this for the first time. There was no need to persuade myself that there wasn’t any threat since I knew this anyway. My fear wasn’t informing me of a genuine threat.
I just had to relax and forget my discomfort. Relaxation means abandoning attempts to influence your body with force of will. Whatever happens, happens! ‘Let my heart beat as fast as it likes,’ I thought. It would calm down eventually. My emotions not always keep pace with my mind. And it is ok.
So my heart was hammering, my palms were sweaty, but my mind stayed cool. I didn’t even notice when my fear and anxiety slunk away; I’d just forgotten about them!
I simply didn’t take any notice of the panic; I stopped identifying myself with it and kept it out of my territory. It still blustered somewhere inside me but my true self wasn’t overly bothered.
This is what it means not to associate with your emotions; this is how the skill is practically applied. And it is meditation that taught me how to do it.
During practice, you shouldn’t exercise your will in any way; your only task is to relax absolutely. You shouldn’t ‘try to get rid of your thoughts’ or ‘try to relax’. You simply observe your breathing calmly and stay conscious of your thoughts and emotions without attempting to chase them away.
Accept everything that’s happening to you. Don’t try to interfere in the order of things; let them take their course.
You can treat bouts of depression and panic attacks in the same way. It isn’t necessary to resist them, ‘endure’ them or try to make them stop. Just calmly accept them. You feel bad? So what! Are terrible thoughts and sorrowful memories bringing you down? This is natural since you have depression. Are you afraid? Well, you’re having a panic attack, so that’s quite reasonable!
You don’t have to fall for these thoughts and fears. You don’t need to make a drama – it’s just another attack. Relax! Don’t try to do anything! Let the attack run its course. As often as not you can’t influence it anyway, so take it easy. Why worry? The attack started itself and will come to an end in the same way.
Imagine that you’re rowing a boat to shore. Your boat is constantly rocking from side to side and being tossed about in the wild waves. There’s no way out of the boat until you reach the shore, which will happen sooner or later. Until then, there’s no point in thrashing about or trying to resist the waves; but at the same time there’s no sense in letting despair make you give up paddling.
Meditate, exercise, do everything you can to overcome depression; in other words, row to the shore. Nothing else depends on you, so relax and stop resisting.
Don’t be strongly attached to your emotional condition, don’t feel bad about feeling bad. It is not so big deal. Meditation will teach your mind to do that.
According to meditation teacher Lorin Roche, ‘When we accept, the brain can relax and stop trying to defend against the blackness, and turn toward metabolizing it as a source of life. Then it becomes an elixir’.
The culmination of this method is an attempt to escalate a panic attack, putting yourself in unbearable conditions. I have described this in detail in the paragraph about the way of samurai in my article dedicated to panic attacks, so I won’t talk about it here.
Free yourself of suppressed emotions
During meditation, you’re doing nothing but observing your breathing. Your brain isn’t absorbing information, so it gets a chance to process information that you’ve previously obtained. It is little wonder, therefore, that a many thoughts arise during this time, typically thoughts which have been neglected throughout the day.
These are suppressed emotions and feelings; raw mental information. In the course of meditation, your brain is attempting to process it. During this 20-minutes period of rest, you don’t go on the internet, put on the television or bury yourself in a newspaper to suppress these thoughts and feelings. Now you have to confront them and set them free!
I use the words ‘set them free’ because an appropriate metaphor to describe a person’s psychological world occurred to me. You know films and books about ghosts? A restless spirit hangs about on Earth somewhere between life and death and can’t get to heaven until it sorts out some unfinished business from when it was alive.
The same holds true for your suppressed emotions and feelings. Like hungry spirits they’ll torture your mind, clanking invisible chains, until you set them free, solve their problems or at least hear them out.
Many people nowadays live under an information blitz, spending little time alone with their thoughts and not giving their brain the opportunity to process information. This leads to the accumulated mass of unprocessed, ‘undigested’ information causing harm their psychological health. Instead of offloading this information, people drive it deeper into the depths of their unconscious.
This information leads to stress, anxiety and depression. Meditation helps you to get rid of this accumulated information and allows you to spend time by yourself.
This is when your fears start to come out; you can get to know what’s really worrying you and how to solve any problems linked with these thoughts. It is possible that something you’ve become used to thinking of as a problem in fact isn’t one. Meditation cracks open the secrets of your inner world.
You shouldn’t see meditation as ineffectual and pointless reflection carried out by people suffering from depression during which time they spend hours going over their thoughts. No – it is completely different. The aim of meditation is to become aware of your thoughts without brooding. Your mind, clear of the pollution of emotions, can then recognise the true reasons for your problems. (I’ll return to this idea later when I compare your depression with a dragon.)
This doesn’t mean that during meditation you need to practise introspection. You just need to relax and an answer will come to you, like a sudden flash of intuition. Or you’ll arrive at an answer after meditation, since you’ll be teaching your mind to look beyond passing emotions and desires. Or, you won’t arrive at anything and your meditation will pass without any thoughts. There’s no need to expect any particular outcome; any experience during meditation is fine.
Free yourself from stress
Stress can exacerbate the symptoms of depression or even cause them. According to the National Institute of Health, ‘meditation increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system and decreases activity in the sympathetic nervous system.’
In other words, meditation makes you feel calmer and more relaxed, helping relieve stress and tension, and regular practice will decrease your sensitivity to stress throughout the day.
Scientists have proven that during meditation, alpha wave brain activity increases. Such activity promotes a calm and focused state of mind.
In short, regular meditation improves your mood and calms you, which is just what people suffering from depression or panic attacks need – in fact, all people benefit from this. However, you shouldn’t meditate in the expectation of your mood improving by itself. This is why I’ve written about that at the very end.
Use the skills developed during meditation when combating depression; don’t just wait for your depression to go away by itself.
Don’t think of meditation as a magic pill that will immediately cure you of depression. Looked at one way, meditation is simply an instrument, albeit a very strong and effective one. Use this instrument to detect your problems, manage your condition, relax and free yourself from depressed feelings.
Meditation also offers many additional advantages which you can read about in the article Meditation Health Benefits. The practice helps improve your health, which can also have a positive impact in the struggle with depression.
What may happen
When I started to meditate a few years ago, my condition actually got worse at first. Such deterioration can be observed in many people, especially if they are suffering from something like depression.
This could be due to a number of reasons. During meditation, your suppressed fears and emotions come to the forefront of your mind, and becoming aware of them can cause discomfort. (Remember the comparison with ghosts?) Your depression (as a composite of all your fears, mistakes, emotional habits, etc.) can start to ‘seep out’, like pus from a boil, and this process may not be entirely painless.
If you used to be able to run from your fears, hide from your problems, wrap yourself up in lies which helped protect you from your troubles, then now, if you start to practise meditation, you’ll be forced to face truth about yourself. And this truth can be bitter.
But this is the only way to overcome your deep issues, complexes and fears. You can’t get through them if you keep running away.
It is possible that these words scare you. You think, ‘I think about these problems all day every day; I want to get rid of them, not think about them even more!’
It is important not to confuse rumination with thinking aimed at detecting and solving your problems. Let me compare depression and panic attacks to a ferocious dragon. At the moment, when an attack strikes, the dragon devours you. You’re digested in its stomach juices, unable to see anything around you. It seems as if you are struggling, but in actual fact, you’re simply flailing around senselessly in the belly of an enormous reptile.
Meditation allows you to get out of the beast’s stomach and look it straight in the face. Yes, the dragon might be fearsome; you can smell its foul breath; you’re forced to look at its terrifying form. But only you can beat it. Rather than thinking, ‘Why did this happen?’ or ‘What is this for?’ you’ll be wondering, ‘How do I do this?’
The practice will allow you to stop ‘stewing in the juices of your depression’; you’ll start to see you fears for what they really are.
A temporary deterioration in your condition following meditation could also be linked to a change in chemical balance in your brain. Just how meditation affects this balance isn’t fully understood, but the effect may be related to the brain changing from one state to another.
A similar side effect can also occur with certain antidepressants: at first things get worse, then your condition stabilises.
Bonus: and of course meditation has a permanent antidepressant effect, which is harmless and doesn’t cause addiction or side effects. But it is not the only thing!
Does meditation help everyone suffering from depression or panic attacks?
Of course it is impossible to guarantee that meditation will help everyone recover from depression, anxiety or panic attacks in the same way that it helped me. But if you meditate regularly and start to use the skills gained to combat depression or panic disorder, then even if you don’t overcome these afflictions completely, you’ll learn to live with them and deal with new bouts more peacefully.
With regular practice, you’ll be less afraid of recurring attacks and you’ll have an effective instrument to manage your condition. This is something no pill can give you.
Regular practice is useful in any event. It can change your life and identity in ways you never imagined, so why not give it a try?
I repeat one more time that the conclusions of this article may seem controversial, inevident or even paradoxical to some. I realise this full well, since I understand that many people have become so used to identifying with their problems that the idea of getting past them seems incomprehensible.
But even if the conclusions seem beyond you for now, I would still encourage you to try meditating,
What I’m writing about in this article is a truth which is not reached via ‘rational’ knowledge. It must be felt, soaked up through regular practice. And when you start to become aware of your emotions and fears, I hope that the ideas here will become as apparent to you as they are to me.