Feeling Blue? Three Meditation Techniques to Try

34712610 - sport, meditation, park and lifestyle concept - smiling woman meditating on mat outdoors

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.

 

Getting Started

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 Meditation

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.

  • Nicole Lee

    Thanks Shannon :) Loving kindness is such a powerful practice. There is a version of Inner Smile that I practice and share with my qigong students where we smile into our organs, thanking them for their work in keeping us healthy – sending them gratitude…its wonderful!

  • Cristobaldelicia

    Now meditating after 23 years of various antidepressants, I'm coming to the conclusion that all I did need was some psychotherapy and meditation, after all! But it's been a long, difficult process. I have recently tried a type of LKM that is supposed to include enemies or people you have a disagreement with, and unfortunately I'm just not ready to forgive that easily. I have to stick with meditating for people that are sick or suffering in order not to dwell on past slights. Maybe someday I will include the people I'm angry with, but I'm not there yet.

    Namaste!

  • Cafe Beans

    Nicely summarized. Thank you for sharing this with everyone!

    Loving-kindness is probably one of the more challenging meditations for me because of the focus it requires, but it has really helped taper the waves in turbulent times and helped me to feel more connected to others around me.

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Hi Nicole, I've heard many good things about qigong from people who have found it enormously beneficial. Thanks for highlighting that the Inner Smile meditation is part of the practice. I love the idea of smiling into our organs. I have a visual image of all my organs with little smiling faces on them right now.

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience with depression and meditation, it's so interesting to hear that you feel like you're finally getting somewhere with the help of meditation and psychotherapy. It's also interesting reading about the challenges you find with LKM and the practice of forgiveness because this is something I've recently been researching and I'll try to write about it soon on this blog.
    If you haven't already come across this, you might like to look at the Stanford Forgiveness Project. http://learningtoforgive.com/
    They've been doing some fascinating research on forgiveness, which they say is not about excusing, exonerating, justifying, condoning, pardoning or reconciling, but rather about moving on and it requires overcoming resentment, withholding retaliation, and responding to your offender with benevolence. In other words, forgiveness is not about the person who has committed the offense, but rather about the health of the victim.
    I wish you well on your own journey.

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Thanks for this feedback Cafe Beans. I'm so pleased to read about the benefits you've found from LKM and that you've persisted even though it's been a challenge.

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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