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Sahaja Relieves Depression

How Sahaja Meditation Helps Relieve Depression

Over the past couple of decades, depression has emerged from the shadows to stand center stage in the public dialogue on mental health. But for all the discussion and research devoted to depression, it remains a complicated disorder that differs, both causally and experientially, for each person who suffers from it. Depression generally involves a complex cocktail of factors, including biological, personality, environmental and psychoemotional factors (such as one’s emotional resilience and capacity to cope with stressors).

There is hope.

Most people who suffer from clinical depression will need some form of treatment to get better. But the good news is that around 80 percent of depression sufferers can be treated successfully and will feel better within a few short weeks. With treatment and support, most people can conquer depression and go on to live happy, productive lives.

Relief is found in addressing both the physical and psychology side of depression.

Depression typically involves both psychological (mental, cognitive and emotional) and somatic (biological and physiological) symptoms. The physical symptoms are intertwined with the psychological, emotional and cognitive symptoms — what we think about, and how we react emotionally to those thoughts. Cyclical, recurrent depression often blurs the line between cause and effect… Is the psychological symptom causing the physical symptom? Or is the physical symptom causing the psychological symptom? Ultimately, there’s no such thing as a “mind-body split.” To be successful, a therapeutic approach must address both.

Treatment for depression is often multi-faceted.

For many physicians, antidepressant medications have become a first-line depression treatment. In fact, antidepressant prescriptions have risen nearly 400% since 1988, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some other quick statistics…

  • Antidepressants were the third most common prescription drug taken by Americans of all ages in 2005–2008
  • Eleven percent of Americans aged 12 years and over take an antidepressant
  • Over 60% of Americans taking an antidepressant have taken it for 2 years or longer; 14% have taken it for 10 years or more (Pratt, et al, 2011).


The good news is that more people are seeking treatment for depression. The bad news is that pharmaceutical antidepressants may be over-prescribed.

For some — especially those with severe symptoms of depression — taking antidepressant medication for some period of time may well be essential to restoring quality of life. But as we all know, drugs have unpleasant side effects, and for some, finding the right drug and optimum dosage is a trial and error process.

Which treatment is right for you? The best treatment for depression for any one person depends on a number of factors, including your specific symptoms, the severity and duration of symptoms and your personal preferences. Successful treatment might include natural and holistic therapies, psychotherapy, medication, or any combinations of these treatments. In fact, many people find that combination treatments achieve the best outcome, especially those with recurrent, moderate to severe clinical depression.

Feeling better takes time, and truly conquering depression depends on you.

When can you expect to see results? In general, feeling better takes time, regardless of the therapeutic approach you chose. You’re not likely to simply “snap out of it” after the first treatment. Mood will likely improve gradually over time; you feel a little better, day-by-day. Often, sleep and appetite problems begin to improve before depressed mood lifts. As depression responds to treatment, a more positive, optimistic outlook begins to replace the old negative thought patterns that were keeping you stuck in that recurring cycle of depression. Having realistic expectations about progress, a little bit of patience, and faith in the therapeutic process will keep you on the path to recovery.

One thing’s for sure: The most successful treatment outcomes are achieved by those who accept responsibility for getting better and actively participate in determining the therapies that work for them. The more you can do to help yourself, the greater your odds of long-term success.

How Meditation Impacts Depression

Meditation is a great mood regulator. Its calming effect helps ease tension, improve concentration, increase awareness of feelings, reduce emotional reactivity, and relieve negative thoughts. In fact, meditation helps us simply let go of painful thoughts and feelings and increase positive emotions, which equips us to better manage future stressful situations.

Research demonstrates the importance of a combination approach to treating depression.

Some researchers have studied the effectiveness of meditation and psychotherapy as a combination treatment. For example, one 8-week program showed that mindfulness meditation combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy (MBCT) helped participants recognize and let go of ruminative thinking and negative emotions, leaving them free to “remain open to what’s there” and experience it fully, without negative reactions or attachment. Meditation evoked an attitude shift toward difficult experience. Participants learned to view thoughts simply as events in the mind, independent of their content and emotional charge. While many participants felt that a longer program was needed, 72 percent of depressives showed improvement and 63 percent of anxious participants showed improvement (Finucane, A., Mercer, S., 2006). (For more information about cognitive-behavioral therapy, see: Depression:Other Treatments.)

Neuroscientific Evidence of Meditation’s Influence on Depression

For many, Sahaja meditation can be an effective treatment for depression, typically as part of a combination treatment approach. The regular practice of Sahaja meditation helps us process and regulate emotions by exerting either attentional (by controlling what we devote attention to) and cognitive control (by exercising conscious control over our thoughts and feelings). Meditation allows us to pay impartial, nonjudgmental, nonreactive attention to all aspects of experience, both inner and outer, which helps diminish the sense of separateness, isolation or aloneness that tends to accompany depression.

Meditation can help people regulate their emotional states.

Several neuroimaging studies have revealed the ability of experienced meditators to cognitively regulate emotional states such as well-being and happiness (Hölzel, B., Hempel, H., et al, 2007). And one UK study found that 6 weeks of Sahaja meditation sessions even had a greater impact on depression, anxiety and overall mental health in 24 patients with Major Depression compared to a control group and a group receiving cognitive-behavioral therapy, a standard treatment for depression (Morgan, A., 2001). While the effect was significant, the sample size was small, so more studies are needed to conclusively determine the capacity of Sahaja meditation to fully treat depression and anxiety (Rubia, K., 2008).

Meditation can help people make emotional changes that stick.

One 2016 Sahaja meditation study using MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry (Hernández et al, 2016) found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume in right hemispheric regions (insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices) associated with sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoceptive perception, monitoring of autonomic functions, and feelings of empathy and compassion. Increased gray matter volume in these attention and emotional regulation regions suggests that regular practice of Sahaja may enhance the functions controlled by these regions; for example, by exerting top-down emotional regulation and flexible appraisal and control of our own emotional states, particularly negative emotional states (Reva et al, 2014). Together, these results provide evidence that regular Sahaja practice may enhance emotional regulation neuroplastically; that is, provide lasting changes across the practitioner’s lifetime.

The 2014 Reva study of Sahaja practitioners found that the enlarged gray matter volume in the right ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex (vmOFC) may also be associated with the findings of two other Sahaja studies (Morgan, 2001; Manocha et al, 2011) that found that Sahaja meditation may reduce symptoms of depression. Researchers speculated that Sahaja meditation’s top-down effect on these fronto-limbic brain systems of emotional regulation may a positive regulatory effect on depression.

Let’s look at how meditation impacts specific aspects of depression…

Coping with Psychosocial Stressors

Psychosocial stressors are stress-triggering events that can impact our social and emotional behavior, such as loss, trauma, relationship problems, and any other stressor or life change that we find challenging to cope with. Meditation can help.

Increased self-actualization, improved relationships.

Meditation increases our self-awareness, and with increased self-awareness comes a greater understanding and enhanced perspective of ourselves and of our relationships with others. Meditation’s steady, focused attention to our experience in the moment leads to greater self-trust and self-confidence, which encourages us to be more proactive, decisive and assertive in our interactions with others, all of which, in turn, boosts our self-esteem. We’re able to meet anxiety-provoking interactions with others with calmness and strength.

Meditation can help people figure out their unique triggers.

Troubled relationships feed depression. So does low self-esteem, which tends to fuel a steady stream of negative, self-damaging thoughts and feelings. (For an in-depth look at how meditation impacts self-esteem, see: Meditation Impacts Self-Esteem.) Meditation can help us analyze our own feelings and pinpoint what’s triggering them. Meditation helps silence that hypercritical, “I’m not good enough” inner voice that prevents us from achieving our highest potential, often referred to as self-actualization. Self-actualization is, in fact, often a primary goal of meditation.

Meditation leads people suffering from depression to more clearly define their self-concept.

One meta-analysis of 42 studies on the effects of meditation and other forms of relaxation on self-actualization found that the effect of meditation was three times greater than that of relaxation practices (Alexander, C., et al, 1991; Hussain, D., Bhushan, B., 2010). Their measure of self-actualization included three independent factors: 1) affective (emotional) maturity; 2) an integrated perspective of the self and the world, and; 3) a resilient sense of self. After one month of meditation, participants developed a more strongly defined self-concept and came to perceive their “actual self” as significantly closer to their “ideal self.” No similar changes were observed for the non-meditator controls.

Stronger self-concept leads to greater empathy for ourselves and others.

Meditation automatically increases our perceptual sensitivity to both our inner self, as well as the external world. Because we can perceive ourselves with greater clarity, we’re able to perceive others with greater clarity. We become more adept at perceiving and interpreting the tone, body language and microexpressions of those around us and are better able to empathize more fully with their feelings put ourselves in their shoes. We become more introspective and intuitive and can better anticipate someone’s reactions to our words and deeds. And, over time, enhanced perceptual sensitivity may enhance our awareness of the root causes of our depression.

Self-Damaging Thought Patterns

Emotional well-being is associated with a positive and optimistic — yet realistic — outlook on life. Prolonged negative thinking can create an endless negative feedback loop that can spiral into depression. Negative thought patterns can deplete our inner reservoir of self-esteem and resilience, making it more difficult to cope with stressors on a daily basis, both large and small. If we have low self-esteem and low resilience, we are too easily overwhelmed and tend to lack the perspective and emotional maturity needed to analyze and interpret situations accurately. We fall into faulty, distorted patterns of thinking. Common ones include:

  • Catastrophizing. Exaggerating the impact of a situation, making mountains out of molehills. (My whole life is ruined because of this!)
  • Rumination. Chewing on past mistakes and circling the past again and again. (If only I hadn’t…)
  • Filtering. Magnifying negative details while filtering out all the positive details. (You get 90% of the questions on an exam right, but can’t stop thinking about the 10% you got wrong.)
  • Polarized or Black-and-White Thinking. Immature, regressive, all-or-none thinking typical of children; the world is viewed in black-and-white extremes. (I’m a total failure!)
  • Personalization. Thinking that everything people do or say is a reaction to you. (The teacher doesn’t call on me because he doesn’t like me!)
  • Blaming Others when things don’t go your way. (It’s my parents’ fault I can’t get ahead.)


(For an in-depth look at negative thinking patterns, see: Faulty Thoughts)

Meditation can help people to better recognize their emotions and then choose the best way to express themselves.

Meditation strengthens our ability to inhibit such negative emotional thought processes, which can only exacerbate stress, depression and anxiety. One pioneering study found that Sahaja Meditators scored significantly lower than control subjects in depression and the personality traits of anxiety, neuroticism, and psychoticism. They scored higher in emotion recognition and expression (Aftanas, L., Golosheykin, S., 2005). This suggests that regular practice of Sahaja meditation can lead to greater psychoemotional stability, emotional resilience and better emotional skills. The study participants were found to be better at identifying the emotions they were feeling, they had a wider spectrum of positive emotions, and they bounced back quicker after stressful events.

Often, regular meditation leads to other lifestyle changes that enhance health and wellbeing.

The study used spectral EEG to compare the responses of experienced and novice meditators to negative emotions (Aftanas L., Golosheykin S., 2005). In novice meditators, inducing negative emotions significantly increased emotional reactivity. Their EEG readings showed greater arousal and a heavier emotional workload, which coincided with their self-reports of experiencing negative emotions. Additional longitudinal studies are needed to fully understand the long-term effects of Sahaja meditation on personality traits since results in studies like this one can be confounded by cohort effects (the impact of a group bonded by time or common life experience). Also, meditation practices are often associated with other lifestyle changes that would independently enhance health and personality.

People who suffer from depression commonly ruminate, persistently revisiting negative thoughts.

Another study found that the default mode network (DMN) in the brains of people with Major Depressive Disorder, as compared to healthy people, shows greater hyperconnectivity with areas of the brain that are involved with rumination and brooding (posterior-cingulate cortex and the subgenual-cingulate cortex) while at rest, but not while they were busy with a task (Berman, et al, 2011). In idle moments, these depressives were ruminating and brooding.

The DMN is our “standby” mode. It’s a network of brain regions that are active when the brain is at wakeful rest or idling — in other words, when we’re not attending a particular task and aren’t focused on the external world. The DMN kicks in when we’re daydreaming, or our attention lapses. But overactivation of the DMN has also been associated with depression and other mental health disorders, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety, autism, schizophrenia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Enhanced ability to cope with bereavement and loss.

Experiencing loss can trigger depressive symptoms — whether the loss is a financial setback, relationship breakup, or death of a loved one. Grieving a loss is a normal human response, and is, in fact, a necessary part of working through it.

Over time, unresolved grief can transform into clinical depression.

Everyone grieves in his or her own way. The grieving process emerges naturally from our individual coping skills, personality traits, past experiences and conditionings, cultural influences, and our unique relationship to what we have lost. Some experience loss of appetite and have trouble sleeping; some overeat and sleep too much. Most experience a period of shock, numbness, deep sadness. Others become angry, feel guilty or have no motivation to participate in activities they once enjoyed. These feelings are all normal. But there’s a difference between clinical depression and the normal sadness associated with grief. “Normal” sadness feels like an expected response. Depression, on the other hand, feels unresolved and includes a pervasive negative sense of self and the inability to function week after week. Normal grief is typically described as always moving or changing. It’s when grief becomes stagnant, oppressive and prevents you from functioning normally that it turns into clinical depression.

Meditation grows resilience and quells a ruminating mind.

Meditation helps us cope with loss, first and foremost, by increasing our resilience to any stressful event. Meditation rewires our perspective of emotionally charged events and protects us from intrusive, negative thoughts. In Sahaja meditation, specifically during the state of thoughtless awareness, we associate with the inner self that knows no, sadness, loneliness, or hopelessness. This inner self can watch these emotions, thoughts and feelings come and go without reaction. We do not feel alone because the outer “self” that was experiencing these thoughts and feelings disappears. There is only profound peace, and a sense of feeling at one with the eternal, infinite universe, which may help us feel unity with who or what we have lost. In Sahaja meditation, the inner energy, as it rises, replenishes the vital energy throughout our nervous systems that was depleted by the costly emotions associated with grief and loss. This replenishment also helps speed recovery by giving us a new reservoir of energy to fuel coping.

Neurochemical Imbalances & Neurobiological Changes

Neurochemical imbalances.

Changes in brain chemistry influence our mood, emotions and thought processes. Depression can be caused by fluctuations in the levels of neurochemicals that influence every aspect of our sense of well-being, including mood, motivation, energy, attention, contentment, happiness and pleasure or sense of enjoyment. Therefore, an increase in the neurochemicals that influence above aspects can ultimately help in dealing with depression.  Specifically, the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, GABA, melatonin and the stress hormones norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol may influence depression and therefore its cure.

By increasing serotonin, meditation can have a positive impact on mood, sleep, blood pressure, aggression, and pain.

Meditation may increase the neurotransmitter serotonin (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003; Bujatti, 1976; Walton, et al, 1995; Solberg et al., 2000a, 2004b) and higher overall serotonin levels have been measured in long-term meditators (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003; Bujatti, 1976). Serotonin is the primary neurotransmitter influencing mood. It also plays a role in sleep cycles (circadian rhythm), appetite, pain, aggression, sexual behavior, information processing and involuntary processes such as blood pressure, body temperature and endocrine system function.

By increasing dopamine, meditation can have a positive impact on motivation, learning, memory, and feelings of pleasure.

Meditation may increase the neurotransmitter dopamine (Kjaer et al., 2002; Lou, et al, 1999). In addition to helping the meditator maintain internalized attention, dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward and plays a significant role in motivation, learning, memory, and regulation of motor activity. Dopamine is involved in the release of natural endorphins, which act as natural mood lifters and have a calming effect on us, and may also play a role in meditators’ ability to detach themselves from the past or future.

By increasing GABA, meditation can have a positive impact on anxiety.

Meditation may increase the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) (Elias, A.N., Wilson, A.F., 2000). GABA has a calming, anti-anxiety effect on the brain by modulating or regulating the activity of other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine.

By increasing melatonin, meditation can have a positive impact on sleep, mood stabilization, and aging.

Meditation may increase melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) in long-term meditators (Harinath et al., 2004; Massion et al., 1995; Solberg et al., 2000a, 2004a, b; Tooley et al., 2000). Melatonin has been closely linked to serotonin (the mood regulator), which suggests that it plays an important role in mood stabilization (including depression), positive affect, stress-prevention and aging (Pacchierotti et al., 2001). Melatonin regulates our circadian rhythm (sleeping and waking) patterns, which tells the body when it’s time to sleep. Thus melatonin deficits could contribute to sleep problems commonly associated with depression.

Meditation has been found to decrease stress hormones: norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol.

Meditation has been found to decrease stress hormones, such as norepinephrine (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003), epinephrine (Walton, K.G., et al, 1995; Infante, J.R., 2001), and cortisol (Sudsuang R., Chentanez V., Veluvan K., 1991; Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003).

Meditation has been shown to regulate the hypothalamus, responsible for controlling the autonomic nervous system.

Meditation has been shown to regulate the hypothalamus in a number of important ways. The hypothalamus plays a critical role in controlling the autonomic nervous system, receiving input from noradrenergic (involving noradrenaline or norepinephrine) and serotonergic (involving serotonin) neural pathways that influence functions such as appetite, energy, drive, motivation and overall sense of well-being — all of which, you’ll notice, are impaired by depression (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003).

For an in-depth look at how meditation influences neurochemicals and brain mechanisms to promote better health, see: Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters & Neurohormones.

Structural changes in the brain. Chronic depression can produce marked changes in critical brain structures such as the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. In some cases, structural dysfunction can even predispose us to depression. Meditation has been shown to rewire neural circuitry and physically alter brain structures over time in ways that help ward off depression. For example…

Experienced meditators have increased gray matter in the hippocampus parts of their brains, leading to greater emotional regulation.

Several studies have found that experienced meditators have increased gray matter density in brain areas that are involved in emotional processing. Researchers at Massachusetts General found significantly greater gray matter concentration in the right hippocampus of experienced meditators, which may help explain the enhanced ability of meditators to regulate emotional responses (Hölzel, B., Ott, U., et al, 2008). The hippocampus helps down-regulate (decrease) activity of the amygdala, the brain’s emotion-processing factory. The amygdala tells you how you should feel about something, how it relates to your history, and how you should respond to it. It works in tandem with the hippocampus to generate emotions, attach emotions to memories, and store and index those memories.

Depression Associated with Other Medical Conditions

Depression often co-occurs with other mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety), as well as physical health problems, such as heart problems, diabetes, cancer, or stroke. For depressives with other health conditions, meditation can be an effective tool for facilitating overall recovery. For example, a meta-analysis of 20 mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation studies found that meditation’s ability to enhance our moment-to-moment awareness of our own mental processes reduces negative emotions and improves vitality and coping in people suffering from a wide spectrum of clinical disorders, including cancer, heart disease, depression, anxiety and chronic pain (Grossman P., 2004).

Depression impacts how people fight infection and other illnesses.

People with depression have been shown to have higher levels of immune system inflammation or over-activated immune systems, even when they’re not fighting infections or diseases. Meditation reduces stress levels, boosts the immune system and improves overall health, which, in turn, fosters physiological stability and facilitates healing. A 2002 Columbia University study, for example, found that meditation slows the heart rate via signals that travel through the vagus nerve, which directly links the brain and the immune system.

The state of the mind impacts the state of the body.

The state of the mind changes the state of the body through your central nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. Peace of mind sends the body a ‘live’ message, while depression, fear and unresolved conflict send it a ‘die’ message.

Lasting, Long-Term Effects of Meditation on Depression

Studies have shown that deep meditative practice can positively alter the brain circuitry associated with cognitive and emotional processing, leading to positive, sustainable effects on our mental health and overall cognitive functioning. Deeper, more intense meditations come with practice and experience, and regular meditation has been found to partner well with the brain’s natural plasticity and the body’s innate ability to heal itself with the right support.

Meditation can help prevent relapse.

Meditation increases motivation and sharpens focus and attention, which helps strengthen our ability to focus on improving ourselves and, in fact, maintain a lifelong focus on self-improvement. Meditation’s innate ability to harness the brain’s natural plasticity can induce lasting changes in the way we process our thoughts and feelings and react to stressors. One study showed that meditation may even reduce the risk of relapse in people suffering from depression (3 or more episodes) as well or better than standard interventions (Chiesa, A., 2010).

Meditation leads to contentment.

Meditation literally impacts the neural connections between the brain’s emotional limbic system and cortical areas (responsible for higher brain functions such as thought, reasoning, memory, sensation and voluntary muscle movement) in ways that can positively change how we appraise and interpret emotions. The state of internalized attention and emotional contentment that we experience during Sahaja meditation has been shown to increase psychological stability and long-term resilience (Aftanas, L., Golosheykin, S., 2005).

Resilience is that all-important factor that can prevent depression from ever occurring in the first place and prevent recurrence for those who have experienced depression in the past. Resilience gives us the capacity to cope with stress, overcome adversity and bounce back quickly. For resilience-building strategies, see: How to Build Resilience.

For information about other natural depression treatment approaches, see: Depression: Other Treatments.



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