Mindfulness, or paying full attention to the present moment, can be very helpful in improving the cognitive symptoms of depression. These debilitating symptoms include distorted thinking, difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness. Cognitive symptoms can impair all areas of a person’s life. For instance, poor concentration can interfere with your job or schoolwork. Negative thoughts can lead to negative emotions, deepening depression.
Focusing on the here and now helps individuals become aware of their negative thoughts, acknowledge them without judgment and realize they’re not accurate reflections of reality, writes author William Marchand, M.D., in his comprehensive book Depression and BipolarDisorder: Your Guide to Recovery. In it, Dr. Marchand recounts the benefits of mindfulness interventions and provides in-depth information about other psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatments.
Through mindfulness, individuals start to see their thoughts as less powerful. These distorted thoughts – such as “I always make mistakes” or “I’m a horrible person” – start to hold less weight. In his book Marchand describes it as “watching ourselves think. We ‘experience’ thoughts and other sensations, but we aren’t carried away by them. We just watch them come and go.”
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a group therapy that combines mindfulness principles with cognitive therapy to help prevent relapse in depression. It’s based on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. MBSR includes mindfulness tools, such as meditation, a body scan and hatha yoga, along with education about stress and assertiveness, according to Marchand. (Learn more here.)
MBCT teaches individuals to detach from distorted and negative thinking patterns, which can trigger the return of depression. (Learn more here.)
Studies have suggested that MBCT is a valuable intervention for depression. This recent meta-analysis found that MBCT was highly effective in reducing relapse for major depression. This study found that it was beneficial for individuals currently struggling with depression.
Getting professional treatment for depression is vital. But there are complementary mindfulness practices readers can try on their own. Marchand shared his suggestions below.
“Mindfulness meditation is essentially training one’s attention to maintain focus and avoid mind wandering,” said Marchand, also a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy provider who practices meditation in the Soto Zen tradition. “Strengthening one’s ability to focus attention can help with concentration and memory.”
If you’re new to meditation, Marchand suggested carving out 10 to 15 minutes to meditate on most days. Specifically, “sit in a comfortable position and focus attention on the physical sensations of the breath.” Your mind will probably wander. That’s completely normal, he said. Simply refocus your attention back to your breath.
Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, Ph.D, has a number of guided meditations on her website.
Mindfulness in Daily Activities
Whether you’re eating, showering or getting dressed, you can practice mindfulness while doing any activity, according to Marchand, also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The key is to focus on your physical sensations, such as “sight, taste, touch and smell.” Focus on the moment, instead of the past or future, he said.
Marchand suggested applying mindfulness to one activity every day. Again, you can be mindful with any task or action, such as brushing your teeth, having dessert or washing the dishes.
For instance, if you’re eating mindfully, minimize your distractions – such as watching TV or working on your computer – slow down your pace and pay attention to the taste, texture and aroma of your food.
Another option is to take a mindful walk, which also is helpful because it includes exercise, “an important component of healing.”
Mindfulness is a valuable practice for improving the cognitive symptoms of depression, such as distorted thinking and distractibility. It helps individuals recognize these more subtle symptoms, realize that thoughts are not facts and refocus their attention to the present.