Depression is more than just a bummer. It’s a stone cold killer.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) depression is now the leading cause of disability in the world, affecting more than 350 million people worldwide. In fact, 1 in 20 people reported having an episode of depression the previous year in a recent global WHO survey.
Even worse, depression is also the leading cause of suicide, which has now passed up car accidents as the number one cause of accident related deaths in the United States, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
Depression has also become a multi-billion dollar business for pharmaceutical companies that produce antidepressant Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) like Zoloft and Prozac, medications that supposedly correct a “chemical imbalance” of neurotransmitters like serotonin in the brains of depressed people. We have all seen the ads.
But a 2008 study at Florida State University found that there was no real scientific evidence to support the chemical imbalance story, no matter how widespread. Instead, researchers found that the theory has been “misrepresented” to the public by corporations and the media and furthermore that much of the perceived efficacy of SSRI antidepressant medications is due to the placebo effect.
In spite of this and other similar findings, antidepressants continue to be the most prescribed drugs in the country. More than 30 million Americans take them even though their therapeutic value is dubious and they are linked to a growing number of serious side effects — including, most recently, birth defects in children of pregnant women who use them.
When it comes to the real cause of depression, many scientific studies have shown depressed people actually have more asymmetry in their brain function than normal, especially between the right and left frontal lobes; areas responsible for thought and emotional processing. This asymmetry is even considered a marker, or a predictor, of depression in people and is associated with depressive thought patterns like hopelessness.
And what causes this asymmetry? The answer is stress. Depression, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is actually caused by brain damage from stress. This explains why numerous aspects of modern life, including student loan debt, are linked to depression — the higher the debt, the higher the levels of stress and depression.
This opens up a can of worms about how society is structured, but it also begs the question: If stress causes depression, can calmness reverse it? Meditation, the age-old technique of focusing on the present in order to dwell in a state of tranquility — the ultimate stress buster.
Amazingly, a slew of recent studies have found that meditation does actually “shape” the brain; it corrects damage from stress, enhances connectivity between the two lobes and even promotes cell growth in key regions that are underdeveloped in depressed people, like the hippocampus. This means that meditators are changing the actual structure of their brains (see video above), thereby rewiring their emotional reactions and thought patterns to a calmer baseline on a physical level. This makes them more resilient to depression permanently.
Studies have shown conclusively that meditation is more effective than antidepressants in preventing a relapse of depression, and a first-of-its-kind study last year found the practice to be just as effective as one-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy.
But studies aside, the question remains: can meditation completely cure an illness that is currently plaguing the entire world?
To find out, Reset‘s Ocean Malandra contacted Spike Gillespie, author of the newly published book: Sit. Stay. Heal. How Meditation Changed My Mind, Grew My Heart and Saved My Ass.
After suffering from depression off and on for much of her adult life, Spike decided in December 2012 (in the midst of a particularly heavy relapse) to devote herself to meditating every day for a year — an endeavor she also recorded online by posting daily on her blog Meditation Kicks Ass.
Three years of daily practice later, Spike remains depression free.
A resident of Austin, Texas, she now teaches a simple non-sectarian meditation technique based on observing the breath, bringing the mind back to the present and the breath when it wanders. Spike says that anyone with a desire to try can get started practicing meditation to reap its benefits. Her story is an inspiration and a testament to the healing powers of our own mind.
Reset: Let’s start at the beginning. I know you say you had bouts of depression since your teenage years, but about what age was that? And when did you start practicing meditation?
Spike: I can only take an educated guess. Based on the fact I started binge-drinking at fourteen, and also that adolescent body chemistry changes began the year before, I’m thinking my depression started very early in my teen years. I want to clarify that I cannot remember any protracted bouts of being leveled by depression in my early teens, but also remember this was in the ‘70s, before we had the sort of common usage terms for depression, self-medication, and treatment. Plus I come from a very blue-collar background where you aren’t “allowed” to be depressed — you get your ass up and you go do what is expected of you.
My earliest recollection of meditation is these super mini-meditations — like a minute long — we did in Taekwondo, which I studied for a couple of years in my mid-thirties. That wet my appetite. I was on a road trip in the early aughts when I heard about a Vesak Day celebration at a monastery outside of St. Louis. I knew nothing of Vesak Day but was interested in learning about Buddhism. I went and heard Thubten Chödrön speak and meditated with a very welcoming community and that was the start of it.
Reset: Did you feel benefit from your early practices? If so, how?
Spike: Memory is a funny thing. Again, I don’t have any keen memories of magical enlightenment. And my practice now compared to the early days is a lot different and, I think, yields more noticeable results. But yes, I did benefit from early practices because for one thing, I think anyone who sits will experience some benefit and also because the early sitting led to the sitting I do now. So it was foundation work, even if I had a hard time being consistent or sitting for more than five minutes. Those early sessions were, I think now, very much about learning what it means to set intent, and over time my intent to dedicate myself to a serious practice took root.
Reset: Did you ever try anti-depressants? If so, what was the experience?
Spike: Yes. Very, very briefly I tried four or five different anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medications. The results were always, always disastrous. Prozac made me very speedy and unable to concentrate and I lost a lot of weight. I was also still a drinker then, which is a bad combination. Effexor I tried just once, and immediately felt dizzy and a momentary fuzzy blindness and I wanted to puke. Wellbutrin made me nuts. Zoloft gave me a horrific headache. It’s important to factor in that while I believe my reactions were mostly physical, there was likely some psychosomatic stuff at play.
Reset: In researching this article I found that a lot of Buddhists and meditation practitioners are reluctant to say that meditation cures depression, although in my opinion that’s exactly what the whole “End of Suffering Bit” in Buddhism is all about. What’s your view?
Spike: I want to be careful here to speak only to my experience. And yes, in my experience, I say with absolute certainty meditation cured my depression. Since I began a serious practice at the end of 2012 I have not had a bout of depression. That is astonishing. Well actually these days it’s not astonishing, it just is. But with each year that passed — and I am well into my third year now — I was amazed. It’s like those signs you see at train yards: “X Number of Days Since Our Last Accident.” I’m going on a whole lot of days since I last fell into bed and could barely function for weeks at a time.
I still have down days and last February my PTSD got triggered and I had a few very, very hard days. But my practice saw me through that. I did not fall into the hole. I cannot know the future, maybe one day depression will return. But it seems very unlikely to me, barring some incredible external tragedy, that I will ever again suffer like I used to. Because now, even days when I suffer, I have a crystal clear awareness of impermanence and I know my suffering will soon ease. It always does.
Reset: Science shows that meditators do effectively re-shape their brains, leading to lasting change. But in terms of the subjective experience, can you tell me what the biggest noticeable differences were in terms of your thought process and emotional reactions after your now almost three years of daily practice?
Spike: I like to joke with my friends and meditation students that the biggest change is that I have a tremendous awareness now of how messy I am, that the meditation hasn’t “cured” anything, simply made me extremely awake to my tics and traits and neuroses and bad habits and how many bazillion miles away I am from even spotting the trailhead with the sign that says, “Enlightenment This Way.”
The reality though, is that my awareness, and my awareness of my awareness, is a fantastic tool. So let’s say I am on Facebook — I have an extremely active wall and I am a very opinionated person and people love to show up and argue with me sometimes. I am the absolute queen of taking the bait. I am a troll’s online dream date. I’m not just fascinated by the way certain people feel a need to get in my face, but I’m fascinated by my sometimes non-equanimity in response. I don’t always post a smartass reply — but often I do. Still, I have an awareness in my heart and mind that I am feeling angry or irritated by an offhand remark of a stranger. This in turn leads me to step back internally and say, “Hey, what’s all that about? Why are you focusing so much energy on this stupid remark when that person already forgot making it?”
When I use my awareness to examine my reactions, I can see, “Hey, this is flashing you back to being bossed around as a kid by older sisters and an angry dad. You are reacting to the past. This defensiveness is life long and it causes you suffering. Pay attention. Work on that.”
In this way, I have become less impulsive, less fly-off-the-handle. This not only allows me to be less of an asshole in the eyes of others (not that I’m super worried about what they think, but what I mean is I don’t want to cause others to suffer), it also brings me a growing calm that informs my life now. My definition of happiness is calmness.
Reset: I really like that definition; it’s the opposite of stress and depression. So do you think meditation should be taught in school?
Spike: I like to say when I am king (because I will be a woman king) everyone is learning martial arts and meditation. EVERYONE. It needn’t be rooted in religious practice. Mindful breathing for everyone. This past summer I led a couple of meditation camps for kids. I was beside myself with joy at how many of them showed up and already knew what meditation was. I think if we included meditation in the curriculum it would help across the board — it would help with communication, concentration, compassion, all of it.
Reset: Beautiful. Ok, last question: What advice and resources would you share with someone that is suffering from depression and wants to try meditation but is not sure where to start?
Spike: I would say to a depressed person, “Look, I totally get it. Depression is such a beast. You feel like you can’t even function so how are you going to meditate? I suggest you just sit up — in a chair, in your bed if you can’t get out of bed, or on a pillow on the floor if you want. Close your eyes. Breathe in and breathe out and as you do just note to yourself silently I am breathing in, I am breathing out. At first you might only be able to manage a few breaths or a minute. That’s okay. You are not doing it wrong. You are trying, so you are doing it right.”
Ocean Malandra is a writer who divides his time between the mighty redwoods of Northern California and the Amazon rainforest of South America. He is an avid meditation practitioner and plant medicine advocate. Follow him at @OceanMalandra.