What’s the best type of meditation for depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder
Not all meditations are the same, different meditation techniques stimulate different parts of the brain to produce different therapeutic effects
Brain scans have shown in the depressed and anxious brain there is hyperactivity in a circuit called the default mode network, overactivity in the DMN can result in the thinking cortex ruminating and dwelling on depressive thinking or being overrun by incessant and intrusive anxious thoughts.
For a more detailed description of the DMN see: Is a Hyperactive Default Mode Network Causing your Depression and Anxiety?
Correcting hyper activity in the default mode network
When choosing a meditation technique to treat depression or anxiety we want to choose a technique that combats hyperactivity in the DMN, we can do this by training our brain to switch on another circuit in the brain called the task-positive network that switches off the DPN. When your goal is to goal is to counteract depressive and anxious thinking caused by overactivity caused by hyperactivity in the DPN, you do this by training your brain to switch on the TPN, when the TPN is switched on it switches off the DPN.
How do we switch on the TPN?
The meditation technique must include specific activities that engage the specific brain structures that make up the TPN, of for example it should include strongly focusing on internal body sensations like breathing and other body sensations to engage the insular, focusing on the sensation of touch to engage the somatosensory cortex. By doing this, we can quickly and efficiently train our brain to switch on our TPN and switch off our DPN.
Mindfulness is an ancient practice and whilst I have the greatest respect and gratitude to the many people that developed meditation techniques before me; today however, I believe that we can enhance mindfulness with the latest understanding from neuroscience about which specific component of mindfulness have therapeutic effects, with specific components to amplify and also how to combine a course of meditation treatment with the prescription of specific supplements, diet and physical exercises that boost BDNF and neuroplasticity.
To learn more about How to Enhance Meditation Treatment by Boosting Neuroplasticity click here
The technique I teach is directed-focus mindfulness meditation whereby we wilfully direct our attention to focus on one specific sense say our hearing for a few minutes and then another sense for a few minutes and then focus on them both together for a few minutes and so forth, each component is specifically included to engage a particular region or system of the brain.
I first learnt meditation in the 1980’s and I’ve been developing the technique to treat mental health problems in my practice since then; in the last decade however neuroscience has literally transformed our understanding of what meditation does to the brain and how it treats depression and anxiety. Using this improved understanding enables us to focus on the specific components of directed focus mindfulness meditation technique to switch on activity in the 4 primary structures of the TPN, these are the:-
- dlPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) which becomes active when we deliberately control our thinking, something that you do not do in the more commonly taught open monitoring mindfulness technique,
- the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) that becomes active when we specifically direct our attention and focus towards specific thoughts, by strongly wilfully directing our attention to our awareness of our senses we engage the LPFC and ACC,
- the insular which becomes active when we direct we focus on internal body sensations including our heart beating, our breathing, gut feelings, also our hearing. The insular is also involved in the qualities of empathy and compassion, we can stimulate our amygdala and cultivate these qualities with compassion or lovingkindness meditation brain training. We can also increase activity in the insular when we exercise vigourously immediately prior to meditating, this not only engages the insular, it also boost neuroplasticity throughout the brain.
- finally the primary somatosensory cortex (which I unofficially abbreviate to the PSTC) we can activate the PSTC by focusing our attention on the sensation of touch on our skin.
Applying neuroplasticity to mental health problemsThe term neuroplasticity actually refers to several things in the brain, it refers to the brains ability to perform maintenance on its existing structures, to care for protect and extend the lifespan of brain cells, dendrites and synapses, , it also refers to the ability of the brain to regenerate and regrow lost or damaged dendrites and synapses when these capabilities are weak the brain ages more rapidly resulting in cognitive decline, hearing loss et cetera this may also be an issue for some people with depression, where inadequate neuroplastic abilities lead to a loss of volume in function in the cortex and hippocampus. In 2012 I developed a treatment program of natural supplements, diet, brain and physical exercises to upregulate the production of BDNF and neuroplasticity, BDNF is a substance the brain naturally produces that stimulates neuroplasticity.
Lastly, neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change and remodel itself, to learn new abilities from languages to sports, you probably already familiar with this concept. When we do something repeatedly or frequently the brain ‘recognises’ that it must be important and adapts by growing more synaptic connection that literally hardwires the ability into our brain structures and neurocircuits.
This is a new direction in treating mental health problems
We’ve known neuroplastic rewiring of the brain is why with practice we can learn to play an instrument or do a sport and the more we practice the better we get at it, however the idea that we can use this neuroplastic phenomenon to grow and cultivate mental states, feelings and psychological qualities to combat mental health problems is a newish understanding, the idea has been around for a long time but now the science is not just proving this is actually possible but it is showing us how to adapt meditation techniques to make them better at treating mental health problems.
In recent years fMRI and of the brain imaging techniques have revolutionised our understanding of how the brain works and show us that we can use meditation brain training exercises to deliberately change and alter the very structures in the brain involved in causing mental health problems. We can literally grow and enhance neuro-circuits and structures that counteract and switch off the problem psychological states such as the DMN, meditation can increase the volume in the hippocampus and cortex that can lose volume in depression, furthermore not only can we grow structures but we can actually shrink and diminish the connectivity of overactive systems such as the amygdala.
How to stimulate the maximum neuroplastic change?The more regularly and particularly the more intensely the brain does something the greater the amount of neuroplastic change; more or less the same phenomenon occurs in muscles, we know that we grow the maximum amount of muscle when we stress or exercise it both regularly and intensively to its maximum capability.
To take advantage of this phenomenon the way I teach meditation includes short burst of intense hyper mental focus on the meditation exercise, ideally to the point that it feels mentally straining; this is in contrast to traditional mindfulness technique that say you should not forcef more ully will the brain to perform anything in particular but instead be passive and just observe. The meditation techniques I teach are not passive and relaxing, they are more like taking your brain to the gym than taking it on holiday.
Another reason I recommend practising directed focus as opposed to open monitoring mindfulness is because directed-focus techniques make it easy to apply intense hyper-focusing to stimulate the most neuroplastic change, it’s quite a bit harder although not impossible to practice passive open monitoring observation in a hyper-focused way.
Neuroplastic change is also stimulated by doing something that the brain finds new, novel and challenging; to take advantage of this phenomenon we should make challenging components into our meditation practice with easy components. The easy components not produce so much neuroplastic change but they serve the purpose of making the meditation pleasurable and doable. There is a conflict here on the one hand we want to do the same thing repeatedly to stimulate neuroplastic change but if we keep doing the same thing for too long it becomes routine and no longer novel or challenging; the solution is to intensively stick with one practice for several months or until it becomes easy and routine and then do a different practice or at least introduce different components.
There are several other things that affect neuroplasticity including a good diet, nutrient deficiencies, quality sleep and physical exercise has a huge effect. While you are investing your time in the course of meditation I recommend following a specific diet and taking specific supplements to increase neuroplasticity, I also ask people to do specific exercises just before and even during the meditation class to increase blood flow to the brain; the insular in particular response to physical exercise.
In summary how can we stimulate the maximum neuroplastic change:
- Use intense hyper-focusing technique that strains the brain similar to exercising a muscle to its maximum limit,
- Practising regularly,
- Engaging in new and novel exercises/experiences,
- Eating a diet that promotes neuroplasticity,
- Taking supplements that promote neuroplasticity,
- Performing specific vigourous exercises just before meditating
It’s actually quite remarkable how quickly the brain changes and develops new capabilities, the 1st change most people notice is they get better at concentrating on meditation practice, within just a few weeks of using combining hyper-focused techniques with physical exercise and a good diet you’ll find your ability to concentrate on the meditation exercises significantly improves, you’ll begin to be able to achieve a deeper meditative state and switch into it more quickly. Actually training the brain how to quickly switch into a meditative state is one of the goals of my meditation classes, we want to learn and when I say learn I mean physically hardwire the ability to quickly, efficiently and easily switch on the TPN and switch off the DPN. It used to take me at least 7 minutes and often longer to switch from my normal state of mind into a meditative state of mind, today however with repetitive training I’ve learnt how to switch into a meditative state in under a minute and can meditate anywhere I can sit in silence making it very easy to do sufficient meditation to significantly contribute to maintaining my mental wellness.
Developing improved concentrationIt’s worth noting that the very act of choosing what to focus our mind on and then intensely concentrating on it engages 2 regions of the TPN involved in concentration and focus (the dlPFC and ACC), and by repeatedly engaging these structures we improve our ability to concentrate and focus; qualities many people wish to improve not just people with ADHD.
Meditation for ADHD??For people with ADHD the idea of learning to meditate may initially seem ridiculous, wouldn’t people with the low attention span of ADHD be terrible and meditating? Well maybe yes but that’s missing the point, let me give an analogy: someone with a superstrong muscles in their back could do weight training to make their back even stronger but they don’t need to, however someone born with a congenitally week back giving rise to poor posture and pain health problems could benefit tremendously by targeting and strengthening the right muscles in their back under the guidance of the physiotherapist to compensate for the inherent weakness; they may never be able to lift enormous weights that’s not the point, the point is to use weight training as a treatment to compensate for the health condition.
In just the same way people with ADHD that have poor powers of concentration stand to benefit the most by engaging in direct focus meditation techniques that engage the dlPFC and ACC areas of the brain directly responsible for what is called executive function i.e. the ability of our brain to our attention to, maintain our attention, manage our time and more.
In addition to learning meditation you can improve your ADHD with natural remedies either if you’re lucky as an alternative to the conventional treatments or alongside conventional treatments but hopefully with help you will be able to diminish the dosage of the pharmaceuticals.
If you’d like to know more about my treatment techniques for ADHD click here
The standard mindfulness meditation technique may not be the best choice for depression and anxietyThere is a standardised mindfulness meditation course called mindfulness-based stress reduction that has become the most commonly taught method today at least in Europe and North America. I believe this technique is not the preferred technique for people with mental health problems because it uses a technique called non-directed open-monitoring mindfulness. In non-directed open-monitoring you find a neutral place in your mind and passively observe not just your senses but also your thoughts and feelings as they go through your mind, this can be totally inappropriate for people with panic disorders, severe anxiety and major depression because you can rapidly become overwhelmed by the condition and unable to maintain a neutral passive and monitoring state of mind. Although this non-directed monitoring technique does have some great therapeutic benefits in terms of cultivating emotional detachment from the thoughts and feelings that cause us distress I argue it is the wrong technique to use in the beginning when you start learning meditation because of the problem of becoming overwhelmed. The problem of people with significant mental health problems becoming overwhelmed during the classes has led meditation teachers to discourage people with mental health problems attending their classes; but we (I’m including myself) are some of the people that stand to gain the most therapeutic benefits from meditation and we are being let down by the standard practices.
We need a better meditation approachIn contrast the direct-focus mindfulness technique is not passive observation, instead we deliberately pick and choose what we direct our attention to; we specifically choose to focus on one of our senses for a few minutes, just long enough to give us time to strongly connect our awareness but not beyond our ability to maintain our focus, we then repeat this exercise focusing on another sense for a few minutes and then multitasking our awareness of more than one sense at a time and so forth.
I used to think this technique was more appropriate for mental health problems because it keeps the mind strongly preoccupied on the senses and excludes thoughts of the things that overwhelm us, however I understand that by wilfully concentrating on specific sensory sensations we are switching on the TPN and switching off the ruminating DPN like throwing a light switch.
Just a few months of meditation brain training can:-
- change the physical wiring and size of specific structures and circuits in the brain such as the amygdala and default mode network that are involved in producing depression, anxiety, OCD and bipolar disorder,
- change the way our brain processes stress and stop excess HPA stress responses damaging the brain,
- reduce inflammation in the brain that damages structures in involved in mental health problems,
- regrows lost volume (size) in the hippocampus and cortex involved in mental health problems
I also run regular meditation classes in London and online.
Click on the bookings tab to make an appointment.
I’m passionate about treating mental health and I’d be very happy to work with you.
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