Best meditation for anxiety and depression

Anxiety is more than a neurotransmitter imbalance, it’s an imbalance of wiring and we can use meditation to rewire the anxious brain

Anxiety is not just a deficiency of the neurotransmitter GABA, boosting GABA with drugs or natural remedies only ever produce a short-term effect and the antianxiety drugs can create problems of desensitisation and addiction; we need a better understanding of what causes anxiety and the better treatment approach.
More than a deficiency of GABA anxiety is hyperactivity in structures and neurocircuits (the wiring of the brain) that inform us of threat and danger.
There is now solid neuroscience showing that we can use meditation brain training exercises as a treatment to stimulate changes in the physical structure and wiring of the anxious brain.
Thanks to a process called neuroplasticity the brain can be profoundly changed by repetitive training. Within just a few months of training you can change neuro-circuits and structures in your brain that are root functional causes of anxiety.
 

In the anxious brain the default mode network is overactive

One of the root functional causes anxiety is hyperactivity in a neuro- circuit called the default mode network. In simplistic terms the DMN ruminates on anxious thoughts, feelings, memories of past events and envisages what (negative things) might happen in future.
 
Anxiety default mode network treatmentThe good news is that with directed focus mindfulness meditation we can train our brain to have a less active DMN and in so doing reduce anxiety and other mental health problems[i].
 
To switch off the DPN what we use another circuit in the brain called the task-positive network; with the right type of meditation practice you can deliberately switch on TPN and when you do this it switches off the ruminating DPN. These 2 circuits are mutually exclusive meaning that as soon as one becomes activated the other is switched off, if you want you can think of them acting like a light switch it’s either on or off. One of the main goals of directed focus mindfulness meditation brain training is to dampen down overactivity in the DPN by activating, strengthening and growing our TPN.
 
The DMN is a circuit that connects together the amygdala, hippocampus, PCC (posterior cingulate cortex) and the mPFC (medial prefrontal cortex). One of the functions of the default mode network is to help us to consciously think about stressful and threatening experiences that we’ve had and learn something useful about how to improve our situation, our brains are hardwired to have a little healthy anxiety which is great to keep us safe but when these circuits go wrong and are hyperactive it’s horrible, our conscious mind is overwhelmed by intrusive anxious thoughts that we cannot just shake off. In the depressed and anxious brain the default mode network is hyperactive and instead of thinking about depressing and anxious things for an appropriate amount of time and then do something our mind is stuck in anxious thoughts.
 
It a bit over simplistic but what happens in the DMN is when the amygdala rightly or wrongly perceives something is wrong in our world and we are in danger it activates a scary alarm, the amygdala then recruits the hippocampus
our primary memory bank to search its files for similar and experiences, the raw feelings of danger from the amygdala and all the related memories are then passed through a processing centre (the PCC) before it is sent to the thinking conscious cortex of our brain.
 
For a more detailed description of how the DMN works and how it affects us see Is an Overactive Default Mode Network Causing your Depression and Anxiety?
 

Overactivity in the amygdala in the anxious brain

Meditation reduces amygdala and treat anxietyThe amygdala is programmed to scan our environment for threats and danger. When the amygdala is hyperactive and incorrectly programmed to be triggered by things that are not genuinely active threats it overproduces the perception of threats and danger and feelings of fear.
 
A study at Stanford University showed prolonged stress and anxiety during childhood developed significant changes in the structure of the brain that persisted into adulthood and increased the likelihood of developing anxiety, what was found was the size of the amygdala and its interconnectedness to the rest of the brain were both increased[ii].
 
Sometimes the amygdala is physically enlarged compared to the average person, sometimes there are left right imbalances and left right imbalances tend to be different in men and women, furthermore in the anxious brain the amygdala is more strongly connected to other parts of the brain, resulting in it sending having a stronger influence on the rest of the brain.
 

Changing amygdala function combats one of the fundamental root causes of anxiety, we can change amygdala function in 2 ways:

Firstly and meditation brain training can shrink an enlarged amygdala, rebalance it and reduce the excessive connections from the amygdala to the rest of the brain; dampening down an enlarged amygdala and thinning out its interconnectedness to the rest of the brain is a great place to start before moving on to the 2nd option.
Secondly we can reprogram the associations or connections our amygdala makes, for example if you have a phobia of spiders your amygdala has been programmed to associate spiders with terrible danger but it can be reprogrammed to no longer make this association; you could do the same with a fear of public speaking, social anxiety, stress and fear of people that look like someone that bullied you from school or a parental figure et al. If you have anxiety you probably think you can’t reprogram your amygdala but that’s the anxiety talking, the fact is the very same process of neuroplasticity that hardwired in the connection to your brain to make these associations can be used to make new associations. Let me repeat that neuroplasticity grew the anxiety-provoking connections in your amygdala and hippocampus in the 1st place and the very same process of neuroplastic learning can change the structures to make different associations; I’m not saying it’s a quick and easy process, I think it can take 1 to 3 years and at times it can feel quite uncomfortable but we can gradually dismantle the neurological infrastructure maintaining unwanted anxiety provoking connections. To make a computer analogy if you have anxiety provoking software installed in your amygdala making unwanted connections and hippocampus regurgitating anxious memories we can install new software in the hippocampus to make different connections and install patches in the hippocampus that change the meaning remembered experiences.
 
To read more about reprogramming the amygdala and overcoming the long-term effects of severe and trauma see Releasing Trauma and Reprogramming an Overactive Amygdala
 
Over the last decade I’ve put a lot of work into improving my treatment outcomes for anxiety disorders, I was disappointed with the success of trying to overcome anxiety purely by working neurotransmitters; what would happen is as soon as the treatment was discontinued it was obvious that the condition was still there and all I had been doing was moderating it with natural remedies. I’m convinced that the wiring of the brain is a more important root cause of anxiety disorders and this is what has to be changed to overcome this very unpleasant condition.
 
A typical treatment plan I now use is starting with natural remedies to boost GABA and serotonin to ease the condition and if necessary transition off antianxiety medication, as soon as person is able to start directed focus mindfulness techniques to shrink the amygdala and its influence over the rest of the brain, another effect of mindfulness is that as the amygdala becomes weaker the cortex specifically the anterior cingulate gyrus
As the amygdala becomes weaker and the cortex become stronger the strength of the connections from the amygdala to the cortex and rest of the brain also become weaker so that the cortex is less ‘disturbed’ by the negative signals from the amygdala, the stronger cortex is also better able to deal with stress.
 

Meditation improves the function of the anterior cingulate cortex involved in anxiety

Meditation anxiety treatment anterior cingulate cortexThe anterior cingulate cortex ACC is an area where cognitive thinking, emotional information and the perception of physical and emotional pain intersect and give us a wide picture of our internal and external world; it an area of the brain where we make logical sense of our emotions and pain.
 
A stronger ACC gives us the ability to integrate both emotion and logic, have a higher pain threshold and more importantly for anxiety it is believed that ‘strengthening’ our ACC with meditation reduces anxiety, it may be that it strengthens the ability of the cortex to control perhaps ignore the anxious emotional information coming from the amygdala, and enables us to make more logical sense of irrational feelings; you may have a sense that your anxiety is illogical and irrational but still not be able to stop it.
 
The ACC response surprisingly quickly to meditation, after just a few hours of meditation both blood flow[iii] and network efficiency[iv] in the ACC are increased.
 

Rewiring the brain is essential to overcome anxiety

I’ve seen people completely overcome depression without any therapy or brain training exercises just by manipulating the brain chemistry and neuroplasticity with either drugs or natural remedies but I’ve never seen anyone overcome anxiety completely with just chemical treatments; to overcome anxiety spectrum disorders I am now convinced have to include some rewiring of the brain.
 
I don’t want to spend too much time going into it but in depression you have a big component of under-activity or loss of function and sometimes this can be fully repaired with diet, supplements, exercise etc to repair neuroplasticity; but with anxiety conditions there’s a significant component of overactivity or hyper-function in neurocircuits and structures and there are no drugs or natural therapies that can correct this.
 
There are some types of psychotherapy that can engage the power of the mind to rewire the anxious brain, in some ways I think of psychotherapy as working on the software installed in our brain and thanks to neuroplasticity changing the software programs the brain runs repetitively will stimulate change in the physical hardware (structures and neuro-circuits) of the brain. I believe however some types of psychotherapy not appropriate for anxiety disorders. Meditation brain training exercises work directly on simply rewiring the brain through repetitive exercises rather than by trying to change the software psychology.
 

Choosing the right type of meditation is important

There are many different types of meditation, each of them stimulate activity in different parts of the brain and therefore have different effects, anxiety we want the meditation technique that strongly engages the TPN to train the brain to switch off the DPN and there are specific components in the close focus mindfulness technique that do this. I believe the standardised mindfulness technique widely taught today is not the most effective meditation technique for people with anxiety, see Which Is the Best Meditation for Depression and Anxiety
 
Meditation classes for anxiety online
In addition to the technique I prescribe complementary supplements and dietary techniques to enhance neuroplasticity and therefore further accelerate the rate of change stimulated by the meditation brain training. Lastly meditation technique has to be doable, if your mind is riddled with pervasive anxiety and depression performing the classical open monitoring mindfulness that is widely taught today may be impossible because the depression and anxiety quickly intrudes and overwhelms the mind; I teach a style that makes meditation more accessible by activating neuro circuits that refocus the mind away from the thoughts and feelings of the mental health problem.
I specialise in treating and coaching people with mental health problems how to obtain better mental health with natural remedies and self-help techniques. If you would like me to look into your individual case and develop a tailor-made programme of natural remedies, dietary advice and brain training exercises I’m available for private consultations at my London clinic and online for people that live too far away.
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.
 

A new direction in treating mental health problems

There is nothing new in the understanding that when the brain performs an exercise repeatedly and with some intensity it stimulates the brain to grow new connections in the parts of the brain being exercised, this is part of the brains neuroplastic abilities. The new development is the understanding that we can use meditation brain training exercises to deliberately change and alter the structures in the brain involved in causing problematic mental states. We can literally grow and strengthen circuits and structures that counteract and switch off problem psychological states, as well as growing structures we can also shrink and dampen down structures and circuits.
 

Meditation can be a useful treatment but is not a miracle cure!

I don’t want to exaggerate or make any misleading claims here, meditation brain training can certainly significantly reduce the severity of anxiety in a way that I think is well worth the investment of time but I’m not suggesting it can completely cure anxiety or depression. I’ve been in practice since 1988 and have never seen anyone completely cure themselves, from a mental health problem with meditation alone, but what I have consistently seen is people that complete 50 hours of this type of treatment experience significant improvements. What’s unfortunate is that many people find it hard to believe that meditation is real medicine or it will be effective for them and so they don’t complete the minimum 50 hours. I understand this from personal experience I have bipolar disorder and when was in a depression phase the idea that I meditation could help my condition seemed ridiculous, from where I stood my condition was far too serious for that. Of the people that do complete the minimum 50 hours almost everyone will report reductions in their symptoms, many people subjectively reporting reductions from 25 to 50%, I just need to be absolutely clear that I’m stating this is my opinion based on running a practice that specialises in treating mental health problems, this is not a scientifically verified statistic based on clinical trials.
 
Meditation brain-training treatment produces unique therapeutic effects that cannot be achieved by any other means, there are no drugs or natural remedies that can rewire the anxious brain in the same way as meditation; furthermore the therapeutic effects obtained from this treatment approach are side-effect free and more or less permanent, if the effects begin to wear off you simply top them up.
 
Until just a few years ago there was still debate as to whether or not meditation produced real treatment effects for mental health problems effects but now there is solid evidence from neuroscience that it does particularly for anxiety. Furthermore we now know a lot about exactly how it does this, and with this new understanding we can.
 
Just a few months of meditation brain training can:-
  • change the physical wiring and size of the amygdala and
  • dampen down overactivity in the default mode network involved anxiety
  • strengthen the cortex and reduce the connections from the amygdala to the cortex
  • change the way our brain processes stress and stop excess HPA stress responses damaging the brain,
  • strengthen the ACC improving top-down emotional processing
New insights from neuroscience helping us develop more specific and more effective meditation techniques to combat mental health problems.
 
FURTHER READING
 
Meditation the Default Mode Network Anxiety and Depression
Choosing the Best Meditation for Depression Anxiety and Bipolar
How Meditation Treats the Depressed Brain
The Science of What Meditation Does to the Brain
Meditation Classes for Bipolar Depression Anxiety
 

[i] Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2015 Sep; 15(3): 712–720. doi:  10.3758/s13415-015-0358-3 PMCID: PMC4529365 NIHMSID: NIHMS684151 PMID: 25904238
Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task Kathleen A. Garrison et al
[ii] Shaozheng Qin, et al. Amygdala Subregional Structure and Intrinsic Functional Connectivity Predicts Individual Differences in Anxiety During Early Childhood. Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 75 (11): 892 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.10.006
[iii] Front Psychol. 2015; 6: 212. 2015 Feb 26. doi:  10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00212 PMCID: PMC4341506 PMID: 25767459 Short-term meditation increases blood flow in anterior cingulate cortex and insula Yi-Yuan Tang, et al
[iv] Neuroreport. 2011 Aug 24;22(12):570-4. doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e328348c750.
Short-term meditation increases network efficiency of the anterior cingulate cortex.
Xue S et al
 
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Hi my name is Peter Smith I specialise in treating and coaching people how to live well with mental health problems, digestive health problems/IBS, sleep problems and type II diabetes using natural therapies.
I used these techniques to overcome and live well with my own bipolar disorder and IBS. I've been in practice as a natural medicine practitioner since 1988.
 

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If you’d like treatment for any of the issues discussed in this article I specialise in treating and coaching people how to obtain better mental health with natural remedies and self-help techniques. If you would like me to look into your individual case and develop a tailor-made programme of natural remedies, dietary advice and brain training exercises I’m available for private consultations and I’m available for private consultations at my London clinic and online for people that live too far away.
I also run regular meditation classes in London and online.
I’m passionate about treating mental health and I’d be very happy to work with you.
Click on the
bookings tab to make an appointment.
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