Zindel Segal, the co-founder of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and author of The Mindful Way Through Depression, worked in the field of mood disorders for over 30 years.
He recounts how he has seen many different anti-depression treatments be developed over the course of his career—but meditation was never one of them.
There’s a reason for that, he points out: while traditional treatments help alleviate depression and allow patients to get their lives back on track, they often don’t address keeping patients from relapsing once their lives are on track.
“What we now understand about depression is that it is an episodic and recurrent disorder,” he says. “Getting well is half of the problem, staying well is the other half.”
He describes mindfulness as a way to allow patients “more room and more space” to handle their depression in this Tedx Talk.
Understanding the Impact of Mindfulness on Depression
Segal partnered with two other researchers, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, to find a way to modify existing treatment to prevent relapse. They decided to focus on a specific trigger, such as sadness.
“But how do you work with a trigger of relapse like sadness, when sadness is also a feature of our universal human experience?” Segal asks. “We weren’t interested in trying to eliminate sadness, we weren’t interested in trying to get people not to feel sad. What we really needed to do was to help people develop a different relationship to their sadness.”
“We weren’t interested in trying to eliminate sadness, we weren’t interested in trying to get people not to feel sad. What we really needed to do was to help people develop a different relationship to their sadness.”
That’s where mindfulness comes in.
“Mindfulness is really the awareness that comes to mind, the awareness that arises when we pay attention in a particular way. We’re bringing our attention into the present moment and we’re not judging,” Segal explains.
Inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work with mindfulness and chronic pain, they built off of his eight-week program to create mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT.
“What we’re trying to get people to do is to anchor themselves in their experience so that when a negative emotion comes up in the mind, it can wash over them; it doesn’t totally destabilize,” Segal says. “Instead, they can find a different place for standing and working with these feelings, and as a result have much more of an option for selecting a response and influencing what happens next.”
Over time, those who have had mindfulness training can change their reaction to sadness. While someone without mindfulness training may feel overwhelmed, a person who has a mindfulness practice experiences a healthier, more substantial way of dealing with the emotion.
Studies in recent years have shown MBCT to be 43 per cent effective in reducing relapse in sufferers of depression—as effective as antidepressants. Segal says 75 to 80 per cent of patients continue the mindfulness practice following their training.
“It becomes less about a treatment, and more about a way of life and looking after themselves,” he concludes.