Why meditation is not the cure to depression or anxiety

A couple of weeks ago I heard someone saying that they were fed up with people asking “Have you tried meditating?” after they shared that they were struggling with depression and anxiety.


Their frustration at not being listened to is understandable. As is the exasperation at having well meaning people imply that all they need to do is sit in quiet meditation for 20 minutes a day and then they wouldn’t be anxious and depressed. This is not a new thing I’ve heard. Unfortunately it is a common experience for those I speak with who make others aware of their struggles. 

The rise in awareness of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness has been fantastic because it has resulted in it becoming available to those who do benefit from it, myself included. But if curing depression or anxiety was as easy as meditating regularly, we would not be seeing so many people wrestling against their own minds.

Dizzying attacks of anxiety and plummeting depths of depression are not caused by not meditating, so taking up meditation or mindfulness is not going to make things magically better. It is infinitely more helpful to encourage meditation alongside learning about emotions, emotional reactions and how our nervous systems work to protect us. In our Western world, this means either embracing Buddhism, joining a Dharma and following the teachings of the Buddha or doing the work in another sphere like therapy or mental health coaching. Both of these routes require finding the right person for you to work with as there are different approaches taken by different practitioners (Buddhist or otherwise). 

I love working with people to identify their emotions and to start working with them instead of against them. It does astound some people to learn that there are in excess of 90 different and distinct emotions. I even counted with one client because they had a state of complete disbelief when I said this particular table had 100 emotions on it. Thankfully they were organised in a 10x10 table so we only had to count to 20! Our emotions are complex and they actually communicate a lot to us, if we just know how to pay attention and interpret them. 

Meditation can be used responsibly to support this emotion work by highlighting the fact that a person is separate from their emotions. The feelings come and go but this movement is separate from the person themselves. This is one way in which I like to incorporate meditation with clients who have previously expressed an interest in it.

Another way I like to work with emotions is through the use of emotion cards. I bought a Mixed Emotions set of cards earlier this year and they are beautiful as well as incredibly helpful. Sometimes people can freeze up and not know how they feel either in the moment or about certain things. Quite often this is because of difficulty they are having putting words to their experience. These cards can make it easier to identify feelings and they also highlight that people can feel more than one thing at a time - and that some of these may even be contradictory of each other.

Instead of pushing them away or running from them, there’s a lot of work that can be done to help people sit with, process and handle their emotions - even the uncomfortable ones. With such work, emotions cease to be so threatening and destabilising. 

One of the other ways that I like to work with clients in helping them understand and get some sense of control over their experiences is through a couple of concepts called the Window of Tolerance and Polyvagal Theory. They both provide an explanation as to what is going on in the nervous system when someone is plagued by feelings of anxiety or depression. I use both because they compliment each other so well.

In a nutshell, there are a number of different states that people experience. One where they feel calm, connected to others and able to handle the ups and downs of life. This is called the Window of Tolerance or the Ventral Vagal System activation. It is possible to feel stressed, frustrated etc. in this state, the key factor is that you generally feel able to manage and get through it.

Then there’s the fight/flight stress response which turns the thinking brain off. When in this state (known as hyperarousal or sympathetic nervous system activation) people may experience feeling out of control, anxious, overwhelmed, angry, rage and are generally very emotionally reactive.

The third state is that of shut down and is called hypoarousal or the dorsal vagal system activation. This state is associated with emotional numbing, dissociation, withdrawal, zoning out and feelings of depression. Now, everyone is capable of and will experience all three of these at different points in their lives. So it is very normal. 

When someone is under chronic or large amounts of stress, is unwell, has experienced trauma or the such like, their window of tolerance shrinks which means that they are going to find things that would normally be manageable now send them into hyperarousal (aka sympathetic nervous system activation) or hypoarousal (aka dorsal vagal system activation).

What was previously within their capability of dealing with is now overwhelming and activating their fight/flight/freeze response. As we’ve already touched upon, this leads to feelings of anxiety, irritability, depression and withdrawal among others.

Usually the nervous system will regulate itself back out of these threat induced states. It is possible, however, to get ‘stuck’ in hyperarousal or hypoarousal where your nervous system doesn’t return to ventral vagal system activation and the window of tolerance. This is not a permanent state, but it can last a long time. Someone who is familiar enough with the Window of Tolerance or Polyvagal Theory can help you get unstuck and can help you start to regulate yourself back to the place where you can feel safe and connected again. There are many ways that this kind of thing can be achieved. 

I am a firm believer that meditation and mindfulness can both offer people a lot of benefits. It can help us to bring some calm to a nervous system in hyperarousal. It can also help bring some energy to us when we are in a state of hypoarousal. It can be helpful in slowing us down enough to notice and identify our emotions. There’s also the incredibly useful ability of meditation to help us acknowledge that we are not our emotions which is an important foundation for learning how to sit with difficult and uncomfortable emotions.

The well-meaning and well-intentioned suggestions that all anyone who is struggling with their mental health needs to do is start a regular meditation practice and then they will be OK again are misguided at best and harmful at worst. Finding someone who can provide proper support in understanding experiences and gaining some control over them will be more beneficial than just downloading a meditation app.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6
Written by Carole Carter, Coaching Psychologist, BSc (Hons), MRes, GMBPsS
Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6

Carole Diane Carter, BSc(Hons), MRes, MBPsS, is a Maidenhead based coaching psychologist who uses she/they pronouns and works with LGBTQ people (including those who are questioning, curious or unsure) in a bespoke, personalised manner so they can improve their mental health and their life in general. She is an open member of the LGBTQ community.

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