'Mindfulness' May Keep Depression from Coming Back

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A type of "mindfulness" therapy that helps people become more aware of their emotions may help prevent a relapse of depression, a new meta-analysis finds.  

People in the study who received this type of therapy, called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), were 31 percent less likely to experience a relapse of depression beyond the first year compared with those who did not receive this type of therapy, according to the findings, which were published today (April 27) in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

MBCT combines two approaches for keeping depression symptoms at bay: the practice of mindfulness, or being aware of your emotions, and cognitive therapy, which involves identifying unhealthy thought patterns and developing constructive ways to approach them, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Ultimately, MBCT may work to prevent depression because it teaches people the "skills to stay well," the researchers wrote in the study, which was led by Willem Kuyken, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford in England. [9 DIY Ways to Improve Your Mental Health]

In the analysis, the researchers looked at nine studies that included a total of about 1,300 people. After 60 weeks, the researchers looked at whether or not the participants experienced a relapse in their depression symptoms. They found that, compared with people receiving other types of treatment for depression, those who received MBCT were less likely to experience a relapse of symptoms. In addition, the effects were similar among people of different age groups, educational levels, marital status and sex, according to the study.

The researchers also found that MBCT appeared to be more effective in people who had reported more severe depression.

This is not the first study to look at using MBCT to help people with depression — indeed, a smaller meta-analysis from 2004 reported similar results, the researchers wrote in the study.

The new meta-analysis "provides strong evidence that MBCT is effective in reducing risk of depressive relapse and is particularly effective for patients with higher levels of depressive severity before treatment," said Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an editorial that was published alongside the study in the journal. [7 Ways to Recognize Depression in 20-Somethings]

Davidson noted, however, that the meta-analysis also raises several questions about MBCT.

For example, scientists still don't know exactly how MBCT works, Davidson wrote. One hypothesis is that the use of mindfulness may alter brain functions in areas related to paying attention and feeling emotions, but more studies are needed, he said. 

Another question is whether or not MBCT would provide an added benefit if it were combined with other strategies for preventing depression. One promising combination is mindfulness training plus increased physical activity, Davidson said. Research suggests that exercise improves the brain's neuroplasticity (the ability to make new connections between neurons), which could potentially enhance the effects of MBCT, he said. 

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Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.