Can Meditation and Awareness make depression worse?

Question: 

“Dr. Miller, can meditation and awareness make depression worse? I’ve been feeling numb and empty since kicking my anxiety to the curb with meditation and awareness. Is this normal? Could I be doing something wrong?”

Dr Miller Response:

Let me first rephrase your question in a small but important way. Through using meditation and selective awareness you’ve managed to relieve the feelings of anxiety you had been having, but now there’s a feeling of numbness, emptiness, and depressed feelings. Relax, you’re probably not doing anything wrong.

One of several possibilities may be causing the confusing changes you’ve been experiencing. People use the word depression very loosely. There is something that a health professional would diagnose as “Major Depression.” This is a bit more serious than the more common situation of being in the blue mood or not feeling any motivation to do anything. If you have a Major Depression or are under a
professional’s care for some other significant mental or emotional disorder it would be wise to check with that therapist to learn if there’s anything specific you need to be aware of before you begin practicing meditation. In fact, if you have severe symptoms it would be wise to check with a professional. When practicing meditation or any other form of deep relaxation it is common to pass through a variety of different emotional states. Learning to not be distracted by them is an important piece of a deepening your meditation.

If you are just a “normal neurotic” like the rest of us, here are some valuable tips:

In today’s future shock world we’re so distracted by the demands around us. There doesn’t seem to be time to take care of ourselves, our relationships, our spirituality, or our personal purpose in life. As the old saying goes “when you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s hard to remember that your original goal was to drain the swamp.”
To deal with these interruptions that crash in on us, we set aside these important aspects of our lives again and again. We pretend to ourselves that it’s okay to ignore unstable situations building up because of our poor communication with others or lack of attention to other important aspects of our lives. This is what psychologists call “denial.”

Denial

We are all juggling 15 balls in the air. If we stopped to deal with these important situations we would probably drop a few of those balls. If we were to take time to address the needs of these important aspects of our lives, we would feel anxiety about dropping some of the balls we’re juggling. Also, about anxiety and other strong emotions that might arise when we actually look at some of the little (or big) messes in our lives.

To protect ourselves psychologically we use this unconscious “defense mechanism” of denial. As we go deeper into our meditative practice, we disengage. We disengage from all those little distractions that are pretending to be life or death situations. Then, just as you discover that CD you lost only when you remove from your desk all the piles of paper and stuff that have accumulated there . . . underneath all the mental distraction you gradually began to discover what your unconscious mind has been hiding from you. The emotions that come up are the emotions your subconscious has been protecting you from with denial.

So, the unpleasant feelings that you feel are not negative, there’s nothing wrong with them. In fact they are valuable signposts that can guide you to discover important issues that need to be dealt with. To go deeper in your meditations and improve your life immeasurably, go and begin to deal honestly with these situations you have been ignoring.  You will be able to continue to go deeper with your meditation.

Hyper Stimulation

The other thing that we deal with in today’s world is hyper stimulation. We’re expected to deal with more and more things in shorter and shorter periods of time. As a result, our attention span becomes shorter and shorter. Armies of public relations propagandists use powerful hypnotic techniques to keep us in a constant state of anxiety and high stress. They sell us products and candidates that are supposed to relieve this unbalanced condition. They do not relieve it, they just leave us disappointed and ready to be sold the next product. You become attuned to this level of stimulation, then, as you go into meditation, it feels strange, as if something’s missing. You are not numb, it’s just that you are not feeling the stings of that swarm of mosquitoes that are usually attacking you!

There is an emptiness. Your psyche is empty of the constant interruptions you are familiar with, but what you are feeling is not the emptiness, you’re feeling the discomfort of not knowing what to do with this absence of mosquitoes to swat. Many highly successful and very busy people are incapable of spending a weekend or even a full day alone. It’s as if they have defined themselves by their interaction with the world, and when these interactions died down it feels like the rug has been pulled out from underneath them. If this is true about you, then it is very important
that you learn to spend time alone, and to enjoy spending time alone. Your meditation will enable you to do that and will be very much deepened the by your ability to do that.

Conclusion

In short, my suggestion is that you embrace these feelings when you encounter them. As you walk your meditative path you will meet many guides along the way. As human beings all of us experience, at one time or another, anxiety, fear, sadness, loneliness, loss, frustration, anxiety, jealousy, envy, craving, and anger, to name a few. Yet we never truly understand what those feelings are about and what we can learn from them. Most of the time we manage to turn away from the situations that have triggered those feelings. We think (or pretend) that those feelings of being created by our environment.

No one ever told us that emotions are behaviors. These feelings are the reactions of a subconscious part of our brain. They are guides through which we learn about who we really are. No time for all that, there’s work to be done. By embracing these feelings, these guides along our path, we learn what they have to teach us and transcend them. We free ourselves from unnecessary craving, avoidance, and delusion. Remember, embrace the questions, be wary of the answers.

In fact, meditation can be used in the treatment of depressed feelings alone or as an adjunct to any other therapy. The emptiness will change into a spaciousness, and the numbness will fade away into presence.


I am here to answer your questions about Deep Healing and Mind/Body Medicine. In a world besieged by specialists, my goal has been to address that little something that has disappeared from most specialties—the patient!

Send in your questions to [email protected] and I will select a few to answer. They may appear here or I might record my answer and share it on my YouTube.com channel. All personal information will be kept confidential.

Some of the following questions and answers were inspired by clients, conversations and some from Reddit threads. See my Reddit posts here.

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