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Depression and Spiritual Practice

Written by Will Meecham.

Effect of Spiritual Practice on Depression

People suffering from depression and the clinicians who treat them are learning that symptoms diminish with spiritual practice. Many mental health clinics now offer meditation classes along with cognitive behavioral training, and therapists have begun to ask clients about transcendent beliefs. These developments promise to advance the struggle against depression, which until recently was treated in purely “mental” terms. By including the soul as a participant in our pursuit of mental wellness, we humanize psychiatric care.

Spirituality and soulfulness can be very helpful in recovering from depression, but not everyone feels comfortable with them. For one thing, conventional scientific institutions cast doubt on mystical beliefs in general, and on the existence of soul in particular. Furthermore, spiritual growth gets confused with traditional religion, which many perceive to be out of touch with modern life. Can those leery of mysticism and/or religion still enjoy the benefits of spiritual practice?

Fortunately, they can. At least in the context of mental health, spiritual pursuits have little to do with faith in eternal souls, higher realms, God, or scripture. Instead, the healing comes when life begins to feel meaningful. Viktor Frankl has highlighted how we can recover from the psychological effects of trauma by making sense out of our experience: by finding meaning. More recently, the Positive Psychology movement has picked up a similar theme, encouraging people to embrace lives of purpose and high ethical standards.

In its most essential terms, spirituality is about reframing our history and realigning our priorities. One readymade way of achieving this is to practice a religion, in which case the tradition both explains how hardship edifies, and encourages right behavior.

But one can also reinterpret the past independent of any organization or belief system. All it takes is looking for the benefits that accrue from our disappointments and sorrows. By investigating in this way, we often discover that our trials have increased our maturity, deepened our empathy, and enhanced our appreciation of life and loved ones.

After starting to view life more wisely, and in further pursuit of spiritual growth, we seek ways to use our experience to help those who may not have progressed so far along the path of healing. As we connect with others, we begin to adopt higher standards of behavior, because we understand more deeply the pain caused by harmful acts.

Reframing serves to counter our negative appraisals and complaints about fate. Helping others transforms individual tragedy into collective effort. It also takes us out of our isolated orbits of pain and plants us in the center of human life.

In short, building a more positive picture of the past helps us regret less, and working to assist others helps us look forward more. With a new understanding and a new purpose, our personalities blossom. We escape negativity and fear, and embrace optimism and hope.

Can you imagine any better prescription for rising out of depression? This is genuine spirituality, with no requirement for mystical beliefs or religious doctrine. Searching for meaning and purpose heals and transforms, so that regret gives way to gratitude, fear melts into hope, and depression grows into maturity.

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