While meditation is not a replacement for therapy or other interventions for prolonged sadness or depression, research has shown1 that a regular meditation practice can help increase happiness and decrease irritability. It also shows promise for improving sleep, reducing anxiety and stress, and enhancing self-awareness—all of which are potential mood boosters.
How can meditation help with sadness?
All these benefits have to do with the way meditation affects the brain. The practice has been shown to decrease activity in the prefrontal cortex—the area responsible for worrying and rumination—and weaken its connection to our amygdala2 (or "fear center"), the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response that floods our body with the stress hormone cortisol.
In other words, when we meditate or embark on any mindfulness practice, we are encouraged to become observers of our thoughts and emotions. We tune into our natural ebbs and flows and put up a mental buffer around our thoughts and feelings, enabling us to recognize the patterns of the mind that don't serve us—including those that lead to unnecessary sadness. In fact, with regular practice, we may also notice when we're at risk of feeling sad and be able to take appropriate action to help ourselves earlier rather than later. Ultimately meditation teaches you to be OK with the discomfort of sadness and stay with it, not turn it into something else, such as anger or hopelessness. In doing so, it creates a much greater capacity for compassion, both for ourselves and those around us.
There are many meditation techniques that can help ease the symptoms of sadness, but these are three of my tried-and-tested favorites:
Mindfulness of the breath
The breath is a powerful force and when we practice mindful breath meditation, we redirect our attention and thoughts to the breath as it moves through the body, giving ourselves a small break from the incessant chatter of the mind and enabling us to simply be with things as they are at that moment.
How to do it:
Begin by relaxing the body and directing your awareness to the physical sensation of the breath. Notice the rising and falling of the abdomen and chest and the feeling of the breath as it travels in and out the nostrils or mouth (perhaps observing that the inhale is slightly cooler than the exhale). Each time the mind becomes distracted by thoughts, feelings, sounds, or physical sensations, don't worry, as this is completely normal. Simply acknowledge that distraction and continue to draw the focus back to the breath.
Kapalabhati, also known as the Breath of Fire, is a breathwork technique that consists of short, powerful exhales and passive inhales. Kapala means "the skull" and bhati means "brings lightness," so this energizing breath practice can be super helpful when you're feeling down and trapped in your own mind.
How to do it:
Sitting with a straight spine and closed mouth, take a big deep breath through the nose into the belly. On the exhale, contract the abdomen in toward your back (think a light punch to the stomach). The inhale should then naturally fill the lungs. Continue like this, pumping the navel in and out for 40 breaths or as long as feels comfortable for you. Keep the face and body relaxed.
This meditation is the perfect antidote to sadness as it forces you to think about the things that you have to be happy, and grateful, for in your life. This isn't about blocking out negative emotions or experiences but about being thankful for everything—the good and the bad. I like to practice it in bed at night and find it helps me fall asleep more easily.
How to do it:
After relaxing the muscles of the body, take a deep breath and ask yourself: "What am I truly thankful for?" Think about your health, the people and animals in your life, the freedoms that you have that not everyone gets to experience in this lifetime, the opportunities that are available to you, the clothes that keep you warm or covered from the sun, the food and water that nourishes your body, the roof over your head. Finally, think about the things in your life that are difficult, and try to be grateful for them. Don't worry if you don't feel grateful for them right now. Can you accept it's possible you will in the future? Be grateful for everything in this world and everything that you are.
How often do I need to meditate before I feel a mood boost?
I recommend getting in the habit of meditating every day, even if it's just for a few minutes. However, if that feel unworkable, aim for five times a week. Set a timer on your phone for 5 to 10 minutes or simply meditate using one of the above techniques until you feel you've created a bit more space inside. If you're just starting out, I recommend using a guided meditation that's led by a teacher to get in the swing of things.
Can meditation ever negatively affect my mood?
Meditation has some incredible mental health perks, but considering that it encourages us to sit with our feelings, the emotions and sensations that come up can sometimes feel overwhelming (particularly at the beginning). If the practice becomes too much and starts to make you feel much worse, take a little break and return later to try again. Do your best not to dwell on the emotions that do arise. Watch them as if you're an impartial observer.
Meditation, mindfulness, and breathwork techniques enable us to better know ourselves and navigate difficult situations with more ease. In this way, they are very powerful buffers against sadness and the inevitable twists and turns of life.
Lily is a holistic life coach, yoga and meditation teacher, and writer whose coverage of technology, mental health, and spirituality has appeared in Vogue, Refinery29, DOSE, Women’s Health, and The Guardian. In addition to writing, she currently helps Extinction Rebellion program their yoga and meditation offerings and hosts a monthly self-help book club called Books To Change Your Life.