How treating depression with mindfulness can be beneficial for South Africans


A recent clinical trial conducted by Lancet has found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) may be as effective as antidepressant medication in preventing the relapse of depression. This revolutionary study not only shows that by simply changing the way people think can reduce the need for antidepressant medication, but also reveals the benefits of this practice for everyday South Africans.

This is according to Western Cape-based Dr Robert Delgado, Corrective Care Chiropractor and lifestyle coach, who says the research is not surprising at all because negative thoughts are one of the main causes of depression.

“We all have a constant internal dialogue with ourselves describing what we perceive to be reality. These thoughts are based on certain beliefs about ourselves and the environment that are developed during our lifetime. Our beliefs are not facts, they are emotionally held opinions. When these thoughts are continuously negative and derogatory towards ourselves, such as “I am not pretty enough”, “I am not strong enough” or “I am not good enough”, it can eventually lead to all types of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety or low self-esteem. There are multiple causes of depression but in many cases feeling depressed is a symptom, not a cause. Depression is not the cause of depressing thoughts, depression is the result of depressing thoughts.”

The Lancet study took 424 adults with recurrent depression who were on antidepressant medication and divided the test group into two groups: one group continued with their antidepressant medication, while the other group underwent MBCT and maintained the practice for two years. The study found the relapse rate for those who partook in the MBCT treatment (44%) to be similar to that of the group that remained on antidepressants medication (47%). Read more on the study here.

The findings of the study are particularly important for South Africans given the country’s high suicide rate, says Dr Delgado. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) there are 23 completed suicides a day in the country and another 230 attempted suicides. “Undiagnosed and untreated depression is one of the main causes of suicide,” he says.

Read: Depression and suicide: South Africa's unseen killers

What is mindfulness and how can it help?

Mandy Johnson, Partner at the Mindful Company, says mindfulness refers to awareness of present experience with acceptance, which arises when we pay attention, on purpose, without judgement, to what is occurring in the present moment. “Practising mindfulness is about working skillfully and compassionately, moment by moment, with what we are experiencing in our lives.”

MBCT was designed to help people who suffer repeated bouts of depression and chronic unhappiness, says Johnson. “MBCT is increasingly being used across a number of other stress-related conditions such as anxiety, recurrent depression, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, hypertension, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, addiction recovery, HIV/Aids, cancer, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

She says there are numerous benefits to practising mindfulness including: lowered blood pressure, improved sleep and general well-being, improved immune system responsiveness, a decrease in perceived stress, reduced anxiety and depression and improved quality of life, among many others. “Mindfulness also results in physical changes in the brain with increased volume of grey matter in regions linked to learning, memory, emotional regulation and empathy.”

MBCT works well in conjunction with chiropractic treatment which is all about bringing the body back into balance, says Dr Delgado. “This is achieved by reducing the tension on the nervous system enabling the body to move towards its natural state which is health. But balance also involves looking at how we eat, move and think. Chiropractic can correct what stress has done to the spine and then mindfulness becomes a tool we can use to build resilience to stress in the future.”

Read: Alternative treatment for mild depression

Daily practise important

He says resilience to stress is the key. “Many people try to practice these methods during times of high stress when the brain is not in a state to take on new information. It’s the same as practicing your new tennis serve during the grand slam final. Daily practice of mindfulness will build the neurological pathways required to cope with the stress when it arrives.”

Dr Delgado believes that the future of chiropractic is going to focus on the effect of chiropractic treatments on the brain. Research has proven that normal healthy movement of the spine and correct postural alignment is an essential ingredient in healthy brain function and our ability to adapt to our environment.

“Often we find ourselves either thinking about something in the past or being fearful of something in the future. MBCT trains the brain to bring back more balance by allowing us to be present while also being more compassionate in our thoughts about ourselves. This is a very good tool to not only reduce the recurrence of depression, but to also improve our overall outlook on life,” concludes Dr Delgado.

Read more:

New study shows the effect of depression in the South African workplace

Could depression really be caused by inflammation?

Good relationships counter depression in abuse survivors

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