Depression – what exactly is it? And how does music therapy and meditation help?
Depression can be many things, and we still don’t really understand what it is and what causes it – but we are beginning to find ways to help people suffering from it.
In medieval times, depression was known as melancholia – people with depressed mood, persistent fears, abulia (apathy) agitation and even hallucinations and delusions – were diagnosed as suffering from melancholia. The physical manifestations included insomnia and lack of appetite.
As with many things we do not understand, religion tried to find answers and, in the Middle Ages, people suffering from ‘sadness’ were diagnosed as suffering from ‘demonic possession’. Sadly, depression was also used as an excuse to commit people, particularly women who stood up for themselves, to asylums.
In the 17th century the perception changed and melancholia was transformed from a sign of vice into a mark of genius – and melancholia featured in a lot of paintings and poems during that time.
Creative people, in particular, have often suffered more from psychological conditions (and still do) and some of our most famous works of art have been created by artists like Van Gogh (the lead in paints probably also contributed in his case!) but sculptors and writers are also prone to high and low moods which affect their work – in positive as well as negative ways.
In the 18th century melancholia became related to abnormal beliefs – people who had visions and saw apparitions – but in the 20th century it once again became synonymous with depression with Sigmund Freud’s theory of depression presented in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in 1917.
Today we know that people with depression experience low self-esteem, lack of motivation, indecision and anxiety causing insomnia, loneliness, phobias and panic attacks.
But we still don’t know the precise causes of depression. Many factors could contribute – genetics, social stress and child abuse have been implicated – and there is evidence suggesting that brain inflammation may be an underlying cause along with the microbiome (the collection of all microbes such as bacteria, fungi and viruses that naturally live on and in our bodies).
Recent research has shown that gut microflora transmit brain signals – so gut inflammation affects the brain, and diet can therefore influence our brain processes. So healthy eating – lots of fruit and vegetables and less meat and fat and convenience foods will be beneficial.
A New Scientist study found that the positive effects of nature help with psychological conditions including depression, and access to green spaces has also been found to improve sleep, reduce stress, increase happiness, reduce negative emotions, and promote positive social interactions – so simply sitting on a bench in a park in the sunshine watching people walk by is therapeutic.
There is now evidence to suggest that regular exercise can positively improve sleep quality. Additionally, even light exercise has shown to significantly decrease symptoms of depression, so even short walks every day can help you sleep better and feel better.
Stress causes raised cortisol levels. In times of danger the body releases cortisol to trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response for protection – but chronic stress causes consistently elevated levels of cortisol which affect the brain causing changes in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. Research has found that people suffering from depression often have high cortisol levels.
It’s impossible to completely eliminate stress from your life (and some stress has been shown to be good for us) but there are ways to reduce it – planning ahead means not having to deal with things at the last minute, taking frequent breaks will help, deep breathing exercises calm you down – and talking to people to ask for support can only be beneficial.
There is no ‘cure’ for depression – but there are lots of therapeutic activities that help improve mood, reduce depressive symptoms and relieve anxiety.
We know that music and dancing are therapeutic – as early as 1621, in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ Robert Burton cites music and dance as critical in treating mental illness. And scientific research is beginning to prove that psychiatric disorders can effectively be treated through music therapy.
From the many comments we have received from subscribers who have found our tracks really helpful, we know music therapy and meditation works.
“I honestly feel better listening to this. Inexplicably, I feel comforted, supported, relaxed, and in a safe place. Thank you so much.”
“I fall asleep almost instantly. I’m not a great sleeper, so this is huge. It’s so soothing.”
We received so many requests from subscribers that we have released a 10-hour version of this video with a black screen so people can play it throughout the night.
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