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Use of antidepressant medications by Americans is astounding: one in 10 Americans takes at least one, and, among women in their 40s and 50s, it’s one in four.

This high rate of use might not just be because we feel depressed. Take a disconnected (yet technologically connected) culture, add in a slew of advertisements for these types of happy pills and potential over diagnosis, and we have ourselves one big over-medicated mess. One recent study, found in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, notes: “nearly two-thirds of a sample of more than 5,000 patients who had been given a diagnosis of depression within the previous 12 months did not meet the criteria for major depressive episode as described by the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or D.S.M.).”

Then, there’s a simple lack of focus on alternatives. How often is anyone visiting a conventional doctor in the U.S. asked if they participate in uplifting exercises, such as yoga, which has proven anti-depressant impacts on people? Typically, a visit to a doctor’s office or therapist’s chair ends in recommendations for Prozac and the like, not alternative medicines.

A Cheaper, Healthier Cure

And, for those who simply lack the time, money, or coordination for a yoga practice, there’s the simplest exercises of them all: meditation. Meditation requires no tools, no teacher, no pills, no money. All one needs is a quiet room and a few minutes of time, and it may surprise you that meditation may be just as effective as medication. As Forbes reports on one study making this assertion, published in the Journal of American Medication Association Internal Medicine, “Mindfulness meditation may not cure all, the research found, but when it comes to the treatment of depression, anxiety, and pain, the practice may be just as effective as medication.”

Is It For You?

Meditation does require a little practice, if only because we’re not so used to sitting in silence, with extreme focus, in our go-go-go, technology-heavy culture. But it can be done by anyone. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” said Madhav Goyal, M.D. and researcher for John Hopkins University. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”

Ok, now let’s talk side effects. For mediation, there are none, except the chance of greater focus, energy, and happiness. How’s that for a side effect list? Compared to the laundry list of side effects you’ll find with most antidepressant pill, this is nothing, right? “Also relevant for physicians and patients is that there is no known major harm from meditating, and meditation doesn’t come with any known side effects,” said Goyal.

How to Meditate

Now that we’ve talked side effects, let’s move to the business of the “how” of meditation.

You need a quiet spot (i.e. no television noise, far from busy street sounds, etc.) and at least 1 -2 minutes (yes, that’s all). Some people meditate upwards of an hour at a time, but start with small goals, especially if your time is very limited. If possible, aim to meditate at the same time every day so as to train the body for it.

Now, in your quiet spot, sit comfortably but straight. Don’t slouch. Many people sit with their legs crossed, while others sit with their legs stretched in front of them. Hands are usually placed in the lap, palms upward, or placed on your knees. Once again, do what feels right for your body. You can sit on a pillow, on the floor, or even in a chair or a sofa if the former doesn’t sound comfortable. Comfort is key. This goes for your clothing, also. Just make sure you’re as comfortable as you can be.

With your eyes open or closed (again, whatever is most comfortable), focus on your breath. Think about the air moving in through your nose, then down into your throat, then passed down through your lungs and stomach. If you lose focus easily, you can count, or repeat a mantra of some kind, or visualize a place you love, over and over again as you focus on your breath. For more ideas, check out this great guide.

Once you have complete clear focus for any period of time, whether that is on your breath, your place, your mantra – you are moving toward meditation. If you lose focus (“What’s for lunch today” “I need to clean the basement” “What matches the scarf I just bought?”) – don’t be hard on yourself, but just bring your focus back to your breathing.

Give it a Try! You Don’t Have Much to Lose

Some people find benefit in a guided meditation, such as a class or just a tape or audio bit played from their phone (keep the phone’s messaging off and away from you while you attempt to meditate, i.e. on the other side of the room you’re in!)

The goal, really, is to practice full mindfulness in a quiet spot, whether that’s for the 2 minutes suggested or for an hour. While the beginning stages of meditation can be challenging, keep with it – you may soon find increased mindfulness in your daily life, and an increase in overall well-being that meets or even exceeds anything you can get from a costly, unhealthy pill.

It should be noted, of course, that you should consult a doctor before removing yourself from any prescribed pill regime – in serious cases, you may need more help. However, many do find that in mild cases of anxiety or depression, they can slowly wean themselves from the pills if they practice meditation daily.

Image source: Sebastien Wiertz / Flickr