Published: Jan. 14, 2016 By

Pregnant and postpartum women at risk of depression are less likely to suffer depression when they meditate or get in a yoga pose than when they are treated with psychotherapy or antidepressants, a new study led by University of Colorado Boulder researchers has found.

Sona Dimidjian

Sona Dimidjian

At-risk women experienced depression during pregnancy and after they gave birth in 18 percent of cases when treated with mindfulness techniques such as yoga, but the rate was 50 percent in those treated with more conventional methods, according to an article published last month in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Sona Dimidjian, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU-Boulder, led the study.

While earlier studies on mindfulness treatment showed promise in treating or preventing prenatal and postpartum depression, this is the first randomized controlled study to investigate mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for women during pregnancy. Dimidjian said the work advances scientists’ understanding of viable treatment options.

“The choice between antidepressants and having untreated depression is not the only option,” Dimidjian said. “We know that women are going to have contact with the healthcare system because they are pregnant, and now we have a good indication that there is a promising intervention that will help many women reduce their risk of depression.”

The study focused on pregnant women with histories of depression who were treated at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Colorado and Georgia. Researchers randomly assigned 43 pregnant women to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Another 43 were assigned to more conventional treatments.

The value of helping at-risk pregnant women prevent depression is clear.”

Prenatal and postpartum depression remains a vexing public health issue. Some researchers have found that 15 percent of women experience prenatal and postpartum depression. Others have found that about 30 percent of women who have experienced a previous episode of depression will relapse into depression during or after pregnancy.

Yet standard treatments don’t always work because most women don’t want to take antidepressants during or after pregnancy. Studies have suggested that while 7 percent of pregnant women use antidepressants, up to 50 percent of them stop taking the drugs during pregnancy and, of those, 70 percent relapse into depression.

In Dimidjian’s latest study, women treated with mindfulness-based therapy went to eight sessions of treatment during which they learned meditation, yoga and strategies to relate differently to negative thoughts and to bring greater self-care into their daily lives. The women were also assigned practices to do at home each day.

Dimidjian is now analyzing the efficacy of web-based treatment sessions. That work has shown initial promise but needs further study, she said.

Dimidjian and her fellow researchers emphasize that depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period can have long-lasting effects on both mother and child and therefore, they write, “the value of helping at-risk pregnant women prevent depression is clear.”

The researchers included specialists from three universities and Kaiser Permanente, including Dimidjian’s collaborators Sherryl Goodman at Emory University, Arne Beck at Kaiser Permanente Colorado and Robert Gallop at West Chester University. The team also included psychology graduate students Jennifer Felder at CU-Boulder and Amanda Brown at Emory University.

The National Institute of Mental Health funded the research.

Clint Talbott is director of communications and external relations for the College of Arts and Sciences and editor of the College of Arts and Sciences Magazine.