Almost 19 million Americans have periods where they feel a lack of pleasure or interest in what was once pleasurable and interesting. They feel tired and heavy, potentially overly emotional or numb, and experience an onslaught of negative and self defeating thoughts that can keep invading the mind over and over again. The more periods of this depressed mood we have in life, the more likely we are to fall back into them again. Why does this relapse occur and how can mindfulness offer hope?
Falling into a depression feels traumatic and just like getting bit by a dog causes us to be fearful of and oversensitive to dogs, our minds and bodies become oversensitive to associations with the depression causing our brains to flinch at any sign of a relapse.
Feeling low mood is normal for everyone, but if we’ve experienced depression in the past, this may be a trigger for a relapse. If we feel tired or if we notice sadness, the mind pops up with the worry “uh oh, that is how I felt when I was depressed, maybe I’m getting depressed”. Our minds begin to go in overdrive with negative self judgments, “I am a failure” or “I am weak” or “I am worthless”. It then tries to solve the mystery as to why we are becoming depressed again and the more it tries to solve this puzzle, the deeper it sinks into depression. Think of a worried, judging person coming at you trying to solve your problems when you’re already not feeling well. Probably not what you’re looking for. You see, it’s not the low mood that’s the problem here, it’s the way we get stuck in habitually relating to it that pours kerosene on the fire, with our minds continuing to fan the flame rolling us into a full blown depression.
The practice of mindfulness teaches us a different way to relate to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise. It is about learning to approach and acknowledge whatever is happening in the present moment, setting aside our lenses of judgment and just being with whatever is there, rather than avoiding it or needing to fix it. It’s the mind’s attempt to avoid and fix things in this moment that fuels the negative mood.
With Uncomfortable Emotions
If sadness is there, instead of trying to fix it or figure it out, we might just acknowledge the sadness, let it be and get a better understanding of what we need in the moment.
If self-judgments arise (e.g., I am weak, I am a loser) out of past sensitivities to having been depressed before, we can acknowledge that they are associations from the past, let them be, and then gently bring ourselves back to whatever we were doing. In doing this, we’re stopping the ruminative cycle that might occur between our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviors that can play off one another leading into another relapse (I call this “The Depression Loop” in the upcoming book Uncovering Happiness).
Now, this is easier said than done and it takes practice.
It seems like every day interest in mindfulness is reaching new heights. All the major news networks have covered it and recently Sharon Salzberg was on the Katie Couric Show explaining how to achieve mindfulness. But the question on many people’s minds is; has mindfulness become another form of snake oil, claiming to cure everything under the sun from anxiety to sneezing? Last week a post broke out on the New York Times claiming there is a “Mindfulness Backlash” afoot where some people are questioning the science, seeing it packaged as a commodity and even warning against it.
The concept of choosing happiness can be an incredibly controversial topic. For anyone who has experienced distressing experiences like anxiety, depression, addiction, chronic pain, trauma or a stress-related medical illness, to say “choose happiness” can appear shaming. When conditions are genetic or biological nature, there is no choice and pain is inevitable. However, while we can never change what happens to us in any given moment, with awareness, we can choose how to respond to it.
Let’s take a closer look at what “choose happiness” can mean and how it may be the most powerful phrase we know to change lives.
No matter what time of year it is, stress will likely be a part of it. A little stress is good, it fuels motivation, but there’s a tipping point where it starts to have diminishing returns. When that higher level of stress hits, if it’s left unchecked it can lead to anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addictive behaviors, you name it. Today I want to give you something that you can BET on anywhere, anytime to help turn the volume down on the chaotic mind and bring you back into balance.
I’m a big fan of things that are short and sweet. Something I can remember that can help me in a pinch.
Here’s a short acronym that you can BET on throughout the day:
“Compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”
I’ve made it a practice to be interested in what people say toward the end of life. I think at that point, people often come to a space of presence and clarity that I’ve called The Now Effect. This isn’t a special moment of wisdom that is reserved for our deathbeds, it’s something we all glean at some point or another and yet at the same time it is a skill that can be cultivated.
Merton’s quote strikes at the fundamental delusion that underscores much of our dis-ease.
We walk around life with this belief that we are somehow separate from one another and this growing feeling of disconnection leads to a state of imbalance. When we’re mentally imbalanced it’s a lot easier for our buttons to get pushed sending us into states of stress, anxiety, depression and addictive behaviors.
What would be different if we flipped it around and we walked around day to day with a fundamental belief that we are all connected, that there’s an interdependence of all being and that my actions reverberate in an interconnected web that cause ripple effects?
Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to judge others. Or maybe we’d be more likely to help out other people or beings in this world. What would your life be like if there was more of that sentiment in it? What would the world be like if more people believed that?
Here is a truly worthwhile endeavor to practice today:
Almost 15 years ago Saundra Adam’s grandson, Chancellor Lee Adams came into her life in the most heart-wrenching way. One night in 1999 after the past NFL player Rae Carruth and Cherica Adams went to a movie they got into separate cars to drive back to Cherica’s house. As Cherica parked another car drove beside her revealing a gun and fired a number of rounds into Cherica. At the time Cherica was in her third trimester with Chancellor and had enough energy to dial 911 and implicate Rae in the shooting. The paramedics got to Cherica in time to save her son’s life and performed an emergency c-section. Because of Cherica’s death, Chancellor had been oxygen-deprived and would spend the rest of his life with severe disabilities unable to feed and change himself.
But Saundra, his grandmother who inherited him tells this a different way.
How we start the morning often sets the stage for how the rest of the day unfolds. Of course life throws us curve balls in the middle of the day, maybe you get a stressful email or someone rear ends you with their car or you lost that deal that you were looking forward to. Anything can happen in the present moment, but how we start our day can often affect how we greet those challenges.
Here are four tips to start your day that will help you with the inevitable ups and downs that you get handed.
Whether this is your first time you’re coming here or you’ve been around for the almost four years I’ve been writing The Mindfulness and Psychotherapy column, I want to share a personal moment of gratitude and say “Thank You” for being a part of this community. This was a big year for this column, it will become 4 years old and is also the year that The Now Effect and Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler hit bookshelves. Now it’s my turn to give you some gifts of my favorite Top 10 posts of the year. In these posts you’ll read about the power of mindfulness, the importance of self-compassion in healing, the upside to embracing dark emotions, how to be alone, why multitasking is ineffective, many short practices and much more.
May they bring you a sense of insight, ease, peace and freedom. Enjoy!
I was recently at a funeral of a family member and I was struck once again at the truth behind how life simply boils down to the goodness of a person. People at funerals don’t talk as much about the level of wealth, power or fame someone achieved, but more about who they loved and how they loved, and the rest of it just seems to fall by the wayside. This particular funeral was for a woman named Margie Lipman who also wrote an “Ethical Will” to convey what she learned in her 98 years to the rest of us. She shared this gift with me and because of its inherent wisdom I’d like to share it with you.
Here it is…
I received the following Daily Now Moment in my inbox today:
“It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” ~ Dalai Lama
Take some action with compassion today and remember, we are more connected than we know so a small gesture can have ripple effects across a multitude of people.
The recent post “The Science Behind Why Everything We Do Matters” received widespread attention and there’s a reason for this.
On the deepest level, we all want to believe that what we do matters and in fact it does. There’s actual science that shows how our acts have ripple effects across many people.
When people are experiencing compassion, the act of putting ourselves in another’s shoes with the inclination to help in some way, it’s associated with feeling good. There’s a shift in activity to the left prefrontal cortex which is also associated with a host of other positive emotions.
Cultivating the skill of compassion is beneficial to us individually, but as the Dalai Lama says, that’s not enough, “You must act.”
Here’s how you can start acting on your compassion: