This weekend I went on a hike with some good friends and during the hike we kept hearing sounds of frogs, ‘croak, croak.’ We looked in the water, on the ground and all around us, but we could not find these frogs. They sounded like they were right next to us. For a few moments we slowed down and I chose to close my eyes, open my ears and just listen. As I began to feel more present and let go of the expectation that the frogs needed to be in a certain place, I opened my eyes again and was able to shift my perspective and see the frogs, they were camouflaged against the rocks. It was amazing. All along they were there but my mind and eyes were stuck and couldn’t perceive them. It made me think: How many things in this world are we literally not able to sense because our minds get stuck in automatic patterns of perceiving or auto-perception? How might this auto-pilot of perception contribute to our depression and anxiety, day to day?
Certainly, when a person is experiencing depression, the mind is often stuck in a cycle of rumination that not only interprets things from a negative lens, but expects negative things to happen and literally zeros in on the negative things that are there. Because of these prejudices and preconceptions about how things are, we can literally feel stuck in a box, unaware of new options that might support our mental health during this time. Doubts and self judgments about getting better run rampant, leading to the inevitable trifecta of depression “this is never going to get better, no one can help me, and I can’t help myself.”
Without being able to take a step back and examine the validity of these thoughts we just take them as fact, which leaves us feeling helpless and lethargic, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of not getting the support we need. Taking these negative thoughts and beliefs as facts limits the potential to make the important steps on the road to recovery. Henry Ford once said, “whether you believe you can or can’t, you’re right!”
Next time your mind says “I could never do that…” see if you can take a moment before reacting. Just breathe, use your breath as an anchor to break out of auto-pilot and come down from the mind and into the present moment. There is no need to judge this thought as good or bad, instead you’re just going to detach a bit from it and observe it. Ask yourself, “Could I really never do that? Could I do a variation of it?” You may not feel up to running a marathon right now, but could you take a walk outside?
The fact is, we limit our potential every moment when identifying with these automatic negative interpretations and ruminations. As much as we often believe that we are our thoughts and our thoughts are facts, they’re not. They’re just thoughts, mental events in the mind that come and go. If they were thoughts they would always be there and while it might feel that when when feeling really depressed, the thoughts do eventually shift. When we’re depressed, they have a murky negative lens, when we’re anxious, they take on a catastrophic flavor, when we’re feeling well, thoughts are brighter. The truth is, for the most part, we don’t know what our true limits are, but we do know that we can get stuck in seeing and thinking of things in an automatic way that can thwart our ability to see new options and new possibilities.
When not feeling well, allow yourself to notice that your perceptions and beliefs are likely being colored by your mood and your mind is not open to the whole picture. See if you can breathe in and out, calming the mind a bit.
Then, try an experiment: Pick something to do today, something small is fine, that gave you some pleasure or sense of achievement in the past. Try it out. If your mind comes in with “that’ll never work” or “this is going to be terrible”, just notice these thoughts as a mental events of the mind, colored by mood, let them be, and then gently put one foot in front of the other moving toward the new action. Be aware of what follows, you may just surprise yourself.
As always, please share your thoughts and questions below. Your interactions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.