“You can hold back from suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering you could have avoided.”
In a recent blog, Mindful Monday: A Note to the Severely Depressed–Don’t Try So Hard, author Therese Borchard wrote about her first hand experience with trying to get out of a depressed state through her bag of mindfulness and CBT tricks. What she found was the harder she tried and was unable to succeed the more her judgments about being a “failure” grew.
What her doctor’s told her was when you are in the eye of a depressive episode, “distract, don’t think.”
When we’re really depressed, the mind is searching for things “to do” in order to get us out. However, this is a trap, especially when we’re really depressed. The harder we try, the more stuck we get.
Because it’s a set up.
The moment we’re reaching for mindfulness practices as a means to an end, as a means in that moment to feel better, get out of depression, or achieve calm, is the moment our minds develop the rule: “If I don’t see any relief come from this, then I am a failure, or there must be something wrong with me.”
From then on, the mind becomes vigilant in looking for relief and every moment it is not found, is a moment that is laced with self judgment which digs us deeper into depression.
Also, with a depressive episode, the stronghold of automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) is so powerful in that moment that it is almost as if we are wearing permanent shaded glasses so no matter what we “do” the outcome is tinted with self judgment.
In our Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) groups for depressive relapse, we make sure that people who are beginning the group are not currently in a depressive episode for this very reason. The trap is created and often what we need when we’re feeling depressed is physical movement, contact with people, and actions toward self kindness (even if our minds tell us we don’t deserve it).
So Kafka tells us that the very desperate striving to try and get away from our pain is the very suffering that may have been avoided.
In other words, Therese has it right. When we are already depressed and “trying too hard,” to use these techniques, we are likely using them in service of avoiding pain and therefore not having that initial opportunity to see it for what it is. In her case, a biological condition that is best treated with distraction in these moments.
When we don’t have that initial recognition and we use “try too hard” using mindfulness or CBT to avoid it, this creates a tension, a dissonance with the way things are which adds to cauldron of not feeling well.
However, the caveat here is that as long as we recognize and acknowledge that we are suffering in any particular moment, we are no longer ignoring it. With this initial awareness we can see the depressive episode for what it might be, perhaps a chemical imbalance in the moment.
Then we can make a choice to do as Therese mentions “distract” or shift our focus to things that are on our anti-depressant check list such as seeking connection, be around people, be kind to yourself, play with your animal, or get outside and take a walk.
More than anything, trust your experience. There is no one way for everyone, become intimate with what is supportive for you during difficult times.
What is supportive for you? Please share your stories, thoughts, suggestions, and questions below. Your interaction here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.