Everyone at some point in their life will be affected by depression whether it’s their own or someone they are close to. Almost 19 million Americans alone have periods where they feel a lack of pleasure or interest their usual activities combined with feeling tired and heavy, potentially overly emotional or numb, and 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 us to react to any sign of it. Feeling low mood is normal for everyone, but if we’ve experienced depression in the past, this may be a trigger for thinking depression is about to set in again.
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 with rumination rolling us into a full blow depression.
How does mindfulness help?
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.
If sadness is there, instead of trying to fix it or figure it out, we might just acknowledge the sadness and let it be. 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, and physical sensations that can play off one another leading us to a relapse.
Now, this is easier said than done and it takes practice.
Here’s a classic natural anti-depressant practice
One way to practice mindfulness is to use the breath as an object of awareness. You can place attention at the tip of the nose or the belly and as you breathe in, just acknowledge the breath coming in and as you breathing out just acknowledge the breathe going out. As if you were greeting and saying goodbye to an old friend. When the mind wanders, as it will always do, just say to yourself “wandering” and then gently bring your attention back to the breath just noticing it coming in and going out. Most of us catch the mind wandering and gently repeat this several billion times, so know that it is normal for the mind to wander often. You can do this for as little as 1 minute or as much as 30 minutes or more.
Practice with this when you’re feeling well and you’ll be better able to recognize when your mind wanders off to ruminations and self judgments when you’re not feeling well. If you’re not feeling well and the mind begins to ruminate, as you practiced with the breath, just label it as “ruminating” and then gently bring your attention back to whatever you were doing. Being more present may also give you the ability to be more flexible and call a friend or do something that then gives you pleasure or connection with others. This is an act of self care and helps stop the cycle of rumination and cultivates more patience, compassion, and peace.
It’s often helpful to be guided with a voice in doing these practices with audio guidance or in person, however, you can absolutely do this on your own as well.
Elisha Goldstein, PhD