Depression is the ‘black dog’ of the night. It robs life of joy, causes crippling anxiety and lead to feelings of empty despair and dissatisfaction. It is pervasive. It affects all corners of life. Like a black cloud or emotion that will never leave.
No one wants to feel that way.
Yet, nothing we do seems to help. The advice on the internet, from friends or family, or from the books we read all do nothing. Even if there is any effect it is usually temporary, short-lived, and we’re soon back to feeling worn down by the emptiness in our life.
And there’s worse.
Some people don’t get it. They think we should just snap out of it, get over it, or brighten up. Like it’s a switch we need to flick that we’ve been too lazy to reach over and do so.
Alas it’s not so easy.
The sad truth is that once you’ve been depressed it’s likely to return. The mind is prone to these types of cycles and isn’t naturally equipped with the processes needed to deal with depression. That’s the horrible news; the good news is that it’s possible and not too difficult, to change these mental processes.
Like someone stuck in quicksand you’ve been flinging around trying to free yourself while sinking ever deeper. Because you’ve been trying to ‘fix’ what’s ‘wrong’ with you. But all that effort makes it worse.
In truth there’s nothing wrong to fix. We feel bad about certain beliefs and then feel bad about feeling bad. Soon we’re on a negative feedback loop and a cycle downwards.
The following steps are all about how to bring awareness into your life. With awareness we can come to understand the thought and triggers which can cause depression.
A word of warning.
If you are a serious suffer of depression change won’t come overnight. It often takes some time of working through the steps below before their full benefits are received. Sometimes patients come to me after a day, sometimes after even an hour, and ask why they don’t seem better yet. It doesn’t quite work like that. While most people report immediate benefits from following the steps, the full benefits from those who suffer depression take much longer to realise.
If you are in the midst of clinical depression it might be best to get the necessary help and then move onto the steps below.
It’s not our fault that depression re-occurs. We start to feel bad and are soon on a spiral downward that no amount of struggle seems able to stop
That spiral is a mental pattern, a certain way of thinking, or a mode of mind. It is triggered automatically and most of the time we don’t notice what is going on.
This is where awareness helps.
Awareness brings us more in contact with our emotions, feelings and thoughts. This awareness is called mindfulness. It is paying attention on purpose, knowing that we are doing so. It is experiential and focuses on the present moment experience and it is non-judgemental, accepting things as they are.
These things help because the central cause of depression is that we are unaware of our thoughts and feelings, unaware of the judgements we make about ourselves and unaware that persistent patterns of thinking cause our low moods.
Commenting, judging and evaluating are central to rumination. We are constantly measuring ourselves against some internal or external standards. Often we are our worst critic becoming a tyrant to ourselves with impossible demands that can never be satisfied.
By bringing awareness into our lives we become aware of the intricate connections between events, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours.
We can see how certain combinations of these can cause spirals of depression. How certain modes of mind or ways of thinking can get us stuck in a rut that’s hard to escape.
Breath is sometimes called the ‘gateway to awareness’ and there is a reason it is given central importance in mindfulness. That’s because when you focus on your breathing it’s hard to focus on anything else.
Breath helps us pay attention to our thoughts as it increases the process of awareness. Bring your awareness onto the sensations in your body as the breath moves in and out. Pay attention to the rise and fall of your chest, the changing physical sensation in your abdomen as you inhale and exhale.
Sooner or later the mind will wander away from noticing your breathing, getting caught up in thoughts, planning or daydreams, or just aimlessly drifting about. This is what minds do; it is not a mistake or a failure. Noticing your mind has wondered is the important thing. Congratulate yourself for noticing and bring your awareness back to your breathing and begin again. That is the power of breathing it gets you to practice being aware.
Thoughts are addictive, they pull you in and you can soon be ‘lost in thought’ as the common saying goes. How often have you driven home after work and not noticed a single moment of the journey, how often have you left one room in your house in search of a pen or a notepad and found yourself in another room with no idea what you came for.
This is an important revelation in itself. That are minds are a constant flow of words and images and we can choose not to focus on them.
Noticing when we are lost in thought is the first step. It can be difficult at first but over time, you can improve up to the point where you’ll be aware when your attention is on your thoughts and when it is on something else.
This is one of the critical misunderstandings people have about meditation they believe they must have no thoughts and that they must stop all negative thoughts. Both are impossible. Mindfulness is not about stopping thoughts, just noticing that they are there and that they are not us. It is about accepting our thoughts as they are, not as we’d like them to be.
With practice we can bring more awareness into our lives. We can pay attention using the full resources of the body.
When we eat we can be aware of the food, its smell, texture, taste. When we wash the dishes we can feel the sense of the hot water on our skins, the smell of the washing up liquid.
Any routine activity such as brushing your teeth, taking a shower, doing the laundry can be a chance to practice awareness. In doing so we can see how often we are operating on autopilot.
In these moments we can focus on just being. What are we actually feeling at this point of time. If we’re not brushing our teeth with our mind on something else what sensations do we actually feel?
Since most of a typical day involves hurrying from task to task these moments of attention can be like a breath of fresh air.
And these moments matter. They matter as we are able to start to recognise our thoughts and that we are not our thoughts. We can recognise that ideas about ourselves are just that, ideas.
They are not facts.
Depression is caused by rumination, the constant flow of negative thoughts and feelings about our self-worth that saps our joy and energy. The mental patterns that cause these cycles are common, and we may not often notice them, but they are not unstoppable.
With awareness we can begin to see the links between thoughts and feelings and our body. All these are important.
The body in particular is important to depressives as it often carries a sense of heaviness or weariness around it. Thanks fully we can bring our awareness to our body too. All we need to do is bring our attention onto all the sensations arising from ourselves. It’s best to do this one body part at a time, noting all the tiny sensations in your hand for example. Where they are resting, the temperature, any tingling’s in the bones or skin or fingernails, the air around the fingers – anything that is present.
As we focus on our body we can become aware of any uncomfortable sensations without trying to avoid them or think about them. They are just there.
Any sense of heaviness or weariness is increased by negative thoughts. But awareness – pg. 114 – can be energizing.
Most of what drives the way we feel and act is not deeply unconscious. It is just below the surface of our awareness. With a short shift in attention it can all become aware to us. All the motivations, expectations, interpretations and stories are accessible if we dare to look.
This stream of consciousness is going on in our minds all the time. It is potentially damaging to us, not because we can’t access it or see it, but because most of the time we are unaware that it is there. We leave it undetected and accept its judgement unquestioningly.
Negative critical thoughts are part of the landscape of depression. The shift to recognizing our thoughts, to recognizing that they are made-up, not real, and not facts is the first step to breaking the depressive cycle.
With time and practice it’s possible to recognise the thoughts and the thinking patterns that lead to a depressive cycle. Unfortunately most people who have suffered from at least one bout of depression are prone to relapses. Mindfulness has been proven to help people avoid these.
While there’s lots of contradictory information and advice out there on-line. Clinical studies have shown that with time and practice depression can be avoided.
Try Mindfulness I’m sure it will bring you the joy, peace and happiness in your life that you deserve.
Matt is a trained and licenced Mindfulness teacher and Stress and Anxiety Reduction Counsellor operating in and around the Peterborough area. After overcoming his own stress and anxiety he's found his purpose teaching others to do the same.