Keeping up a Mindfulness Practice with Depression
If you are feeling depressed, practicing mindfulness can seem impossibly difficult
Author Kate Carne has tips for gently keeping mindfulness in your life, and raising your mood in the process
If you are struggling with depression, you can find a therapist here
If you suffer from depression, and you would like to try mindfulness, one of the dilemmas you may face is when to start. Taking on something new if you are in the depths of despond is not possible: if it’s difficult to get out of bed, it’s unreasonable to expect that you should start going to a new class, or have the energy to begin meditation. Therefore, with depression, there is a ‘catch 22’ situation: it might well do you good, but you are not up to doing it. If depression is a recurrent visitor in your life, you need to somehow arrange a mindfulness course at a time when you are not at your lowest ebb.
But what if you’ve been practising for a while, and then depression threatens to return? This is when, as mindfulness practitioners, we need to summon our greatest skill and wisdom. First, it’s vital to recognise the symptoms. If we have flu, we recognise it through the fever and the aches and pains. With depression, the symptoms are often thoughts: 'mindfulness is just another thing I’ve failed at', or 'I’m so worthless that not even meditation can help me', are possible symptoms of depression. They are not true or helpful or pleasant. They are just symptoms.
The other major symptom that accompanies depression is the loss of motivation. 'What’s the use in getting out of bed to meditate? It’s all pointless, isn’t it?' Once again, it’s vital to see this view as a symptom rather than as reality. Usually, when we are in a good state, we feel motivated to do something, and so we do it. But when we are depressed, this approach doesn’t work. Instead, we need to coax ourselves to try some small practice even though we don’t much feel like it.
Once we’ve taken the first step, a bit of energy arises, and we realise that we feel better. This realisation helps us to do a bit more. In depression, the action has to come first, and then the motivation grows out of this first effortful action.
One of the common features of people who suffer from depression is that they have high expectations of themselves. If they are going to practise, then it had better be a full practice – no half measures are acceptable. Clearly, these high expectations are themselves an obstacle when energy and motivation are lacking. The secret to working with unrealistic expectations is, first, to notice that that they have arisen. In the act of noticing our habit energy, we can begin to unstick ourselves from it, by questioning its assumptions. Perhaps, for instance, it would actually be enough right now, given the way I am feeling, to just lie down and feel my breath for a minute or two. In the willingness to contemplate gentler alternatives, we are cultivating kindness towards ourselves, and it is this kindness that will enable us to come up with an approach that is manageable and nourishing.
The good news, when we are feeling depressed, is that even a small action can have a significant impact on our mood and our view. Here are some suggestions for ways to practise when depressed. Please don’t feel that you need to do them all – just choose one that sounds realistic.
- Bringing awareness to the next three breaths. You are already breathing, so this only requires a shift in attention. In paying attention to the breath, you are letting go of the ruminative mind.
- Lying on your back, on the floor, with the knees bent and the soles of the feet on the ground, in a way that feels comfortable. Place your hands on the abdomen, and notice the breath. Carry on for five breaths, or 10. Once you have done this, listen to the body: is there a simple stretch that it would appreciate? Perhaps experiment with lifting the arms up over your head as you breathe in, and back down to the ground as you breathe out.
- Going for a mindful walk outside. It doesn’t need to be a long walk; you can just go to the end of the garden, or the street. Notice the world, and how the air feels on the skin, and your posture. If you can, walk directly on the earth – not on concrete or asphalt. Being in touch with the earth can be deeply healing. Knowing that you are connecting with the earth, and feeling how it supports you, can be a wonderful gift when times are difficult.
- Appreciating. No matter where you are, no matter how awful the circumstances, there will be something that, if you search for it, you will find that you can appreciate. Perhaps the sunlight, or a flower, or some music. Perhaps your own inhalation. Perhaps your hands, that are allowing you to browse the internet, or your eyes, that enable you to see. Learning how to appreciate small things in our lives can transform the energy in our minds and hearts.
- Smiling. This is a challenging practice for anyone in depression, but smiling changes our facial muscles, and our mood. Because our ability to enjoy things is diminished when we feel depressed, it takes effort to find something that can make us smile. Perhaps it is birdsong, or a plant, or a photograph of someone we love. Turning towards something joyful helps to overcome the habit energy of just focusing on the negative aspects of our life.
- Labelling your thoughts. If you are feeling worthless, notice that this is just a judging thought. If the mind is going over some past action, notice that this is remembering. By tuning into the habit energy of the mind, the thoughts begin to lose their power.
Kate Carne is the author of Seven Secrets of Mindfulness