Using Mindfulness to Help with Depression
The experience of depression is difficult and deeply unpleasant. Naturally, we don’t want to feel like this and will avoid or try to fix this experience if at all possible. Many people’s strategies intend to numb or avoid the pain of depression.
These coping strategies may work well for short periods. Retreating to bed can seem like a reasonable solution to the experience of painful and believable thoughts, a tired body, and feeling vulnerable and unsociable. Sleeping can provide some respite from this pain. But on waking, things are still the same and lying in bed just gives uninterrupted time to think frightening or upsetting thoughts. We may also have cut ourselves off from family and friends, who perhaps could help us find a new perspective or support us through this painful experience.
As we have seen in the previous pages, while our mind tries to help by making sense of our experience, we can unwittingly add to the distress we feel by trying to think our experience through. This process is sometimes called rumination. How we see and make sense of experience and the subsequent unfolding of thoughts, emotions and sensations in our body can happen very quickly and, for the most part, automatically. We may find ourselves stuck in a mental rut, thinking the usual thoughts, feeling the emotions connected with these and behaving in our habitual ways without choosing to do so.
On the other hand, a noticing our experience though mindfulness practice, standing back a little and making some space for it to be as it is in this moment – even when it is a very difficult experience – can fundamentally change the way we perceive it.
The invitation of mindfulness to move closer and see and feel the detail of experience can feel counter-intuitive but actually makes a lot of sense.
Imagine you are driving in winter and find yourself on an icy road – what would you do?
• Ignore the information that the road is icy and travel at the same speed as before, regardless?
• Stop the car and not go any further because of what might happen?
• Speed up to get past this dangerous situation as fast as possible?
Alternatively, you might:
• Slow down and assess the details of the situation that you find yourself in.
• Check the road as far as is visible to see if there are many patches of ice or just this one.
• Check the gradient of the road further on.
• Look at whether the road is wide or narrow, and if there are ditches or wide verges at the sides.
• Judge the capability of your vehicle to tackle these conditions on the road.
• Acknowledge your own skills and experience of driving in these conditions.
With this information you could choose an appropriate course of action. Maybe it is safe to continue driving if this is just one isolated puddle that has iced over; or you may need to change gear and slow down; maybe you could fit ice chains to the tyres; or perhaps you should turn around and continue by another route. None of these options requires the road to change.
Mindfulness allows us to be with the painful experience of being depressed in a similar way: seeing our internal and external environments clearly and quickly, even if they feel threatening and dangerous places to be. This, in turn, offers us options for how best to respond.