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How to Mindfully Deal with Depression

Of all mental health conditions, recurring depression has most clearly been shown to respond to mindfulness. If the body of evidence continues to grow, mindfulness may go on to become the standard treatment for managing depression all over the world.

Depression is different to sadness. Sadness is a natural and healthy emotion everyone experiences from time to time. If something doesn't go the way you expected, you may feel sad. The low mood may linger for a time and affect your thoughts, words and actions, but not to a huge extent.

Depression is very different. When you're depressed, you just can't seem to feel better, no matter what you try. Unfortunately, some people still believe that depression isn’t a real illness. Depression is a real illness with very real symptoms.

According to the National Health Service, if you have an ongoing low mood for most of the day, everyday for two weeks, you’re experiencing depression and you need to visit your doctor. The symptoms of depression can include:

  • A low depressed mood

  • Feelings of guilt or low self-worth

  • Disturbed sleep

  • A loss of interest or pleasure

  • Poor concentration

  • Changes to your appetite

  • Low energy

Why depression recurs

Depression has a good chance of being a recurring condition, and to understand why, you need to understand the two key factors that cause mild feelings of sadness to turn into depression. They are:

  • Constant negative thinking (rumination). This is the constant, repetitive use of self-critical, negative thinking to try to change an emotional state. You have an idea of how things are and how you want things to be. You keep thinking about your goal and how far you are from your desired state.

    The more you think about this gap the more negative your situation seems, and the further you move away from your desired emotion. Unfortunately, thinking in this way only worsens the problem and leads to a sense of failure as depression sets in.

  • Intensely avoiding negative thoughts, emotions and sensations (experiential avoidance). This is the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations. But the process of experiential avoidance feeds the emotional flame rather than reducing or diminishing the emotion. Running away from your emotions makes them stronger.

When you first suffer from depression, you experience negative thoughts, a negative mood and sluggishness. When this occurs, you create a connection between these thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Then, when by chance you feel a little sad, as everyone does, you might begin to think, ‘Here we go again. Why is this happening to me?’ and so on. The negative thoughts recur.

This triggers the negative moods and low levels of energy in the body, which create more negative thinking. The more you try to avoid your negative thoughts, emotions and sensations, the more powerful they become. This is called the downward mood spiral.

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Use mindfulness to change your relationship to mood

One of the key ways in which depressive relapse occurs and is sustained is through actively trying to avoid a negative mood. Mindfulness invites you to take a different attitude towards your emotion. Depression is unpleasant, but you see what happens if you approach the sensation with kindness, curiosity, compassion and acceptance. Here are some ways of changing your relationship with your mood, and thereby transforming the mood itself.

When you experience a low mood, try one of these exercises as an experiment and see what happens:

  • Identify where in your body you feel the emotion. Is your stomach or chest tight for example? What happens if you approach that bodily sensation, whatever the sensation is, with kindness and curiosity? Try playing with the edge of where you’re able to maintain your attention in your body, neither pushing too hard, nor retreating away. Try saying to yourself, ‘It’s okay, let me feel it.’

  • See yourself as separate from the mood, thought or feeling. You’re the observer of the sensation, not the sensation itself. Try stepping back and looking at the sensation. When you watch a film, you have a space between you and the screen. A space also exists between you and your emotions. Notice what effect this has, if any.

  • Notice the kinds of thoughts you’re thinking. Are they self-critical, negative thoughts, predicting the worst, jumping to conclusions? Are the thoughts repeating themselves again and again? Bring a sense of curiosity to the patterns of thought in your mind.

  • Notice your tendency to want to get rid of the emotion. See if you can move from this avoidance strategy towards a more accepting strategy and observe what effect this has. Accept that this is your experience now, but won’t be forever, so you can temporarily let go of the struggle, even slightly, and see what happens.

  • Try doing a three-minute breathing space. What effect does that have? Following the breathing space, make a wise choice as to what is the most helpful thing for you to do at the present moment to look after yourself.

  • Recognize that recurring ruminative thinking and having a low mood are a part of your experience and not part of your core being. An emotion arises in your consciousness and at some point diminishes again. Adopting a de-centered, detached perspective means you recognize that your low mood isn’t a central aspect of your self – of who you are.

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