Zindel Segal, PhD, CPsych
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Suffering from depression is very different from being sad. Sadness is a normal part of life. Depression is a constellation of psychological and physical changes that persist, unrelenting, for a minimum of two weeks — and often much longer.
One of every eight women and one of every five men will suffer at least one bout with serious depression at some point in their lives. Genetics seem to predispose some people to depression, though life events can be a factor as well. Seniors who experience losses in physical functioning and social networks can be especially susceptible to bouts of depression.
For those affected, depression often becomes an ongoing issue — those who have faced it once have a 40% chance of experiencing an episode in the future and those who already have had multiple episodes face up to an 80% chance of additional recurrences.
Depression is most commonly treated with medication that regulates the brain’s chemistry and with professional counseling, which helps people take effective action in the face of the low motivation and pessimism that often define depression.
Exciting new tool: In the last decade or so, a new technique has been shown in studies to help sufferers head off depression before it takes hold. The technique is called mindfulness — paying attention to the present moment, without judgment, in order to see things more clearly.
LIFE ON AUTOMATIC PILOT
Mindfulness can prevent depression from taking hold of us because the alternative — our usual state — is that we operate on “automatic pilot.” Our minds are elsewhere as we perform mundane activities. Example: You’re taking a shower, but wondering what’s waiting in your e-mail.
If we let it, this automatic pilot also will select our moods and our emotional responses to events — and the responses it chooses can be problematic. For instance, if you make a minor misstep in some area of your life, your autopilot might select as your emotional response feelings of anger, failure and/or inadequacy, even though the event might have been completely inconsequential.
Because your mind is not paying full attention to the situation, you might not grasp that the negative feelings are greatly out of proportion to what’s really going on. You only know that you feel bad. When these negative feelings persist, they can pull you into the downward spiral of depression.
Example: A friend mentions that one of the stocks in his portfolio has turned a profit. Your investments have not been as successful, and your autopilot selects inadequacy as your primary emotional response. This may sound like an overreaction, but in someone who is prone to depression, these feelings can expand into a full-blown episode.
Mindfulness can be an antidote to automatic pilot. By becoming more aware of the world around us, we experience life directly, not filtered through our minds’ relentless ruminations. We learn to see events for what they are rather than what our autopilot might turn them into. That helps us to derail potential episodes of depression before they have a chance to take hold. It typically takes two weeks or longer for depression to fully sink in, so there is often plenty of time to stop the process.
Learning to be mindful involves more than simply paying attention. You must reorient your senses so that you experience a situation with your whole mind and heart and with all of your senses.
Try it out: Pick up a raisin. Hold it, feel it, examine it as if you had never seen anything like it before. Explore the raisin’s folds and texture. Watch the way light shines off of its skin. Inhale its aroma. Then gently place it on your tongue. Notice how your hand knows exactly where to put it. Explore the raisin in your mouth before biting. Then chew once or twice. Experience the waves of taste and the sensation of chewing. Notice how the taste and texture change as you chew. Once you swallow, try to feel the raisin moving through your digestive system.
Keep it up: Practice the following three steps every day to make mindfulness a regular part of your life — and episodes of depression less likely…
1.Focus on your breath. Focusing your attention on your breath is perhaps the simplest, most effective way to anchor your mind in the moment. You think only of this breath. You can do this anytime, anywhere.
2.Watch your thoughts drift by like clouds. See them, acknowledge them, but do not attempt to reason them away. Some people attempt to use logic to escape depression. They tell themselves, My life is pretty good — I should be happy. This just leads to troubling questions like If my life is good, why am I so unhappy? What’s wrong with me?
It is also tempting to try to push negative thoughts away so that you don’t have to deal with them at all. Unfortunately, the thoughts are still there even if you refuse to acknowledge them.
Better: When you feel bad, reflect on what is bothering you. Try to uncover the original thought or event that set off your bad feelings. Then view it as just a thought, something independent from you even though it has popped into your head. Do not dismiss it, though. Even if the thought or the event that caused it was trivial, the feelings it has prompted are real and significant.
Next, notice any physical sensations that you are experiencing. Does your throat feel tight? Is your mouth dry? Are there butterflies in your stomach? Just as you are learning to watch your feelings float by, watch these physical sensations in a detached way. If you can learn to spot the onset of these sensations, you will be able to identify the early signs of depression sooner — and head off the bad feelings before they take root.
3.Take action. Ask yourself: Does this thought have any merit? Is it connected to negative thoughts that I have had in the past? What can I do to make myself feel better about this issue?
Example: You feel depressed about your work life even though you are doing fine in your job. When you reflect on these negative thoughts, you realize that they began recently, when you learned that your brother received a promotion. You feel left behind because it has been some time since your last promotion.
What actions could you take to allay these negative feelings? Perhaps you could speak with your supervisor about your job performance and your prospects for future promotions… or contact a headhunter to remind yourself that you have other options.
With any problematic thought, identifying it quickly and taking some positive action is often enough to head off depression.
Important: Learning the mindfulness approach can be useful for preventing future bouts of depression — not for combating an episode that is already under way. When people are in the midst of depression, they typically cannot concentrate sufficiently to practice mindfulness. It is better to use the technique between episodes of depression so that it becomes a natural part of your thought process.
WHERE TO FIND HELP AGAINST DEPRESSION
For information about depression and links to local support, contact…
- National Institute of Mental Health, 866-615-6464, www.nimh.nih.gov.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, 800-950-6264, www.nami.org.