Mindfulness and depression: Can meditation really help when it strikes?

by Simon Henry @simlington

Depressing subject, I know.

But even if you don’t suffer from depression right now, you may in the future.

And I bet you know someone – or probably several people – who are affected.

If so, this blog may give you an idea of what can happen when depression strikes.

And – who knows – you may even want to share it.

Ride it out

Sometimes depression hits you like a thump in the stomach.

Sometimes it’s sneakier and slower, strangling you degree by tiny degree.

Whichever method of attack it uses, sickening despair, hopelessness and bleakness are the results of its victory.

And I’ve found you just have to ride it out the best way you can.

Because it does subside – in its own time, even if that’s a depressingly long time sometimes.

Mindfulness and depression

I’ve been wondering if anything has changed in the way I deal with depression since I started trying to be more mindful.

I have certainly become more aware of the things that make it worse!

– People saying ‘Cheer up’ or ‘Just think about disabled people or starving people’ is pretty unhelpful.

– So is the offer of alcohol or cigarettes, both of which I used to think were useful in the battle but which I now see as pointless addictions.

– Being with other people is tortuous, especially if they’re loud or jolly.

– My favourite music sounds like fingernails down a blackboard, reading makes me want to set fire to the book. TV is worse than either.

– And being expected to ‘snap out of it’ sounds as ridiculous to my ears as telling a Manchester City supporter to suddenly support Manchester United.

So a solitary spell away from humanity is an extremely attractive option when a bout of depression hits.

Here’s a quick reminder about what mindfulness actually is before I give you a sneak inside my brain.

Mindfulness: A reminder

Mindfulness practice is simply about choosing one thing to concentrate on – like you breath (very popular) or your bum hole (less popular, I imagine) – and trying to be conscious of that one thing for a certain amount of time.

Very quickly you realise your mind shoots off all over the place. Often these places are pretty unhelpful ones from the past or the future (regrets, worries, etc).

The practice is about recognising that your mind has wandered from what you were trying to concentrate on.

Then you don’t criticise yourself for letting your mind wander but rather you gently guide your mind back to where you intended it to be.

So, what about being mindful of your depression when it strikes?

Here’s how being mindful felt when my latest bout hit.

Instead of fighting against my feelings of hopelessness, bleakness and misery I just tried to accept them.

Instead of being angry or upset that I wasn’t feeling happy and sociable, I just tried to accept that the depression was my reality for now and that I was tearful and wanted to be alone.

Instead of denying my feelings, I just accepted them as real at that moment, knowing they would not remain the same forever – nothing ever stays the same. (That’s a good thing to keep in mind, even if you don’t really feel it in the midst of a depressive episode.)

And basically I repeated to myself: “I am utterly miserable and thoroughly unhappy at this moment.”

As always, when I try to meditate, my mind went off at tangents all the time.

I think some people who write about mindfulness make it appear quite easy to keep your mind on the object of your meditation.

It isn’t easy at all.

Maybe it is for people who’ve meditated for tens of thousands of hours.

But if you’re new to it like I am, if you can concentrate on something for a few seconds you’re doing well.

I mean it.

And all you do when you realise your mind has gone off somewhere else is not to get angry with yourself or call yourself useless or even worse give up and pour yourself a whiskey.

The trick is to keep going.

It is hard. Our brains are unruly beasts and it takes time, I’m told, to tame and train them. Worth it, I think.

And in any case, the meditation itself is good – and interesting.

And despite the mind wandering off you do realise it’s wandered and you can bring it back to the thing you want to meditate on.

And in the case of depression, I found it was actually a relief just to accept my situation.

It’s exhausting, fighting all the time, denying how you feel, pretending to be fine, doing things that make you feel worse.

Just giving in to how you actually feel, accepting your situation, letting the tears flow and the horrible thoughts go through your mind – with full awareness that they are thoughts and no more – is actually a relief.

And meditating on the depression felt like I was allowing myself a huge space to be mindful of it rather than squeezing it away inside and denying it any room to breathe.

Sometimes when I allow myself the room to actually feel the depression big fat tears drop from my eyes. Sometimes they don’t.

I notice tension in my back, neck and shoulders – and simply by becoming aware of this can actually help reduce the tightness and physical pain.

And I notice the difference between the actual depression and the wishing I wasn’t depressed.

Almost perversely, once you truly accept your situation and your inability to do much about it, you do feel a bit better.

You’re no longer wishing things were different – and feeling angry, resentful, helpless, jealous and all the other stuff you feel when life’s not going according to what you think of as ‘fair’.

And it does wax and wane – even though in the middle of a depressive episode it can feel like it’s forever, being aware of how you’re feeling and actually turning towards your feelings does have a positive effect.

(Incidentally, I never got on with anti- depressants. And I’m only writing about my personal experience.)

But I hope this is useful if you’re wondering about taking up mindfulness or think it could help someone you know.

I know there is some evidence that mindfulness is as effective as anti- depressants for recurrent depression.

And I can see why mindfulness in general is becoming increasingly recognised as a potentially useful treatment for many conditions – both ‘mental’ and ‘physical’.

I’m no expert – I’m just trying to use mindfulness to make my life better, then writing about some of my experience in the hope that it may help other people who may be suffering.

The best experts I’ve come across are:

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Danny Penman
Mark Williams
Pema Chodron

They are all brilliant.

Sorry this post had no laughs and giggles in it – but that’s what depression does.

And I’m pretty mindful my brand of ‘humour’ will be back next time.

If you enjoyed this, you may like a recent post, How Mindfulness can make us all a bit happier

Or have a squiz round the rest of the site – there’s quite a bit in here about how to be a bit happier.

You can get an email alert whenever I publish a new post. If you’re on a mobile you can sign up below. If you’re on a computer, sign up at the top right-hand of the page.

And you can follow me @simlington on Twitter

Copyright Simon Henry @simlington 2014

 

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5 thoughts on “Mindfulness and depression: Can meditation really help when it strikes?

  1. Sadie

    Enjoyed your piece on mindful ness and depression, I agree totally with the article, the same method worked for me 🙂

    Like

    Reply
    1. Simon Henry Post author

      Thank you, Sadie – and what great news!
      I find I have to keep the practice up every day. Even when I don’t really feel like it. Here’s to keeping the depression at bay!
      Thank you again. So pleased you enjoyed the piece 🙂

      Like

      Reply
  2. mentallysane

    Nice article, I enjoyed it. As a small suggestion, you can always try a few books on Buddhism – but light ones. You’ll find a vast amount of similarities to mindfulness and, sometimes, different approaches with similar results in them. I really enjoyed The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. Never know, you might like it 🙂 good luck with overcoming your struggles 🙂

    Like

    Reply

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