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Mindfully navigating out of depression

I have a long history of depression. And though it’s thankfully not a constant companion anymore, it still drops by for a visit now and then. This past week was one of them. Being in it again gave me another opportunity for practice. But it also showed me how far I’ve come. I have the confidence that there’s a way out.

When these moods come lately, they go up and down, and usually pass away after a week or two. (Thank goodness! It didn’t used to be that way.) And all the things that seem so hopeless and overwhelming when I’m down suddenly turn manageable when the mood passes. Interesting, isn’t it? It’s not like my situation changes. The only thing that changes is the state of my body and mind. When the heaviness lifts, my world is completely different.

This stark contrast has shown me – very directly – how distorted my views can get when I’m down. And how unreal all those thoughts are. I feel fortunate to have been given this gift. It’s a really helpful perspective into the workings of my mind.

Because of this, I’ve now come to treat my depressive episodes as physiological events, not emotional ones. You know how when we get sick, we feel really crappy and miserable? And how we feel a strong pull toward thinking and behaving accordingly – i.e. badly? Well, I now see my depression as the same sort of thing. It’s the same as having a bad cold.

And when I’m like that, I try not to take my thoughts too seriously. And I don’t let them string me along. If I start thinking I’m hopeless and nobody cares about me, well … I can remind myself it’s my depression talking, not the real me. These moods are like thick masks that are temporarily covering my face and eyes. Even though everything I see looks bleak, I know the “me” underlying it is just fine.

The thing that’s been most helpful to me is learning how to separate out what’s happening physically vs. emotionally. When I very mindfully note how I’m feeling physically, there’s the heaviness, the fogginess in my head, the sleepiness. I don’t try to run away from them. There’s no way to escape from them anyway. It’s far more helpful to face them directly, get closer to them. When I really get to know them well, I can use that knowledge to make better choices in the moment.

But my emotions and thoughts are a different matter entirely. I don’t need to buy into those. It’s much better to investigate and question them. Am I really so tired that I can’t exercise today? Or is it because of my mood? Can I pick myself up and just do it? Or would I feel better by being kind to myself and giving myself a break?

And whatever I decide, there’s no second-guessing. There’s no going back and wondering if I made the right choice. I just make a choice, and move on. Deal with whatever happens as it comes. I stay mindfully with myself every step along the way.

And above all, I always make sure to be completely kind to myself. Feeling bad is never an excuse to beat myself up. Never ever.

I really, really hate being depressed. It’s a terrible, painful place to be. But you know what? I’ve found out how much better it is to stop fighting against it, and just relax into it. When I stop the struggle, I find a gentle, nurturing place inside all the mess that keeps me sane. And I can stay there and ride out the storm with equanimity.

As I’ve practice like this over the years, those terrible thoughts have slowly loosened their grip on me. Some have gone away completely. And as for the ones that are still hanging around – over time they seem to have less and less power over me.

For those of you out there who suffer from depression, I offer my experience as a bit of hope. There is a way out. It doesn’t have to involve drugs. I’m finding my way out, and have the faith that you can too.

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About Sunada Takagi

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Sunada Takagi is on a mission to help people open their hearts and minds through mindfulness. Her work includes leading classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the Boston area, and coaching individual clients through life transitions -- from anywhere in the world via phone and Skype. Read more at her site, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

Sunada also teaches and leads retreats at Boston Triratna Buddhist Community and Aryaloka Buddhist Center. Sunada was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2004. This is where she received her name, which means "beautiful, excellent sound."

You can follow her at her Mindful Living Blog as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Read more articles by .

Comments

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Comment from Janet Pal
Time: July 23, 2011, 5:33 am

Thank you so much for sharing this! I have had similar struggles with depression and anxiety for most of my life as well and am finding that mindfulness and self-compassion are helping ease the pain/struggle. Slowly but surely, episodes are becoming fewer and further between and much less intense/of shorter duration.

Namaste.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: July 23, 2011, 10:05 am

Thanks Janet. Good to hear from another person with a similar experience. It really works, doesn’t it?

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Comment from Ismael Feliciano
Time: July 24, 2011, 10:57 am

I also thank you for sharing your experience. I am a teacher and householder from the tropical island of Santo Domingo, and despite all the sun, I also suffer from this two disorders. I’ve had to be under medication, but have been able to reduce the dose by half, which is very good news for me and my family. I once tried to get rid of it completely, but had to go back again to the full dosage. Thanks again for your openness.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: July 24, 2011, 2:38 pm

Thanks Ismael. That’s great that you’ve been able to reduce the dosage by half. I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all to be on medication if it’s helping you. It takes a long time to work with depression just with mindfulness, and sometimes we can use a little extra help. Good luck to you.

Best wishes,
Sunada

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 24, 2011, 6:49 pm

Great article, Sunada. I too have been noticing more and more the connection between physiology and my mental states. Being sleep deprived or having low blood sugar really affect my ability to regulate my emotions, and I can end up cranky or depressed. I’m getting better at recognizing the signs, fortunately.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: July 24, 2011, 8:34 pm

Thanks Bodhipaksa. Yes, low blood sugar is a big trigger for me, too.

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Comment from Deb
Time: July 26, 2011, 1:06 pm

Thank you, Sunada, for sharing this. I have suffered from depression for most of my life and have done the therapy and drug routes without much success. Since beginning my meditation practice a few years ago and by exercising regularly, I have found that I am better able to maintain the stable line (neither really low nor really high) that allows me to function. I, too, note the physiologic correlation between depression and feeling physically ill. A lot of my depressive symptoms have been physical, as well, and by accepting that I’m not really feeling “well”, whether it’s physically or emotionally, doesn’t change who I am, it just makes me act more kindly and compassionately towards myself. Being mindful of the symptoms has really helped me to steer a more stable course. Thank you for your insight and for sharing your story.

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Comment from Ann Becker-Schutte
Time: July 26, 2011, 11:11 pm

Sunada,

I’m always so touched by the power we have when we share our stories. Thank you for sharing yours, and for allowing your experience to serve as a beacon for others.

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Comment from Tracy
Time: July 27, 2011, 5:28 am

Great article! I’ve had Migraines for 11 years, and I occasionally do have depressive episodes. I think I’m in pretty good shape when I can see an episode for what it truly is, a temporary event!! My Meditation has helped to shorten the episodes, if that will keep me off a medication….Om!!!

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Comment from Sandy
Time: July 27, 2011, 1:59 pm

Thanks, Sunada. I have suffered from chronic depression and anxiety for 15 years. It is difficult to explain to friends who do not experience it how I feel and how I work with it. I have found it useful to look at the physiological and emotional aspects too, and to work in a similar way to you. Letting my friends read your article will help me to communicate my experience.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: July 28, 2011, 9:53 pm

Deb, Ann, Tracy, and Sandy,
I’m a bit late in responding, but I wanted to say thanks for your comments and validation! I guess I hit something of a hot topic here. It feels good to know that others are out there who have had the same experience as me.
My best wishes to you all,
Sunada

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Comment from alistair
Time: July 29, 2011, 4:18 am

Sunada, very encouraging to read. I hope I can make progress myself

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Pingback from Mid-Week Balance: 27 July 2011
Time: July 29, 2011, 5:32 pm

[…] part of what has made us who we are.  In a similar vein, Sunada of Wildmind writes about her own experiences with depression.  I particularly appreciated her frame of a depression episode as something similar to a […]

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Comment from Gabriel
Time: July 31, 2011, 6:06 pm

Thanks.

Sometimes is difficult to separate the emotions and thoughts from the believe of being THE emotion and THE thoughts… Now myself feels a kind of relief when NOTICING the events in the mind (and is hard not to reach answers when seeing, but anyway that’s attachment too). That is the most important when practicing, and indeed is a matter of time and practice, time and practice, time and practice…

And myself agrees with Bodhipaksa, being sleep deprived makes me more vulnerable to stress and some difficult emotions.

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Comment from dizzle
Time: May 14, 2014, 6:34 pm

I compare my depressive episodes to be stuck in quicksand. The more I fight it, the deeper i get. To get out of quicksand you have to first calm yourself, then slowly ease yourself out of it. I personally would never wish depression on ANYONE, that goes for any mental affliction. I’d rather have the flu, at least I would have my whits about me.

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