Jul 22, 2011
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.