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The Mindful Way Through Depression

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Depression hurts. It’s the “black dog” of the night that robs you of joy, the unquiet mind that keeps you awake. It’s the noonday demon that only you can see, the darkness visible only to you.

Anyone who has been visited by depression knows that it can cause debilitating anxiety, enormous personal dissatisfaction, and an empty feeling of despair. It can leave you feeling hopeless, listless, and worn down by the pervasive joylessness and disappointment associated with longing for happiness.

Any of us would do anything not to feel that way. Yet, ironically, nothing we do seems to help. At least not for long. For the sad fact of the matter is that once we have been depressed, it tends to return, even if you have been feeling better for months. You may end up feeling that you are not good enough, that you are a failure. Your thoughts may go round and round as you try to find a deeper meaning, to understand once and for all why you feel so bad. If you can’t come up with a satisfactory answer, you might feel even more empty and desperate. Ultimately, you may become convinced that there is something fundamentally wrong with you.

But what if there is nothing “wrong” with you at all?

What if, like everybody else who suffers repeatedly from depression, you have simply become a victim of your own very sensible, even heroic, efforts to free yourself - like someone pulled even deeper into quicksand by the struggling intended to get you out?

Recent scientific research has discovered that:

  • At the early stages in which mood starts to spiral downward, it is not the mood that does the damage, but how we react to it.

  • Our habitual efforts to extricate ourselves, far from freeing us, actually keep us locked in the pain we’re trying to escape.

How Could Mindfulness Help Me?

There are several ways that mindfulness can help reduce the intensity, duration, and frequency of unhelpful habitual response patterns.

Loosening the grip of habitual responses that cause (additional) suffering.

Learning to bring one's attention back to the present moment, including the ever-present process of breathing, over and over again, involves learning to catch oneself entering into habitual patterns that prevent clear awareness of the present moment. With continued practice and increasing development of mindfulness, one becomes increasingly able to notice those habitual reactions that prevent one from responding consciously and constructively.

For example, instead of realizing 5-10 minutes later that you've been lost in bad memories or fantasies of revenge, you can catch yourself after only 30-60 seconds. Better yet, you can learn to catch yourself in the process of getting lost in a memory or fantasy. In time, you can increasingly observe these habitual responses as they arise, and choose to respond in other, more skilful ways.

For example, instead of getting really angry at yourself for feeling helpless and sad when someone makes a harsh comment, or feeling guilty when you start thinking of harsh replies, you might notice, without judgment, that you have the habit of responding to harsh comments with (a) feelings of helplessness and sadness, followed by (b) angry thoughts of come-backs, followed by (c) anger and guilt about those initial responses.

Once you notice such common human responses in yourself without judgment, you can choose to bring your attention back to what's actually happening in the conversation now, to consider whether and how you might redirect or end the conversation without creating more negative feelings.

Reducing the intensity of unhelpful habitual responses.

The less time a habitual response has to develop, the less likely it will become intense. Of course, some habitual responses happen extremely quickly and almost instantaneously reach high levels of emotional intensity and behavioural impulsiveness. But most of the time, it takes a few seconds for a habitual response to reach a high level of intensity, and "nipping it in the bud" prevents a full flowering of destructive emotion.

If within the first few seconds you can recognize, with some reflective awareness, that the habitual response is occurring, then you have an opportunity to prevent further escalation. After all, these are chain reactions in the mind and body, and if you can break an early link, you can stop the process.

The less judgment one has toward a habitual response, the less likely it will become intense. This doesn't mean that one simply accepts one's habitual responses. Rather, it means that you neither accept nor condemn. Instead, you simply observe them for what they are: habitual and, however quirky or bizarre, quite human responses to unwanted experiences. If you can observe these responses without judgment, no matter how immature or unhelpful they may be, you can avoid adding more emotional fuel to the fire.

Increasing positive emotions.

One recent study found that novice meditators stimulated their limbic systems - the brain’s emotional network - during the practice of compassion meditation, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice. That’s no great surprise, given that compassion meditation aims to produce the emotional state of “lovingkindness.”

These changes included ramped-up activation of a brain region thought to be responsible for generating positive emotions, called the left-sided anterior region. The researchers found this change in novice meditators who’d enrolled in a course in mindfulness meditation - a technique that borrows heavily from Buddhism - that lasted just eight weeks.

*Artwork by Christian Schloe

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