How Mindfulness Techniques Can Help You Deal with Depression
‘By accepting rather than resisting unpleasant feelings, we may find that they go away by themselves’
Mindfulness may seem like a new therapy fad but in fact its origins lie in Buddhist teaching. Psychologist Miriam Akhtar explains how these ancient techniques could hold the key to dealing with depression.
What is the difference between mindfulness and mindlessness?
‘Mindfulness’ means ‘awareness’ or ‘bare attention’. It is about being fully awake to the here and now, living in the present, connected to the flow of every experience and conscious of the body-mind connection. Mindfulness in practice is a way of paying attention to the present moment, so that we become more aware of our thoughts and feelings and consequently are more able to manage them rather than be overwhelmed by them.
The opposite is mindlessness, a feeling of being on autopilot, disconnected, obsessed with the past or fearing the future. Mindlessness is a way of wandering through life reacting automatically to people and situations, and so can trap us in a cycle of depression that seems impossible to escape from.
What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation and how does it work?
Mindfulness meditation is a recognized treatment for depression and as a prevention strategy to stop people relapsing into depression. It is particularly helpful in dealing with the effects of stress and can reverse the symptoms of a chronic stress response. Stress strengthens the negative networks in the brain and weakens positive ones. It prevents the creation of new neural connections, which can in turn lead to burnout. By staying in the present you avoid being overly oriented to past stresses, which can trigger depression, or overly oriented toward future stresses, which can set off anxiety. Mindfulness helps you to respond to stressful situations in a more reflective style, rather than reacting automatically to try and deflect the pain.
The Buddhist monk Thích Nhât Ha. nh describes this as avoiding the urge to chase away unpleasant feelings and choosing the more effective path of observing the feeling quietly, giving it a name such as sorrow or anger and returning to your breathing. This helps us to recognize and identify the feeling more clearly. Rather than engaging with the negative feeling or thought and trying to suppress it, mindfulness encourages us to observe and be more accepting of it. Attempting to avoid or alter the intensity or frequency of an unwanted mental experience can – paradoxically – keep it going and set off all the familiar triggers. By accepting rather than resisting unpleasant feelings, we may find that they go away by themselves. What you resist persists. Equally, when we give up trying to force pleasant feelings, they are freer to emerge on their own. Experienced meditators suggest that when we stop trying to make something happen, a whole world of fresh and unanticipated experiences can open up.
Plagued by depression? In Psychology for Overcoming Depression, Miriam Akhtar explains how the science of happiness can help you deal with depression with simple, practical and highly effective strategies, all based on the latest scientific research.