by Paul Garrigan
It is important to state right here at the beginning that mindful compassion is not being offered as a solution for all types of depression. Severe symptoms require a proper medical/psychiatric assessment –in such cases, antidepressants, or other medical interventions, may offer the best hope of recovery. Mindful compassion works best with mild/recurrent depression (the type of depression we are most likely to experience in recovery).
What is Mild Depression?
When we hear the word ‘mild’, we may automatically assume that this means ‘not serious’ or ‘easy to deal with’. In fact, mild depression (aka ‘dysthymia’ or ‘chronic depression’) can be a huge disruption to our lives and include symptoms such as:
- Persistently low mood – this can last for days
- Low energy levels – even getting out of bed can feel like too big a challenge
- Thoughts of suicide
- Inability to sleep or excessive sleep
- Loss of interest in activities we would normally enjoy
- The future appears dark
- Fuzzy thinking – inability to concentrate
- Loss of appetite or comfort eating
- Negative thoughts
- Physical discomfort – aches and pains become more noticeable
How Mindful Compassion Can Help You Overcome Depression
Mild depression tends to be recurrent –every time we experience a bout of depression, the likelihood of it happening again increases by 16 per cent (source: Mark Williams & John Teasdale – The Mindful Way Through Depression).
What is Mindful Compassion?
We practice mindfulness by focusing our attention, in an accepting way, on what is happening right now. There are a number of reasons for why would want to do this:
- The present moment is all we ever have
- Ruminating on the past and future leads to unnecessary suffering
- It makes sense to accept the present moment because there is nothing we can do to change it – it’s a done deal
- Resting in the present moment is like releasing the valve on a pressure cooker – it helps us to manage our stress
Compassion refers to our ability to ‘be with suffering’ – this can be our own suffering or the suffering of other people. So, ‘mindful compassion’ can be described as a willingness to be with whatever suffering/discomfort is in our lives right now.
Mindful Compassion for Depression
My habitual reaction to unpleasant emotions used to be to try to run away from them. It felt like I was almost allergic to negative feelings, and for many years, my go-to-response would be flee to the numbness available through alcohol. Even after I quit drinking, I continued to struggle with negative emotions, and this meant that a low-mood could easily send me into a downward spiral that ended in depression.
I was seven years sober, but I still continued to suffer with bouts of depression. These episodes would happen every couple of months and usually last a week or so. I found it almost impossible to work when I was depressed, I just wanted to hide away in my bed, and it was badly affecting my ability to take care of my family financially and emotionally.
One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in my garden here in Rayong, when I noticed the dark cloud begin to descend on my mind again. My initial reaction was self-pity ‘oh, no, not again, why does this keep happening to me?’ But then I got curious. Instead of resisting my low mood, I decided to investigate it mindfully (something I’d been told to do for years but never go around to).
When I actually investigated my low mood, it didn’t seem like anything worth making much of a fuss over. Sure, I felt low in energy, there was sort of tension in my body, but it wasn’t anything unbearable. These symptoms were triggering lots of negative thinking, but I realized that if I just focused on the physical aspects of the low mood, it was no big deal.
“Unhappiness itself is not the problem-it is an inherent and unavoidable part of being alive. Rather, it’s the harshly negative views of ourselves that can be switched on by unhappy moods that entangle us.”
Mark Williams & John Teasdale – The Mindful Way through Depression
I sat with my low mood for an hour or so before it lifted, and I have not experienced depression since then (almost two years). I do still experience low mood from time to time, just like everyone else, but it doesn’t bother me like it used to and it rarely lasts for more than couple of hours.
It could be that for many of us who experience recurrent depression, it is our habitual reaction to low-mood that is the problem. If we can learn to turn towards negative emotions with compassion, we are likely to find that being with them is much easier than trying to escape them. Perhaps, it is the stuff that we do in our attempts to escape negative emotions that is the real cause of most of our suffering – including our episodes of depression.
For more advice on using mindfulness for dealing with depression, please refer to the Hope Mindfulness Manual (download from the right-hand side of this page)
How Mindful Compassion Can Help You Overcome Depression By Paul G