When Antidepressants Aren’t Enough
I read an extremely interesting article by Dr. Stuart J. Eisendrath, which I am going to share with you today about using the power of mindfulness to alleviate depression. Stuart Eisendrath is the founder of the University of California San Francisco Depression Center. Dr Eisendrath pioneered research into the therapeutic effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) on people experiencing clinical depression. In his new book, he outlines an easy-to-implement MBCT program that has been scientifically proven in a US National Institute of Health study to bring relief to chronic sufferers of depression by helping them realise that their thoughts are not their reality.
A 2018 article in the British Medical Journal suggested that between 10% and 30% of those in the UK who suffer depression – which could mean as many as 2.7 million people – have treatment-resistant depression. Those with TRD will have tried at least two antidepressant drugs without a positive outcome. Yet, there are non-drug treatments that can be equally, or more effective than antidepressants and do not carry these risks associated with withdrawal.
Our minds are particularly good at thinking, problem-solving, worrying, judging, and analysing. Yet, when it comes to depression these skills are often not in your best interest. If you suffer from depression, memories and thoughts tend to be biased toward the negative, which diminishes your problem-solving abilities. This may lead to misinterpretations, inaccurate assessments, and inappropriate decision making.
Take Carol, who was walking down the street and waved to her friend across the road. Her friend didn’t wave back and Carol felt rejected, worried she’d offended her friend, and was depressed. Actually, her friend has been studying an important business e-mail on her phone and hadn’t even noticed Carol.
Sam thought of refusing a promotion because he thought his boss was setting him up to fail rather than having confidence in his ability to handle the new position. Such an approach could have severe consequences for his career.
Using the power of mindfulness to alleviate depression
A key step in coping with such thoughts is trying to decide if such situations are facts or just thoughts. Mindfulness gives you the space to look at the situation from multiple perspectives and without judgment. Then you can decide how to respond to the situation skillfully. You can evaluate your thoughts in several ways. One is to hold back on acting on a thought while you gather more data to assess whether the thought is a valid one. Another way of assessing a thought is to ask yourself how you feel in thinking it. If you feel more depressed, there is a very good chance the thought is being driven by depression.
The critical voice of depression
Once, I was teaching a beginner’s class in meditation. One woman said, “I can’t meditate as well as everybody else here.” This is one of the most common thoughts of beginning meditators. Then several other members of the group expressed a similar idea about themselves. I asked them how they knew this, and as we assessed the situation, it became clear that such a thought was based more in the critical voice of depression rather than being a fact. Since none of the members had had any prior experience with meditation, it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to be better than anybody else. Moreover, meditation is not competitive. It’s about being present, not about doing something better or worse than someone else.
As the beginners discovered, this is a valuable lesson about how our minds generate negative and unduly critical thoughts. We need to label them as such and bring the attention back to a neutral object like our breath. When we can recognise such thoughts for what they were, we don’t feel compelled to act on them by doing something such as dropping the class.
Rely on your observing self
The observing self can help you see what is being generated by your mind and assess how you feel, both physically and emotionally. You then become capable of extending compassion to yourself and others.
If we expect that we can stop our minds from generating negative thoughts through meditation, we will be disappointed by our limitations. Our minds wander on their own, and our trying to control them makes them want to wander even more. In fact, experiments have shown that efforts to suppress thoughts actually intensify them. If you want to suppress a thought, you actually have to push off against the thought, which intensifies the thought you are trying to suppress.
Our minds are always trying to explain events. That is what our minds do and are built for: trying to organise and understand information. We have the need to try to conceptualise what is happening and to build hypotheses from an early age. Initially, an infant sees patterns of black and white on a page, then becomes able to organise the black and white areas and recognise letters and words.
Similarly, we all organise events and pieces of information into stories we create and construct. When we do not understand something, we still try to organise it to fill in the blanks. We create stories, plots, and themes. In depression, this is often based on how we are feeling. Our emotional state can generate negative thoughts just as much as negative thoughts can generate a depressive state. You can actually step back and observe yourself generating thoughts.
Try This: Observing Yourself think
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath for a minute or so.
- Once your mind has steadied, take note of the thoughts that emerge over the next few minutes that tend to distract you from your breath. Ask yourself, “What is (fill in your name) thinking?” Notice what thoughts are emerging.
- Ask again: “What is (fill in your name) thinking?” See what thoughts come up. Then bring your attention back to the room.
- The observing self was the self who was taking note of your thoughts. That self was watching your thoughts emerge. The observing self notices what you are thinking and feeling. Afterward, you might say, “I noticed my mind having a thought about (fill in the subject).” You might also say, “I noticed my mind producing depressive thoughts that then shifted my mood.”
There are some great apps you can use for mindfulness and the best two that jump to mind are, “Calm” and “Headspace”. These are also great for beginners to meditation and mindfulness and have free versions.
I will be doing physical guided meditation sessions very soon so watch this space.
Love and Light