The holidays are a very stressful time for most people. Holidays are also times when those who suffer from depression, suffer even more acutely. Patterns of the past brought into the present often harm us more than they help us. The ideas below are not meant to replace your prescription medication or advice from your doctor– they are simply to be in addition to them.
Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn wrote these wonderful words in their book The Mindful Way through Depression (2007). “What if, like virtually everybody else who suffers repeatedly from depression, you have 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?”
This may seem like a very disheartening idea, and you are right—it is. But there is a way out if you will only take the time to look at this very difficult life’s situation through new eyes, with new thoughts, with new information, and with new light. You all have heard this funny yet ironic definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different end result. Today is the day to begin anew, to begin doing something differently and watching and waiting for a fantastic, positive, new end result: peace, prosperity, and happiness!
The authors share with us these two very important ideas:
- At the very earliest 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 (page 2).
They also caution us as well when they write: “Exactly how you will experience the profoundly healthy shift in your relationship to negative moods and what will unfold for you in its aftermath are difficult to predict because they are different for everyone. The only way anyone can really know what benefits such an approach offers is to suspend judgment temporarily and engage in the process wholeheartedly over an extended period of time—in this case for eight weeks—to see what happens (page 3).”
You may be saying, “Eight weeks! Yikes I can’t do anything for eight weeks are they crazy?” Maybe, but how about trying it out by starting with one day, and if you feel even one tiny bit better, do it for another day, and if that day goes just a little better why not try it for a third day? Make no plans or promises longer than 24 hours. No one wants to get depressed about setting a goal and then not achieving it that’s for sure! So let’s not set ourselves up for failure once again.
So let’s begin with one simple mindfulness exercise that we can do beginning today. The authors go on to write, “Mindfulness is not paying more attention but paying attention differently and more wisely—with the whole mind and heart, using the full resources of the body and its senses (page 55).” So there are several different exercises that you can do to practice mindfulness even when you feel sad or depressed. You can focus on your breathing, eating, or singing for a start.
One of the ways I get my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, out of one of her loops is to do what we call “pattern interruption.” I ask her to sing one of the songs I know she can sing or to recite one of the poems that she has written and memorized. Within a few short minutes she is able to go onto something different and her breathing slows down, her mind is less confused, and she can think more clearly.
The authors also share some important information with us when they write, “The difficulty occurs when we confuse the thoughts about things with the things themselves. Thoughts involve interpretations and judgments, which are not in themselves facts; they are merely more thoughts (page 59).”
As a teacher many times my students have shared with me the fears and thoughts that they have about taking tests, writing papers, or giving presentations in class. For them the thoughts about those things are making them more difficult than they should be, especially if they have prepared well for them beforehand.
For these students I have them use the “Three Breaths Exercise” from Jan Chozen Bays wonderful book How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness (2011). Dr. Bays says, “As many times a day as you are able, give the mind a short rest. For the duration of three breaths ask the inner voices to be silent. It’s like turning off the inner radio or TV for a few minutes. Then open all your senses and just be aware—of color, sound, touch, and smell (page 76).” Begin by closing your eyes, and counting one on the in breath, and two on the out breath, just for three full breaths. Once you have done that observe how your mind and body feel. If three breaths don’t work, take four, or five. Then observe how your mind and body feels.
Do this as many times a day as you feel the need to. When you get stressed, the mind starts to get into that “monkey talk” or “fear talk” or “anger talk.” This is a perfect time to stop and take the three breaths. You can even do them right in the middle of a meeting with your eyes open, or you can take a break and go back to your office or desk or to the bathroom and do it—then observe the results.
For me I find that after only three breaths my blood pressure calms down, my mind calms down, and I feel significantly better than I did before the three breaths. I am now able to go back to what I was doing with calmness and peacefulness.
If I am eating I take the time to eat mindfully, focusing on each mouthful, the taste, smell, texture, and feel of the food. Doing this helps me focus on the food instead of my thoughts, and helps me quiet my body, mind, and spirit. Try it. I think you’ll like it.
Anyone of these things can help you in a small way during this holiday season to return your focus to the good, the wonderful, and the new opportunities that lie just ahead. Being mindful about simple things can help you be mindful about complex things when they enter your life. Stop the struggling—start the mindfulness—and watch that depression melt away slowly like caramel in your mouth—with sweetness and light.