The holiday season ushers in a bevy of activity; shopping, traveling, and socializing dominate the calendar in the months of November and December. But with this season also comes an increase in feelings of loneliness, sadness, and despair. While some suffers might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression attributed to a reduction in exposure to sunlight, others might be experiencing depressed mood resulting from missing a lost loved one, feeling left out, or experiencing unmet expectations in one’s family relationships. Sometimes there is no clear trigger to the depressed mood a person experiences which causes even more distress for the sufferer.
Depression affects the whole person, not just one aspect of the self. People experience depression physically, behaviorally, emotionally and cognitively, and the mood disturbance can affect one’s occupation and relationships. Depression can feel so pervasive, it has been described by sufferers as a “weight that won’t lift” or a “shadow that constantly follows”.
Unfortunately, a singular cause for depression has yet to be identified. Factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing depression – genetic predisposition, medical conditions (e.g. hypothyroidism), stressful life circumstances, and previous trauma – do not necessarily indicate causation; they merely show that a relationship exists between those characteristics and depression. For those who experience debilitating depression with no clear triggers, asking the question “why” makes sense but leads down a slippery slope that can drive us deeper into the depths of depression. So, the act of trying to solve the problem how did I get here in the first place becomes part a complex system that actually maintains the depression in much the same way as struggling to free oneself from quicksand actually drives you further down into it.
Williams, Teasdale, and Segal, in their books The Mindful Way through Depression (with Jon Kabat-Zinn) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, look at how our “mode of mind” influences our experience of life in general and depression in particular. They refer to two primary modes of being: doing mode and being mode. Doing mode promotes productivity, problem-solving, and goal attainment. When it comes to the external world, doing mode is necessary in order to get anything done; it is through this state that you can wash a load of laundry, swim across a lake, or purchase gifts from your loved one’s wish list. Being mode, on the other hand, focuses on experience and can be characterized by acceptance of what is; accomplishment and evaluation are not necessary in this mode. Both ways of being are natural and necessary, but they are only helpful when the mode matches the type of problem that needs solving.
Complications arise, then, when you try to apply critical thinking skills (doing mode) to your internal world of emotions. “This mode of careful analysis, problem solving, judgment, and comparison is aimed at closing the gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be – at solving perceived problems” (p.40-41). Our brains are wired to recognize a discrepancy between what is and what should be and tries to close that gap through doing mode. For example, when we recognize our hunger, signaled by a growling stomach, we naturally seek to remedy the problem by going to the refrigerator for a snack. When this feedback loop is successfully closed by achieving the desired state – satisfied hunger – we are free to move on to other things.
In the world of our emotions, however, or in situations that do not have a clear or manageable solution, the discrepancy monitor in our brains causes us to rehearse the problem in our mind, relentlessly trying to find the solution to our perceived problem. The act of ruminating on the situation or unwanted emotion over and over is what gets us stuck and unable to switch gears. Say, for example, the problem we experience is a feeling of worthlessness. Our brain recognizes that there is a gap between what is (i.e. I feel worthless) and what should be (i.e. I should feel valuable and happy) and will continue to ruminate on the perceived problem – as if it is the truth – in search of the solution. Unfortunately, this pattern begins a downward spiral of negative thinking that contributes to the deepening of depression, leaving us feeling worse than we did to begin with. Rumination, then, is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Clearly, doing mode is not appropriate for this situation.
When it comes to our emotions, being mode offers us an alternative to getting stuck in the rut of rumination. Being mode provides the capacity to observe our thoughts and emotions from a distance. This type of awareness – of paying attention to one’s present moment in an intentional, non-judgmental, curious sort of way – is known as mindfulness. Though its use spans thousands of years and is rooted in eastern religious tradition, mindfulness has become a buzzword in the mental health arena in recent years and for good reason. Its focus on acceptance of one’s emotional experience as it is rather than trying to fight against it is why mindfulness is a leading approach to treating depression. Being mode, activated through mindful awareness, is the antidote for the pattern of rumination which leads to the downward spiral of depression. But how do we shift from doing mode to being mode?
Recognize when you are ruminating. Because it is such an automatic function, we aren’t always aware of when we are lost in thought. Sometimes the first sign that you are “living in your thoughts” is a shift in mood. Perhaps you were feeling happy or content and then all of a sudden, you began to feel anxious or sad. When this mood shift occurs, focus your attention on what was going through your mind before you started feeling bad. Other signs might be forgetfulness or inability to focus.
Ask yourself where your mind is at that moment. Chances are, your mind is somewhere other than the present moment. Perhaps you’re thinking about what you’re fixing for dinner, when you’re going to finish that research paper, or how you’ll tolerate another Christmas alone. Not all thinking or daydreaming is considered rumination of course, but habits of allowing your mind to wander ad infinitum can become problematic when your mind begins to fixate on a problem it can’t solve. Label the location of your thoughts (e.g. the past, the future, the unknown, etc.).
Ask yourself where your body is at that moment. By deliberately focusing your attention on the space your body is occupying, you are reminding yourself that your present moment is the place you actually do your living. It is in the space we bodily occupy that our choices become available to us and our present reality becomes clear. Label the location of your body (e.g. the kitchen, in the car on Hwy 6, sitting on the floor playing with your child).
Redirect your mind to occupy the same space as your body. We can shift from doing mode to being mode by redirecting our mind to focus on what our senses tell us about our environment. A simple mindfulness technique is using your five senses to bring you into the present moment: label five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.
As you begin experiencing life in the present moment through the senses, you are able to become more aware of – rather than getting lost in – your thoughts and emotions. Not only does mindful practice help reduce symptoms of depression, but many practitioners benefit from improved memory, focus, ability to adapt to stressful situations, and ability to manage emotions.
Living life more often in being mode versus doing mode is how God created us to live. God exhorts us through the psalmist to “be still (i.e. cease striving, let go, chill out) and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, NASB). The Hebrew word that is translated “know” in this verse is the word yada which carries with it the meaning of knowing in a way that is beyond intellectual understanding. Yada means that we know and experience God through our senses and not merely our thoughts. This type of knowing is the essence of mindful living as well.
If you are noticing patterns of ruminative thinking that lead to depression, let one of our counselors assist you in developing strategies to change your relationship with your thoughts and emotions. Call or email us today!
Segal, Z.V., Williams, J.M.G., and Teasdale, J.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy for depression (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic depression. New York: Guilford Press.