We all have bad days every once in a while, but sometimes a bad day become a week, and then a month, and then it begins to feel endless. The more periods of this depressed mood we have in life, the more likely we are to fall back into them again. Why does this relapse occur, and how can mindfulness offer hope?
The practice of mindfulness teaches us a different way to relate to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise. It is about learning to approach and acknowledge whatever is happening in the present moment, setting aside our lenses of judgment and just being with whatever is there, rather than avoiding it or needing to fix it. It’s the mind’s attempt to avoid and fix things in this moment that fuels the negative mood.
The practice of mindfulness teaches us a different way to relate to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise.
If sadness is there, instead of trying to fix it or figure it out, we might just acknowledge the sadness, let it be, and get a better understanding of what we need in the moment.
If self-judgments arise (e.g., I am weak, I am a loser), we can acknowledge that they are associations from the past, let them be, and then gently bring ourselves back to whatever we were doing. In doing this, we’re stopping the ruminative cycle that might occur between our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviors that can play off one another leading into another relapse.
Now, this is easier said than done and it takes practice.
A Practice to Break Out of Negative Thoughts
Practice this when you’re feeling well and you’ll be better able to recognize when your mind wanders off to ruminate and criticize when you’re not feeling well.
1) Try the “Touch and Go” Practice:
Settle in, close your eyes and gently begin to locate your breath. Where do you feel it the most? Rest your awareness on the breath, as if noticing the breath for the first time. You can place attention at the tip of the nose or the belly and as you breathe in, just acknowledge the breath coming in and as you breathe out just acknowledge the breath going out. As if you were greeting and saying goodbye to an old friend.
Practice noticing when your mind wanders. Then go back to the breath, practicing “see,” “touch,” “go”when the mind mind wanders—noticing when your mind is wandering, being able to touch it for a moment and gently going back to wherever your attention is. When the mind wanders, as it will always do, just say to yourself “wandering” and then gently bring your attention back to the breath just noticing it coming in and going out.
Return to the breath again and again as the mind wanders, gently bring it back billions of times. You can do this for as little as 1 minute or as much as 30 minutes or more.
2) Restore self-confidence by labeling defeating thoughts
Catch your inner critic. When you’re not feeling well and the mind begins to ruminate, as you practiced with the breath, just label it as “ruminating” and then gently bring your attention back to whatever you were doing. Like learning an instrument, you can develop more skill as you practice.
Notice the “choice point.” Being more present may also give you the ability see the space between stimulus and response and see the “choice point” to be more flexible and call a friend or do something that then gives you pleasure or connection with others. This is what I referred to as The Now Effect.
Recognize when you’re feeling low. Feeling low mood is normal for everyone, but if we’ve experienced depression in the past, this may be a trigger for a relapse. If we feel tired or if we notice sadness, the mind pops up with the worry: “Uh oh, that is how I felt when I was depressed, maybe I’m getting depressed.” Our minds begin to go in overdrive with negative self judgments, “I am a failure” or “I am weak” or “I am worthless.” It then tries to solve the mystery as to why we are becoming depressed again and the more it tries to solve this puzzle, the deeper it sinks into depression.
Be kind to yourself. Think of your worried mind like a judgmental person coming at you trying to solve your problems when you’re already not feeling well. Probably not what you’re looking for. You see, it’s not the low mood that’s the problem here, it’s the way we get stuck in habitually relating to it, talking to ourselves about it, that pours kerosene on the fire. Know that practicing mindfulness is an act of self-care and helps stop the cycle of rumination and cultivates more patience, compassion, and peace.
Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy.