When I was living in San Francisco during my twenties, I built a successful career in sales. At night, I lived fast and partied recklessly, abusing drugs and alcohol with a like-minded group of drifting souls. Eventually my despair and shame grew so deep that I isolated myself from my family and friends and lost myself in my addictive behaviors.
Occasionally, in some of the seedier bars I frequented, I would come across a mess of a man who was so strung out that he repulsed me. I remember saying to my friends, “God help me if I ever turn out like him.” I thought, since I was managing to succeed at work, I was in control of my self-abusive behavior. But one night, after many hours of partying, I saw the truth of who I had become. When I found myself slumped beside that man and his equally dazed companion in the back of a broken-down limousine, I saw my own reflection in his wasted face and realized I was throwing away my life. I jumped out of the limousine, determined to transform myself.
As for so many others, it was mindfulness practice that turned things around for me. My family urged me to spend a month away at a retreat center. During that time, I questioned everything I did and all that I believed. Answers began to come to me: I wanted to stop abusing my body. I wanted to find the purpose and meaning of my life. I wanted to be happy.
Science shows that we have natural antidepressants within our brains and, with some work, they can be as powerful as—or even more powerful than—medication.
I wanted to heal myself, and eventually, I realized, I wanted to help heal others who faced some of the same challenges that had nearly broken me. I trained as a clinical psychologist and began running Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programs focusing on helping people relate to stress better and not relapse into depression. Now having worked with my own depressive tendencies and with hundreds of clients, I know that uncovering happiness is not about simply being drunk on life but is found in a profound and enduring experience of learning how to lean into loving ourselves and others in good times and in bad. It’s a happiness based on a sense of common humanity, connectedness, and purpose. While I still get hooked by self-judgments and negative thoughts, I have learned to be grateful for the good moments and a bit more graceful during the difficult ones, knowing that all things in life come and go. I’ve come to believe that I’m benefitting from natural antidepressants that are present in the human brain.
When you hear the word antidepressant, you probably think of a pill: a medication used to treat your illness. Medications are one kind of antidepressant. But they’re not the only kind.
Science is now showing that we also have natural antidepressants within our brains: mindsets (thoughts and behaviors) that build us up instead of tear us down and allow us to help ourselves improve our own moods.
These natural antidepressants can be gathered into five main categories: mindfulness (the one I focus on in this piece), self-compassion, purpose, play, and mastery. By developing these natural antidepressants, you can strengthen your brain’s ability to act as its own antidepressant that can be as powerful as—or even more powerful than—the antidepressant medications.
I recognize the value of antidepressant medications, and I believe they can play an important role in the treatment of clinical depression. I’ve seen pharmaceuticals be lifesavers for some depressed patients, giving them the help they need to engage in necessary psychological treatment.
However, I also believe these drugs are heavily overprescribed and overused. For many patients, antidepressants cause more harm than good. They can create a cascade of mental health problems that go far beyond the depression they were prescribed to treat. Too many people get caught in the trap of jumping from one drug to the next or taking multiple prescriptions in order to offset serious side effects caused by individual drugs.
Whether you are on antidepressants and they’re working for you, you’re on them and want to get off of them, or you are not on antidepressants at all, cultivating natural antidepressants can support your ability to get better at overcoming the depressive cycles. Whatever your experience with depression has been—whether you just have the blues, you have chronic low-grade unhappiness, or you’ve experienced one or more major depressive episodes—you have the power to change the way you feel. By getting help in understanding how depression works and making the choice to nurture your natural antidepressants, you can become stronger and more resilient.
The Depression Loop
I’ve found during my work with depression that it’s helpful to envision it as a kind of circular process: an automatic loop rather than a linear set of events. Clients find it useful to think of it as a cycle, a spiral, or even a traffic circle. If you live someplace where there are lots of traffic circles or if you have ever driven on one, you know how confusing and maddening they can be.
You’re driving on a straight road, minding your own business, maybe humming along with a song on the radio, and suddenly a traffic circle looms ahead. It just kind of appears on the street ahead of you. Your mind instantly starts anticipating entering the circle, how the cars may stream in, and how you’re going to exit. A feeling of fear or anxiety arises; your hands start to sweat and grip the steering wheel. As you enter, you search for a sign for a way out, and halfway through the circle you realize that you have to switch lanes to jockey for a position so you’re ready for your exit. Meanwhile, you drive by other entrance points that each admit streams of new cars into the circle. You see your exit, but you realize that you either have to speed up or slow down. If you miss your exit—which is so easy to do—you have no choice but to loop around again hoping that next time you’ll make your way out.
Falling into the depression loop is a lot like entering a traffic circle. You’re living your life, feeling fine, minding your own business, and all of a sudden you find depression looming. Maybe it’s just a feeling you wake up with, a moment when you suddenly fall prey to a shaming inner critic that says something like “there’s something wrong with me/you,” or a response to hearing some negative news. Once you’re in it, you try valiantly to get out. But it’s so easy to get stuck.
Just as various roads lead you into a traffic circle, the depression loop has four entrance points: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors. Any one of these can lead you into the depression loop. Once you’re caught inside the loop, your mind goes around and around, struggling to get out. Streams of thoughts enter the loop as your brain struggles to figure out “What’s wrong with me?” As one of my students says, “The bloodhound is sniffing around for the villain (and much analysis is required).” The brain anxiously defaults to reaching back into the past, referencing and rehashing negative events to try to figure it out. Simultaneously, the brain jumps into the future, planning, rehearsing, and anticipating some upcoming hopeless catastrophe. As all this happens, the brain pours stress into an already stressful situation.
You may see an exit, but as you try to leave the loop, you find yourself blocked by more depressive thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors. Before you know it, the traffic gets even heavier with the addition of streams of fear and anxiety when you begin to perceive that you’re becoming trapped in the self-perpetuating depression loop. You’re desperate for escape, but, sideswiped by fear and negativity, you become so overwhelmed that you just keep going around and around and around. Soon a sense of learned helplessness sets in: you can no longer even see the exit, so you stop trying to break free and begin to believe you may never escape.
This was a common occurrence for one of my patients, 30-year-old Sandy, who had experienced bouts of depression her whole life. Typically she would feel fine for a while, but then at times, seemingly out of nowhere, she would become depressed. Sandy would lose interest in activities she usually enjoyed and have trouble finding the motivation she needed for everyday tasks. Feelings such as unworthiness and guilt would begin to flood her mind, and in response, she tended to isolate herself from her family and friends and make choices that fueled her depression rather than pull her out of it.
Sandy experienced depression as a persistently reinforcing loop that dragged her down. Negative thoughts would trigger troubling feelings (or vice versa) that in short time would turn into an ever-present depressed mood state. This would make it tough for Sandy to get out of bed in the morning. Doing the activities she usually enjoyed felt nearly impossible, and instead of partaking in life, Sandy would often end up sitting in her apartment feeling terrible about herself, eating too much, drinking too much, and sinking deeper and deeper into a morass of gloom.
Sandy didn’t know this, but each time she experienced a bout of depression and got lost in the depression loop, her brain actually changed. When we practice anything in life over and over again, it starts to become automatic; in psychology, we call that a conditioned habitual reaction, and in neuroscience, it’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Right now 80 billion to 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, are interacting with what some have said are one trillion connections, called synapses, in an unimaginably fast and dynamic network. When we do something over and over—whether it’s something we’re trying to learn, such as improving our tennis stroke; or something we’d rather not learn, like an anxiety response to dogs after being bitten by one—neurons in our brains fire together. As we repeat these actions, they eventually wire together, making the process an unconscious habit.
One day Sandy came to see me looking particularly distressed, and she told me that she’d received an email that a client of hers was angry with her work. In exploring it together, we realized that this kind of cue triggered worries about losing that client, increasing her anxiety, and making her heart race and her breathing become shallow. Her mind spiraled with negative hopeless thoughts about the future of her business, and she began to avoid doing her work. Sandy knew she was getting depressed, and this spiraled into more fear. Her response prevented her from dealing with the client’s email in a logical, objective way.
Sandy was ready to start breaking this cycle when she finally recognized her depressive loop for what it really was: a deeply conditioned habit (or trauma reaction). In fact, just understanding the concept of the depression loop was enough for Sandy to start effecting a change in her relationship to depression. She was able to see it in action in her daily life and name it. The moment she saw it occurring, she was able to stand apart from it in a space of awareness that was separate from the loop itself and gain perspective. She no longer felt she was the loop—rather, she was the aware person viewing the loop. In this space, she found a sense of freedom and a “choice point,” a moment in time when she was aware enough to choose a healthier response.
The first step in uncovering happiness and experiencing freedom from the depression loop, then, is learning how to objectively see this loop in action instead of getting lost in it. The moment we notice the depression loop in action is a moment we’ve stepped outside of it, into a space of perspective and choice.
From there, we have more work to do. The brain habits we have can be deep-seated. The helplessness we’ve learned can stick with us. The beauty is, though, that science is now showing us that through intentional repetition and action, we can change our brains for the better.
And one of the most helpful ways to do that is to counteract our tendency to want to believe we are a problem to be fixed. Instead we can be present for what comes up in our lives and make choices in the small space that opens up between a stimulus and our response. That’s where mindfulness comes in.
Once we notice the depression loop in action we’ve already stepped outside of it, into a space of perspective and choice. From there, we have more work to do.
Being Versus Doing
We are hardwired to solve problems. When a problem arises, we want “to do” something about it. That’s how we’ve evolved and have made the wheel, our first tools, the chairs we sit on, the houses we live in, and even how to read and understand these words. Problem solving is an essential part of life. But contrary to the brain’s belief, life itself is not a problem to be solved; it’s a constantly evolving experience to be lived.
Here’s how problem solving gets us trapped deeper in the depressive loop:
The moment we experience an uncomfortable emotion, the brain sees it as a threat because of its potential to lead to depression. We’re supposed to feel well, and when we don’t, there is a discrepancy between where we are and where we “should be.” This mind thinks, “There is something wrong with me.” It perceives a defect, a deficiency, an unworthiness. The brain sees this as something “to fix” and uses self-judgment to tell us that something is wrong with us or maybe conjures up doomsday scenarios to prepare us for possible catastrophes. Then, because of these potential threats, the brain remains on high alert to see if any more signs of relapse arise. The voice inside the mind inquires anxiously, “Is it gone yet? How about now?” This only adds pressure to an already stressful state of being. The more the brain focuses on this gap, the more it highlights it in our minds and strengthens the belief that “something is wrong with me.”
This only sinks us deeper into the depression loop, which spurs the brain “to do” something more, continuing to add more fuel to the fire.
But when we’re doing this, where are we? We’re not in the present—and that’s exactly where we need to be to take charge of our brains and see the choices to make a change by using mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about balancing the brain’s implicit agenda by training it “to be” with what’s there instead of needing “to do” something about it. In using mindfulness to learn how to be with our feelings, we send a message internally that we’re worthy enough to pay attention to. This closes the gap between where we are and where we think we should be (which makes us feel unworthy), and that disrupts the depression loop.
Right now you can choose to stop what you’re “doing” for 30 seconds and practice this state of “being.” Just take a breath and acknowledge how you are. Is your mind racing, or is it calm? Is your body tense anywhere, or is it relaxed? Are you feeling anxious, bored, restless, excited, tired, or any number of other emotions?
Breathe in, breathe out. You have arrived.
Here’s an opportunity to stop reading and begin working on developing mindfulness. It’s a short exercise that you can immediately start using to help move away from the conditioned loop of depression and into a space of hope and possibility.
Learning how to be is a one-minute practice that can be done anywhere and anytime as a barometer of how you’re doing. As best you can, treat this as an experiment in your life. Try it out at first in the moments when you aren’t sinking and see what you notice. Like any habit, the more you integrate this into your day, the stronger it becomes in your short-term memory, and the more likely it is to be retrieved during the difficult moments.
Note: First, see if you can set aside any judgments of whether this practice will or will not work for you. Engage this just with the goal of being aware of your experience.
Take a few deep breaths. Notice your breath as you breathe in and out. You might even want to say the word “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale. This is meant to pop you out of autopilot and steady your mind.
This is the process of expanding your attention throughout the body and just feeling your body as it is. You can start by noticing the positioning of your body. Then you can move to being curious about how your body is feeling. Imagine that this is the very first time you’ve ever felt your body. You may feel warmth or coolness, achiness, itchiness, tension, tightness, heaviness, lightness, or a whole host of sensations. Or perhaps you notice no sensation at all in other areas. When you’re here, also be aware of how emotions are being expressed in the body. Calm may be experienced as looseness in the back or face. You might also notice painful feelings. Maybe this comes up as tension in the chest or shoulders. If there is physical pain, see what happens if you get curious about the sensation of it and allow it to be as it is. If it gets too intense, use this as a choice point to become aware of what matters in the moment or what you need. Maybe you need to get up, move around, and roll your shoulders. Awareness is the springboard to getting in touch with what matters.
Like any habit, the more you integrate mindfulness into your day, the stronger it becomes in your short-term memory, and the more likely it is to be retrieved in difficult moments.
That’s it! It may sound too simple to be impactful, but, again, set aside your judgments and let your experience be your teacher.
Just practice being, breathing, and expanding into the body in mini moments throughout the day to train your brain to be in that space of awareness and choice that will lead you to a more balanced and mindful life.
To help you remember, you might consider posting signs in your environment that say “Just Be.” Just as signs on the road remind us to slow down or watch for children crossing, signs around the house or office can remind us to be how we want to BE. Or maybe put a note in your digital calendar to pop up a couple times per day as a reminder. Or the best way to remember may be to share the idea with a friend to remind each other from time to time.
The benefits are enormous—it just takes intention and practice.
From Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. Reprinted by arrangement with Atria Books, Copyright © 2015 Elisha Goldstein.