Recently my mood has been fairly low. I’m still trying to figure out why and how to make it better, but for the moment things are pretty stagnant and I’m really not sure what steps I can take to improve my mood. This is a place of intense frustration, and I know that many people can get to be in this situation: you may not be able to change your work or family situation, you may feel like your external situation is actually fairly positive overall, or you may have no idea what has triggered a depressive episode. There are often times when you can’t take positive actions to improve your depression.
Of course when that happens it tends to snowball on itself. If you don’t know how you’re going to improve your situation, there is an intense hopelessness that it will get better. You think about the future and you don’t know how or if it will ever change, and all you can imagine is the whole size of your whole future feeling the way you do now. That is an intensely icky feeling.
You start to feel bad, you think about feeling bad forever, and how you feel now gets worse. Then you think about feeling even worse forever and it gets even WORSE. Imagine this on loop for days and weeks at a time. This is what it’s like when you don’t know how to fix your depression.
Of course the whole crux of the problem is that you don’t know what to do to make yourself feel better. Here’s the secret though: I know what you have to do. A warning: this will not necessarily make right now feel better, but it will give you some relief from the circling, spiraling pain and might just give you enough time and space to breathe and figure out a good solution. So what is the solution? Mindfulness.
Are you all done giving me dirty looks now? Good. This seems trite. It seems woo woo. It seems ridiculous and not practical. When I was first introduced into mindfulness, I would fart in its general direction too. But that was before I heard this explanation of why mindfulness is useful. Mindfulness cannot make you feel better right now: that’s not its purpose. Mindfulness is about only letting your mind be in the present. While depression can often involve angst and anxiety about the past or the future, mindfulness is just existing and doing what you are doing.
So remember all of that angst about the future that crops up when you cycle in your depression? Those things are not hurting you right now. They’re not even happening right now. If you can stop thinking about them and only exist in this moment, you’ll stop feeling all the crappy feelings of the past and all the potential crappy feelings of the future. That is a lot of crappy feelings that you don’t have to worry about until they actually happen. And the whole point of mindfulness is that if you can train your mind to exist in the present, you don’t have to take on all the suffering that is not really affecting you right now.
If you’re like me, that all sounds lovely except that you have no idea how to do it. Half of your problem is that you’re really bad at being mentally present, you can’t focus, you’re too tired. Never fear. There are concrete steps that you can take to be mindful. They aren’t easy, but they do at least give you a clear path forward.
The most important thing to remember about mindfulness is that it’s about being aware: observing, describing, and being present. That’s what it means to be present-to focus on your surroundings, your emotions, your thoughts, and your senses. Here are some basic steps you can start with. Initially, try one simple, small thing and do it mindfully. Try washing the dishes or driving home from work. While you’re doing it, just notice things: how the water feels, the song playing in your head, the smell of the soap. Once you’ve started to notice it, you can add words: describe it. It might be good to just start with these two steps, and you don’t need to go overboard: 10 minutes might be the most you can handle. Once you’ve started to get the hang of those steps, try participating. If you notice your thoughts or your concentration wandering while you do an activity, just take note and then gently bring your focus back to what you’re doing.
This is probably the hardest part of mindfulness: the idea is not to get annoyed or frustrated with yourself, but just to notice what you’re doing and change it. If you can approach mindfulness with the intent of being gentle with yourself, of recognizing that you’re a little fragile right now, it generally will go better.
If you don’t want to do this while you’re trying to get something done, or if you just want to have some time to seriously practice mindfulness, some good practices are focusing on breathing and body scans. Instead of focusing on a task you can just pay attention to your breathing, or you can start at your toes and focus on each part of your body individually. This is a little more concrete and a good place to start when you’re beginning mindfulness.
Of course throughout your day you can also take time to pull your thoughts back to what you’re doing, to notice your surroundings, to pay attention to your breath, or to stimulate your senses in some way. I particularly find that being aware of my body and being aware of being in my body are good ways to be mindful. As much as 15 minutes of these little things each day can really help to reset that spinning wheel of anxiety and fear that starts going in the midst of depression.
Obviously this needs to be done in conjunction with some problem solving and reflection about what’s really making things bad for you. You might need a change in meds, an adjustment at work, changes in relationships, or a variety of other problem-solving things to improve the situation. But a good way to wait things out when you can’t figure out what to change or to get through your day to day tasks without ruminating is to work on mindfulness.