Can the Mind Heal Depression?

Abstract diamond shape

How can we draw on the power of our own minds to heal depression? As I’ve tried to answer this question, I’ve had to rethink my beliefs about recovery. This is the first in a series of posts to describe what I’ve been learning.

Like everything else I’ve been writing about here, this search starts with my need to understand how I’ve come to live well after years of losing so much to depression. Recovery has been more than the sum of its parts – more than all the techniques and therapies I’ve used to get better.

A shift in belief and awareness has been crucial to living well, but I’ve never understood what power of mind I was able to use to enable this shift to occur. My concern is that unless I get clear about the process I went through, much of which was unconscious, I’ll have trouble sustaining it.

Can You Change the Experience of Depression?

Trying to figure out how the mind can heal has led me to look into Tom Wooton’s approach, among many others. I’ve been especially intrigued by the idea that our reaction to depression is more important than its symptoms.

He believes that the mind’s reaction can make the difference between crippling illness or powerful insight – but it takes a lot of work to get control over the response. Wooton emphasizes that achieving the level of self-mastery needed to transform depression into something positive is a lengthy and demanding process.

Will Meecham brings this out beautifully in his recent post, From Depression to Bliss. Through his long practice of meditation, he has learned to suspend interpretation and judgment when going through depression. He can feel it as an energy that is neither good nor bad but bearable. He’s also learned to go beyond this state to find a serenity in depression, and even bliss.

He uses a great image to illustrate how difficult the process is.

“…to reside in depression and feel it positively is to balance on a knife blade. It is like tiptoeing along a narrow, rocky ridge-line, where the slightest misstep can end in destruction.”

Most of us haven’t been expecting to find anything serene or beautiful in depression. We’ve been trying to get rid of it. I believe that the goal, however, is the same – to have a fulfilling life. Meecham’s image captures the difficulty of sustaining wellness – however we want to define it. Working on the way our minds react to depression is an essential part of staying well.

Preparation for Changing Belief

Here are some of the practices and changes that have helped my mind shift its orientation toward depression. Each of these led to a deeper awareness and ability to refocus my mind on healing.

  1. Writing: Writing is all about mental focus and staying with feeling. Working on this blog has had a big impact. As I learned after starting it, writing itself is a recognized form of therapy. Recalling specific incidents in detail and finding the words to describe them has helped to disempower their hold on my feelings. It has also helped me get more control over attention and reduce the distractions of anxiety.
  2. Purpose: In addition to the effect of writing itself, I formed a new sense of purpose as I got more deeply into the online community. Communicating with others who live with depression and learning from them has given me a sense of working on something that goes beyond my own needs. It enhances the sense of direction.
  3. Mindfulness: I practiced mindfulness through meditation and other ways of sharpening awareness of immediate experience. Stopping the worries about past failures and future goals helped me to get some distance from depression as well. At times, I lost awareness of the illness altogether and felt an inner balance and sense of well-being.
  4. Thinking: I learned cognitive therapy techniques on my own, and they’ve helped a great deal in canceling out negative thinking and looking at myself in a more balanced, realistic way. Above all, these skills have helped me spot the moment when my mind can make a choice about how it reacts to any experience. That opening gives me the chance to avoid depressive thinking.
  5. Taking Charge: Perhaps the central change in attitude was waking up to the need to define an overall approach to healing and recovery. It meant taking responsibility for recovery rather than waiting for medical approaches to make me well again.

Redefining Recovery

As important as all these practices and changes in attitude were, they still didn’t add up to an overall and stable sense of well-being. I had been working with most of these methods for years with only halting improvement.

A further change did occur, but much of it was unconscious. As I’ve described it before, I stopped believing all the negative ideas I had about myself. Those beliefs had been the force that held all the symptoms of depression together. They enhanced their power to the point that I felt overwhelmed and helpless.

Once I believed I was basically a sound and capable person – rather than a worthless or monstrous creature – depression broke apart into its separate pieces. I felt like a well person who occasionally got sick, not a sick person who occasionally got well.

Another shift occurred that amounted to a redefinition of recovery. I used to think of getting well in terms of ending symptoms. When they stopped, everything would be great.

Recovery no longer means getting rid of symptoms. It means living a fulfilling life no matter what remnants of depression stay with me.

The Power of Expectation

When I felt I had finally reached a stable well-being, the symptoms did stop. But after a while, depressed moods returned from time to time, and my tendency to obsess about failures and disappointments often dogged my mind. The strange thing is that even after the symptoms started to return, they didn’t overwhelm me. I no longer expected to be depressed.

Instead, I felt like I was going through a rough day. I could turn off the negative thoughts or just let them bounce off me. These were isolated problems that I knew how to deal with. They were not Depression. My attitude and reactions to the experience were totally different.

Most important of all, I remained fully functional. I could work all day with no flagging of energy or focus. I could be more present in my closest relationships. I could sleep well and enjoy a social life. These days, I can’t imagine going back to the years of believing that I was a helpless victim of “major depressive disorder, recurrent, not psychotic” as the diagnosis puts it.

Expecting to stay well is an important part of the change, and expectation seems to be a powerful force in healing generally. It’s one of the main factors in the placebo effect and other healing processes generated by the mind. That’s the topic for the next post in this series.

How do you think of recovery? What’s your present expectation about restoring a sense of well-being to your life?

Image by uggBoy-uggGirl at Flicker

17 Responses to “Can the Mind Heal Depression?”

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  1. Hi John! Found you through Steven’s site, Change Your Thoughts.

    The mind is an amazing thing that can do so much if we learn to use it correctly, almost like a tool. A tool held at the wrong end will never do what it was meant to do. But held the correct way and used the way it was designed to be used, and new worlds of experience can be created.

    The difficult thing about depression is that it often robs who it grips of the will to change course and do the work of connecting and reinterpreting and all. I am an admirer of those who are able to go through depression and come out the other end smiling again.

    Thanks for an important article. So glad I found you here!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Ken –

      You’re right on about the effect of depression in paralyzing the will and eliminating all motivation to do anything to help yourself.

      Thanks for commenting – I’m delighted to learn about your blog and look forward to reading it.

      John

  2. noch says:

    that’s all so true. i resonate with all you have written above. and yes once you take charge, depression can’t haunt as much anymore
    i’m learning to let depression be part of my life, if it has to be, and stop thinking “when i recover…”. rather, i’m trying to go on about my life as usual, aware of physical and mental symptoms and just transition to living a life different from what i used to know. after all, change is always exciting 🙂
    noch

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, noch –

      The change in expectation you talk about seems so important to me. Changing the guiding assumption, as Stephany (soulful sepulcher) suggested, from how can I recover to I am recovered triggered so much. I guess it eased the tension I felt about never doing enough to putting everything together and feeling how different I had become. Seeing myself more clearly –

      John

  3. lee du ploy says:

    Reason Defeats Fear.

    I have worked in many countries, and have written extensively about depression.
    Currently I am in Hong Kong researching a book on Prosopagnosia and its consequinces.

    Let me start by saying that we are all different, we are conditioned to think differently and re act differently….. what to me may be a minor problem, flight delay for eg. , may to you be a major setback which sets you a path of thinking destructively for days.

    I use this as an example of what I call “assmption acceptance’ where we reason irrationaly and accept the idea as entitlement, thus planting into our heads that the worse case scenario is alaways the norm.

    There is clearly a chemical component to depression , so we have to accept that not everyone can resolve issues by thinking it better.

    However I have found in my job as a health proffessional ways in which to use a ‘ set up” which if use consistently bring results.

    I hope this may be of some use to you?

    In order to judge any situation which brings you into the depression cycle, we need to make it happen, ie you need to manifest it to confront it.

    Once you have this in your mind, let it make you mad, sad , angry or whatever, become emotional , manifest the feeling.

    Now to judge the credibility of the problem we have to assertain its value of distress ,we need in other words to see and assertain why it effects us so dramatically(some people have been in a depressive cycle so long they find this part of the execise difficult)

    Subjective units of distress are measured from one to ten, one being no threat to bring on depression and ten being extreme with instant thoughts of depression.
    Write down a number from one to ten about how depressed you are, one being none and ten being extreme, do this each time you do this exercise.

    Thus setting in motion “habit forming thoughts”

    Once you learn to use this meausure , you can then assertain how much you are better at coping, ie you teach yourself the valuable lesson that you are here to beat depression and that you are making that effort.

    The mind quickly learns this response and makes it a habit if used enough.

    ,

    So here is the method.

    Sit comfortable in a quiet space.
    Make sure you are warm, feel how your body feels when you sit or lie.
    Be aware of its weight.
    Close your eyes and think of the feelings that brings on depression.
    Think of the subjective unit of distress(the number you wrote down previously)
    See it clearly in your minds eye,bring on the feeling of depression and associate with the number( what number is your (distress from one to ten)
    By keeping all this in mind, find a colour that you think is compatable with the distress to causes depression ( many people see deep purple)
    Now think of where in the body you think the source for the anxiety is, ie. where it stems from. ( many people associate physical pain in the the stomach region and emotional pain in the head)
    Now place your hand on the problem part ( stomach, head or wherever)
    Now breathe the problem out , visualize the problem , taking deep breaths associate the problem being expeled, breath deep and hold, out and hold at all time remember the reaon for the exercise.

    Once you stop , say after a few minutes you will be aware of a shift.

    Now open you eyes and see if the number (SUD) that you wrote down previously is still as high as you think of your depresion is right now……if it changed for lower then continue the process untill you feel satisfied that your mind understands the signal that you will not be beaten into depresion and will always overcome with this weapon of thought .

    Reason can defeat fear.

    lee du ploy ( hong kong)

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hello, lee du ploy –

      Thank you for describing this method. I’m sure it will be helpful to readers here.

      John

  4. Judy says:

    This was an interesting post, John. Right now, I have to admit I’m having a hard time saying that I don’t expect to be depressed because I have nothing to go on but faith and hope. I’m working my way off my antidepressant and trying the “act as if” approach, as well as working in therapy, but it’s been very difficult. I’m trying to keep faith that this will pass eventually and to believe that my mind is messing with me, but I don’t know for sure. Sometimes, I think I can write off all those negative beliefs and then I find myself trying to swim through and out of them again, wondering how I got back there. Maybe I just haven’t worked hard enough at it. How do you know if you’re doing enough? It’s not like there is some set of distinct “rules” that, if you follow them, you will be guaranteed recovery. The same things don’t work for everyone, unfortunately.

    Thank you for keeping us thinking and challenging ourselves.

    Judy

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi Judy –

      I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling this way. You’re right, of course, that no approach works for everyone. I guess I no longer expect to be completely free of symptoms, but I have a different attitude toward them as well as tools to deal with them. I like Wooton’s approach to think of them as the things I’m uncomfortable with, that can interfere with my life, rather than as symptoms of illness. In his terms, I’ve expanded my comfort zone so that whenever these feelings and thoughts return, they don’t feel like depression or prompt me to seek a new treatment. I don’t go as far as he does to embrace them as positive experiences. I just don’t feel debilitated by them, partly because I can recognize them and use the skills I have to counteract them. I have my doubts that anyone ever stops having symptoms altogether and forever. If you start from that assumption, then recovery has more to do with learning skills and changing attitudes rather than seeking a life in which you never have to deal with them.

      John

  5. Karen says:

    I can’t claim to be an expert on neuroscience, but I think that’s where our next level of understanding depression will come from. Whenever we engage in negative thinking about ourselves, we are activating a network of neurons that reaches all parts of the brain, body, and memory. The more we do that, the more we train and strengthen those pathways. It almost becomes the default conversation in the mind. Consciously stopping the process when we can, and switching to something else makes a different neural network stronger, in time making us spend less time in that old set of feelings. No matter how good we are at cognitive techniques, stress or a strong disturbance in brain function will set us into illness again. Like you, John, I’ve begun to think, I’m just not feeling well today but I felt good a couple of days this week and I’ll have good days again soon. I don’t have to tell people that I feel depressed, which can make them uncomfortable. I can just say I’m not feeling well if they see me turned inward or unable to be part of the day. I’m telling myself a different story. It’s like exercise – we need to keep it up. Thanks always for the encouragement and sharing your methods of coping.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Karen –

      I agree that neuroscience can take us to a new level of understanding. When I started looking into the research, I thought that discoveries of the neurobiological changes linked to depression only provided a correlation for things we already understood at a psychological and emotional level. They helped people think of depression as more “real” because it had this biological basis. That’s good, but I didn’t think it added much to the effort to recover from it. But I never would have understood the role of stress if I hadn’t found Sapolsky and other researchers who linked it to depression as well as memory loss. So it’s important to follow this work as part of understanding exactly what you’re going through and which therapies would be most useful in dealing with it.

      John

  6. Maria says:

    This is an important article for a number of reasons:

    1. I love how you talk about not believing all the negative ideas about yourself. We still lie in a world where people are often taught that they are intrinsically bad. Somehow the good in us does not count so we learn to be blind to it and put our efforts into escaping the negative view as if that is all there is.

    2. A recent study has shown that people suffering from depression have less development in the area of the brain for optimism. Cedars Sinai how has a program to help depressed people develop optimism and the skills to develop forward moving living actions. It is succeeding. It sounds like you are doing the same thing yourself.

    3. Perhaps because of their brain structure, depressed people are unable to withstand negative judgment the way someone else might. I am just wondering out loud on this.

    Thanks for this article.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Maria –

      Probably no one can say for sure if a damaged sense of self precedes and helps to cause depression or if the depression brings with it the loss of self esteem. In my case, it’s more likely the first – since that goes back to basic attachment problems. But the social training reinforces the idea that you have to become someone, you’re not enough until you’ve made your mark, etc. When you add depression, a strong sense of self doesn’t have much of a chance. The encouraging thing about brain structure is the ability to overcome those deficits with learning, so I’m glad to hear about the Cedars Sinai program.

      Thanks for these interesting comments.

      John

  7. This was a wonderful post and you touch on so many things that make such a huge difference in the life of someone who is depressed. I particularly liked that you could now have an ‘off’ day and not worry that you were becoming depressed again.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Narelle –

      Thank you – It’s always my hope that a post here will be helpful. It would have been nice if I had gotten to this point 20 years ago – but can’t worry about that. Thanks so much for commenting.

      John

  8. I think it is essential to recognise that you have developed a story about you as a depressed person, and that you began changing the internal scripts until finally, a new story emerged and stayed.

  9. John Folk-Williams says:

    Narelle –

    Yes, I think everyone has a story, or more than one, for different aspects of their lives. I’ve changed mine about depression several times and wrote a couple of posts about them. I did one about a year ago called Stories to Explain My Life with Depression.

    Thanks again for commenting.

    John

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