Can the Mind Heal Depression?

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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 heal and to live well after years of losing so much to depression. Recovery has been more than the sum of its parts, more than healing depression – 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 a post I can no longer find online, “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 – not just to heal depression but 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. I needed more to heal depression.

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?

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