Depression and the double-edged sword of mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t an easy skill to learn for anyone. For someone with clinical depression, it can be dangerous. I’m saying this from personal experience.

However, I’ve passed through danger into a better place. Mindfulness may be the most important cognitive skill I’ve learned in my entire life. It has helped me respect my own feelings, but first I needed to understand them better. Mindfulness in itself doesn’t provide the skillful reflection needed to address harsh self-judgment that characterizes depression.

This story has been unfolding for me for over a year. I’ve kept relatively quiet about it on this blog because I needed to write for myself for a while.

One tool I’ve used on a daily basis to develop a mindfulness practice is Headspace, and I’d recommend it for many people. However, the claims made by cognitive apps may not have a scientific basis. Someone with depression must approach mindfulness carefully and with adequate support.

When I launched Speed River Journal seven years ago, I chose the subtitle, “An urban naturalist’s progress.” This referred to the 17th Century testament of Protestant Christian faith, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which I read 30 years ago. Later, around 1998, I became an atheist.

However, regardless of what we believe, life is a pilgrimage. We traverse the landscape of time and consciousness toward some final destination. Now I care less about where I’m going, more about what I learn along the way.

Psalm 84 in the Old Testament says people who have set their hearts on pilgrimage bring water wherever they pass. Ancient people knew their lives depended on rainfall and clean wells. I take this water as a metaphor for compassion, with which a traveler may improve the lives of others.

When I registered for an eight-week course in mindfulness-based cognitive (MBCT) therapy in September 2016, I had no idea what a challenging boundary I had crossed. I received fair warning. The introductory material and the doctor teaching the course cautioned me that it was beneficial for people with a history of depression as an inoculation against relapse. It wasn’t recommended for anyone experiencing active depression.

In other words, it would likely be a rough haul for me. I had experienced depression and anxiety most of my life, and had a serious extended episode during 2015 and 2016. I discussed the risks with the doctor and a counselor who knew me well. I desperately wanted any tool that could improve my quality of life.

So I took a risk and undertook one of the hardest lessons ever. At first I was elated to establish a capacity for calm, one of the essential benefits of mindfulness practice. But we can’t sustain calm without acknowledging all emotions that may arise, when they do.

People with depression have an overdeveloped capacity for rumination and self-judgment. Many emotions relate to hopelessness and a sense of inadequacy. They run deep. In hindsight, I would have benefited from having a skilled therapist enlisted to help me through the process. But I couldn’t afford one, so I did the best I could.

The hardest part came after the course ended and I lost regular support from the doctor teaching, besides a class of about 14 other students. That was November 2016.

Two months later I asked my partner to take me to emergency because depression had become unmanageable. Never had I attempted suicide or seriously considered it, but in January my thoughts crossed a terrifying line.

I requested and received help from both friends and the hospital. That occurred exactly one year ago, and my recovery began in earnest. I have been free of depression symptoms for some months now, perhaps since April or July depending on how I look at it.

Despite its challenges, mindfulness initially provided the most valuable tool. MBCT teaches how to entertain one’s feelings with kindness and curiosity, rather than resistance and judgment. Long ago I decided there’s no such thing as a bad emotion. MBCT has reinforced that belief.

MBCT teaches how to entertain one’s feelings with kindness and curiosity, rather than resistance and judgment. Long ago I decided there’s no such thing as a bad emotion.

However, we need skillful reflection to be able to endure the painful ones and not get distracted by pleasure all the time. MBCT provided some training, as did the day hospital program where I enrolled for 12 weeks beginning last January. I don’t think of mindfulness as a path to happiness necessarily. It helps us experience any emotion with calmness and clarity, and that’s the key benefit.

For me, the most powerful additional therapy alongside mindfulness has been writing. I’ve kept a private journal on and off for most of my life. I started again in earnest after the trouble last winter.

Journal writing received a boost from a new acquaintance in September when I started a yoga course for relaxation. During the second class, the instructor talked about how people put up walls to protect themselves when others hurt them. This may be necessary for emotional survival. However, in the long run we need to let down those walls in order to give and receive love. That love could be for someone close, a pet, nature, a cause, or something you’re passionate about doing.

After the class I went up and told her my love is writing.

She said, “Be sure to use some of that love for yourself.”

A revelation came over me. All my life I had wanted to be a good writer, so I had even written my journal with an audience in mind. I had never written for myself with a sense of intimate privacy.

By serendipity, the previous evening at a bookstore I had picked up a title by an Australian self-help author I read many years ago and liked, Stephanie Dowrick. Her book, which I brought home on the eve of insight from the yoga teacher, was Creative Journal Writing: The art and heart of reflection.

Armed with guidance from this and several other books in my libary, I began writing for me. The work waded immediately into even deeper water, but this time it brought more pleasure than terror. The journal has allowed me to grasp spirituality more tangibly than had been possible for 20 years since my beliefs changed. I have been motivated by compassion for others, and realizing compassion must begin with myself.

Mindfulness teachers often stress compassion. Guided meditations on Headspace do. The practice encourages us to notice and let go of critical self-judgment. However, in depression the layers of painful emotion may become too thick to excavate so easily.

Ultimately, I have found a kind therapist who knows me better than anyone else possibly could: myself. Years of practicing clarity and metaphor as a writer have helped me explore my own narrative in new light. One can write with a poet’s honesty one day and a journalist’s detachment the next. I can even take someone else’s perspective. It only takes a little imagination.

Some people express caution or even disapproval when I talk about this. They mistrust any process that stirs up pain and old memories. But these are my emotions, they’re related to my life and I choose to investigate them thoughtfully.

Early in life I learned to hide my emotions. That lesson served me poorly when I suffered painful loss and ostracism. Coming out as a gay man in 1996, I was surrounded by people who didn’t want to hear how I felt. Instead of grieving or expressing anger appropriately, I soldiered forward, determined to start a new life.

Now I need to listen kindly to my younger self so he can stop persevering and simply live each day. I’ve had a long journey back to an authentic understanding of what, how, and why I feel the way I do. This is necessary for who I am becoming, not least in my work as a writer.

Natalie Goldberg says writers live life twice. I’ve never grasped this fully until the past few months of journal writing. It requires a lot more than just the words of a story.

Over the past year I’ve used Headspace to support mindfulness meditation almost every day. Andy Puddicombe’s guidance is mostly great, although the important 30-day segment on depression seemed superficial went I tried it last winter.

Today I came across an article by Stephanie Tlalka in Greater Good Magazine casting doubt on the merits of mindfulness apps like Headspace. It questions the scientific evidence that they can make you feel better. I don’t wish to disparage a website that has benefited me, but I agree with the concern that such apps may fall short of their claims.

I have a psychological asset: essentially I like myself and want to live this life. When the firestorm became too intense, I asked for help. Depression isolates people, and some might hurt themselves rather than reach out. That’s what’s at stake here.

For healthy people or those who have experienced depression previously and want to become more resilient, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend mindfulness training. And in the long run it may provide hope for people who are suffering now. However, beware of the self-judgment intrinsic to depression. It can quickly become toxic when the pain triggers old coping mechanisms. Even with the self-awareness afforded through a journal, I haven’t navigated alone.

If you are depressed and think mindfulness might help, talk to a trusted, knowledgeable person and make sure you have someone at your back. Likewise, if you think someone close to you might benefit, don’t recommend mindfulness training without ensuring they have adequate support.

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