Breaking the Cycle of Depression

Therapy is a big investment of your time, money, and emotion.  It can be hard to figure out when it is time to seek professional help for depression and when self-help can be effective.  If you are suffering with feelings of depression and are unsure of making the commitment to therapy, let me offer some help, based on what I have learned about treating depression over the years.  

 Don't Spend Too Long Thinking About Why You Are Depressed

This may seem like a strange suggestion coming from a therapist, I know.  However, the truth is that the mind's natural quest to understand the origins of a depression can ironically lock-in symptoms of depression, rather than resolve them.  Most often, I see people reach valuable insights about the origins of their depression after the fog of a depression has lifted, not while they are in the midst of it.  


 So what do you do instead of think about it?  

1.  Move your body.  The quickest way out of your mind is through your body.  Research shows exercise to be as effective as antidepressants in combatting depression.  Be gentle with yourself as you begin to move, talk yourself through any movement as you would your most cherished loved one.  Encourage yourself to move in new ways.  This is not time to begin bootcamp; this is not about meeting fitness goals or losing weight.  The only purpose is to break the depressive habit of the mind by moving the body.

2.  Practice Self-Compassion.  Self-Compassion is an attitude of good will towards yourself.  It is a strategy for meeting your depression and pain with warmth and tenderness rather than rejection and loathing.  Nobody is ever effectively bullied or shamed out of a depression by others or by themselves.  Notice how you relate to yourself around your depression?  Are you critical and harsh with yourself about your suffering?  Try handling yourself as you would your best friend, beloved animal or cherished partner instead.  

3.  Reach out to supportive friends, coworkers, spiritual community, or family.  People who have depression are apt to see themselves as burdensome to others and will try to "protect" others from their suffering by keeping silent about the depth of their depression.  The belief that you are a burden is a belief that comes through the distorted lens of depression.  It is not true and it is a dangerous belief because it leads to isolation.  If we spend too long in isolation, we approach despair.  Humans are wired up for social connection; our survival depends on it.  Reach out, ask for help.  You are worth it.

Un-Doing Self-Care

When I was a graduate student at the UT School of Social Work there was a lot of talk about the importance of doing self-care.  We do self-care to prevent burn-out, to be more effective with our clients, to be less reactive in our personal relationships, and to nurture ourselves.   I am a big advocate of self-care with my clients.   My own self-care involves a steady rotation of yoga, good food, plenty of chocolate, a good cup of coffee or tea, a good night of sleep, inspiring movies and books, a date with my husband, a pedicure, walking with a good friend, meditation in my Sangha, a run on a crisp autumnal day, a massage, my own therapy, and acupuncture just to name a few...

When I look over my self-care list, the problem is both obvious and ironic; so much of self-care to do, so little time!  Sometimes, when I catch myself rushing to my meditation group or fighting for the time to "get a run in," or halfway through a chocolate bar that I have eaten and yet somehow not yet tasted, I realize that I am doing self-care.

When I am doing self-care, it's a slippery slope.  Even the most nurturing activity can be used against me.  When I am doing self-care, I can turn something good into something that I am not “doing well," something to “keep up” with, and eventually the same self care that was once restorative becomes something that lacks vitality.  

So, recently I've been thinking less in terms of doing self-care and more in terms of un-doing self-care.   It's a bit like cleaning house and throwing out the stuff that no longer fits.  This un-doing has meant viewing my habits of self-care through fresh eyes and with a warmhearted and caring approach to myself.  I invite you to explore your own practices of self-care with lots of tenderness for yourself, be on the lookout for what has become restrictive, boring or obligatory, and allow self-care to become a way of being, rather than a list for doing.

What is Daring Mindfully?

I am thrilled to announce the launch of Daring Mindfully: A Mindful Approach to Wholehearted Living.  These offerings of workshops, practice groups, and retreats are the flowering of a process of merging my clinical training with my personal and professional practice of mindfulness and self-compassion.  

The work of the Daring Mindfully is about showing up for our whole lives, or to borrow a phrase from Jon Kabat-Zinn, it is about living the “full catastrophe” of our experiences.  The tools I offer are the practices of mindfulness and self-compassion.  These tools help us relate to the everyday joys and struggles of living so that we can stay with both, so that we can engage the experience of living with our whole hearts.  This engagement with both the highs and lows of life is, to me, what it means to be wholehearted.

So why take a Daring Mindfully workshop or a class?  People don’t tend to struggle as much with showing up for the happy parts of life; it’s the difficult moments that challenge us and make us want to turn away from our experiences.  Daring Mindfully provides a clear way to work with the struggle and vulnerability that accompanies an engaged life, so that we don't turn away. Mindfulness and self-compassion techniques help us tolerate uncomfortable states of vulnerability.  These tools help us to wisely respond to the challenges in our lives, rather than becoming reactive to them.  Most of us don’t get good training about how to sustain the vulnerable; we learn to avoid it, numb it, and make self-improvement plans to insulate us from future unpleasant feelings and experiences.  

Daring Mindfully is ultimately about training the mind in order to cultivate a responsive, resilient and open heart--one that is receptive and engaged with both the joys and struggles of life.  


What's it like?

At least once a week, I have someone tell me that they can't imagine how I can bear to listen to other people's problems all week.  I'm always a little thrown by the statement because it's so far from my actual experience.  

Most days my work doesn't feel like work at all and even on days when I am aware of the hard work I am doing in sessions, I still don't feel burdened.  On the contrary, I leave most sessions feeling energized, inspired, humbled, and deeply grateful for what is a shrinking experience in our busy world: the experience of connection and vulnerability.  I get to see the soft underbelly of fear, doubt and insecurity in so many incredibly strong people.  Bearing witness to such vulnerability invokes not repulsion, but tenderness, admiration and care.  Therapy is a two-way process that calls for not just my client's vulnerability but my own.  

My clients are not a burdensome bunch at all, although they usually come to me in the midst of pain and struggle.  I have made it my career to become familiar and comfortable with the inner and outer experience of suffering, so that it doesn't scare me when I see it in others.  I know my way around the landscape of trauma, grief, anger, and depression. With the years of clinical experience, my own inner work, and the practice of mindfulness, I've learned to guide people through their own landscape of suffering and I help them recognize their own doors out.

Maybe Do Less

I took a chance on a new yoga class yesterday with a new teacher.  Now, I am by no means a yogi.  My yoga practice is erratic at best and these days I often resist going to yoga even though I know how great it is for me.  I resist because of my fear. I fear it will be a reminder of just how out of practice I've become.  I fear coming face to face with the rigidity and inflexibility of my body and mind.  Most days, I run instead.  

But yesterday was different, thanks to this teacher and her attitude of play, acceptance, and gentleness.  I do not exaggerate when I say that every 30-90 seconds of the class she dropped one of the following two phrases while we were in the midst of a pose.

"You may want to do less" 

"Maybe do less" 

I don't know how this technique went over with the other folks in the room, but for me the incessant repetition of these two simple phrases was therapy.   Every time she dropped those words, they broke up my struggle to do more, to push myself, to punish myself, to criticize.  My body relaxed and then I found the space within myself I'd been striving so hard for.  It came as a surprise every time.  Over and over again.  Total groundhogs day loop in the yoga studio.  It was lovely.  I find myself hearing her voice throughout the day today whenever I find myself struggling with something, feeling impatient, inadequate or frustrated, which is often!  When I stop and do less, something inside of me opens and stretches wider, ready to receive more; and I am grateful.