That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. — Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation
Think about the last time you were in physical pain. Maybe it was a sprained ankle, a migraine, or even a major surgery. Now, consider whether you could think about anything but the pain. Could you pry your thoughts away for more than a few seconds? Probably not.
Now imagine the moment the pain ended. Or lessened. What did you feel? Relief? Joy? Euphoria? What if you had no idea when the pain was going to end? What if that broken bone was never going to heal? Would you stop hoping for or even imagining a future free from pain?
This is what happens with depression. There is nothing to be seen for miles except the slow creep of excruciating time. You cannot see the end. You cannot see the beginning. There is only now — and now feels infinite.
This is why mindfulness can be helpful in the fight against depression. To be mindful, by definition, means that you anchor your thoughts and your consciousness in the present. You try, even for a few moments, not to think of the future or the past. Over time, mindfulness can help build resilience and provide tools for coping.
Is practicing mindfulness a cure-all? Of course not. But it can help. It’s helped me. Here are some resources and strategies I use to stay focused and find moments of peace.
Also called box breathing, this technique helps calm the fight or flight response. In square breathing, you breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and repeat as many times as you want.
The technique works by allowing a buildup of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, ultimately stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (also called the “rest and digest” system) which produces feelings of calm and relaxation in the body.
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)
I read a piece by Tom Kuegler a while back and decided to watch the ASMR video he linked to.
If you’ve never heard of ASMR before, prepare to scoff. I did. And then I tried it. So what is this strange phenomenon with its ridiculous name and strange videos featuring pickle-crunching whisperers?
I Googled ASMR videos and found thousands of results. Most videos feature sounds such as tapping, crunching, white noise, etc. and suggest listening with earbuds. The same “triggers” don’t always work for everyone and the effect of one trigger can decrease over time. I experienced varying results depending on the sounds in the videos.
While not everyone responds, the result for many is an almost instantaneous feeling of tingling in the scalp and skin, and an overall sense of calm. I can’t explain it and neither can science — yet. A handful of studies in the medical community have been done and more are underway.
I’ve been meditating for years. It’s easy, takes just a few minutes, and has helped me with both anxiety and depression. As with many things, it also takes practice. When I started, there were many times when, no matter what I did, I just couldn’t get my mind to settle down. Then I tried guided meditation, which gave my brain something to focus on.
Guided meditations that focus on the breath have helped me the most. Paying attention to our breath is something we don’t normally do and yet it’s always there — giving life, sustaining life, and, if we let it, calming us.
I also listen to meditations specifically for depression and anxiety, mainly focused on mindfulness. The app I use almost exclusively is Insight Timer, but there are others that are just as good.
Sometimes, I think, we forget that we have bodies — which probably sounds strange, but when you’re so focused on the anguish within your mind, it’s hard to give our bodies the care they need.
When I’m feeling anxious, running is my best medicine to work off the physical symptoms. When I’m depressed though? The last thing I can take on is that kind of physical exertion. (Going for a walk is sometimes a major accomplishment.) So I adapt — but I try not to lose the habit of doing something active.
Another benefit of movement, particularly if you’re doing something strenuous, is that it wrenches your focus away from your thoughts. It’s hard to worry about whether my writing is any good, for example, when I’m a sweaty, panting mess leaving every bit of anxiety on the late summer sidewalk.
None of this is rocket science, but what it does take is practice. To form a habit, you’ve got to practice often and keep practicing — which can be tough when your motivation is already low.
Be gentle with yourself. There is nothing easy about living with depression and anxiety, but you can certainly cultivate habits to make the road a bit smoother.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. All statements in this article reflect my personal experience with depression.