Is Mindfulness Enough to Treat Symptoms of Depression?
Lately, we’ve been talking about the benefits of mindfulness. When it works, you’re able to create some distance from the thoughts and feelings that create unhappiness. You can see these feelings as nothing more than passing thoughts, recognize them, and let them pass by. However, for some, mindfulness alone may not be enough to address the symptoms of depression.
Why Isn’t Depression Like Other Feelings?
To explain this, let’s look at an example of a client whose identity I changed to maintain confidentiality. This client struggled with depression and took medication for it. He talked about how it was hard to get up in the mornings and experience the joys of life. I suggested that he see his prescriber to adjust his medication. Once it began to take effect, his outlook changed. He had more energy and motivation.
Usually, when people are depressed, they try to pin their depression on a specific problem, such as a job, their partner, or some personal shortcoming. My client was sure his depression resulted from not trying hard enough to feel better. Once the medication shifted his mood, he realized that he was finding fault with himself because he was depressed.
This is how depression works. When you’re depressed, you think it’s because of your job or your relationship or yourself. When the depression lifts, you see that you felt bad about your job or your relationship or yourself because you were depressed.
Why Can’t Mindfulness Alone Fix Depression?
Mindfulness alone often doesn’t work because, unlike other feelings, depression is a mood that colors the way you feel about everything. Other feelings come and go. I might be meditating and realize that I’m feeling hurt by a friend. I notice that feeling and let it go. If I’m depressed, however, there’s a kind of cloud hanging over all of my feelings. I may let one go, but the next one will be equally distressing. It’s not the individual thoughts and feelings that are making me depressed. Depression is causing me to have negative thoughts and feelings about everything.
It’s as if everything is colored in sepia tones and no light can get in.
How Does this Sepia-Effect Occur?
Depression is created by long-standing patterns of thinking and feeling that often originate early in life. These patterns are usually unconscious. Here’s how these patterns often develop:
1. Many people had parents who were constantly critical of them or who neglected them emotionally. When we’re children, it’s impossible for us to entertain the thought that our parents are treating us badly. We depend on them and it’s too frightening to feel our lives are in the hands of people who want to hurt us. Therefore, we conclude that we must be the ones who are bad. And that, if we can only improve ourselves, the mistreatment will stop. As the British psychoanalyst, Donald Fairbairn famously said, “It’s better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the devil.”
2. We then carry these feelings into our adult lives. We assume that, if we’re feeling bad, it must be because there’s something wrong with us. The feeling that there’s something wrong with us keeps us from finding satisfaction in our lives. We blame ourselves for being inadequate. Often, we blame ourselves for being depressed, as well.
In short, people who struggle with depression are not just struggling with a feeling. They’re struggling with an identity built around the concept that they are flawed or terrible people.
So What’s the Solution for the Symptoms of Depression?
Depression originates in relationships that feel unsafe. Successfully treating the symptoms of depression requires engaging a safe relationship with a therapist who won’t judge or criticize you for your feelings. He or she won’t blame you for your depression. As you feel increasingly safe exploring your thoughts and feelings, the relationship with your therapist can become a kind of template for experiencing yourself and the world in a different way. You’ll be able to see that your depression isn’t a sign that there’s something wrong with you. Instead, it’s the result of unconscious patterns that you developed in order to protect yourself as a child. Depression originated in a relationship and it’s through relationships that depression can be treated.
You’ll be able to see that your depression isn’t a sign that there’s something wrong with you. Instead, it’s the result of unconscious patterns you developed in order to protect yourself as a child. Depression originated in a relationship and it’s through relationships that depression can be treated.
This is why meditation alone is not always enough to treat the symptoms of depression. The way out is through a different kind of relationship– one built on empathy, trust and commitment to helping you feel better. Mindfulness can help, but it’s not a stand-alone solution.
Click here to learn more about depression treatment with Dr. Jane Rubin.
Jane Rubin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California. She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay Area who are struggling with depression and anxiety. She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.