As a veteran sufferer of depression, despite my young years, I have clocked up more therapy hours than most middle aged Jewish Americans. The gamut of therapies I’ve undertaken- with an oversimplified explanation of each- has included Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (adjusting negative thoughts and keeping yourself busy, involving more paperwork than an annual tax return), Psychodynamic therapy (learning profound, abstract things about yourself that may or may not be true), Cognitive Analytical Therapy (a hybrid entailing learning profound, abstract things about yourself that may or may not be true, involving more paperwork than an annual tax return) and Solution-focussed therapy (where the therapist is trained to ask ‘and what do you need to do in order to make that happen?’ to every utterance you make).
Each form of traditional psychological therapy has its merits, and different people buy more into different approaches. One thing that has clearly emerged, though, is that the main determining factor for the effectiveness of any therapy is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. So to a certain extent it’s kind of irrelevant which form is adopted- you just need a good therapist or at least one who doesn’t remind you of your mother.
One approach that largely manages to circumvent this issue is Mindfulness. Many proponents of mindfulness don’t even like to think of it as a ‘therapy’, and having explored the concept in some depth now, it’s quite clear why. Unlike the above approaches (arguably with at least the partial exception of CBT), a core understanding of the theory and application of mindfulness can be garnered without the need to turn up every week to meet a mental professional for an hour at a time, or in Tory parlance, ‘use up NHS resources’. It can simply be thought of as a brain-training programme- although it’s not currently available on Nintendo DS as far as I’m aware.
So what is mindfulness?
It’s a form of meditation, essentially. If you’re now thinking ‘Ah bloody hell, I was worried he’d say that’ then worry not, I am not currently levitating as I write this; mindfulness, although extracted from Buddhist roots, is by no means necessarily a spiritual instrument (in the religious sense of the word). The cognitive mechanisms underlying the usefulness of mindful techniques have now been identified so clearly as to entirely demystify the concept.
Basically, mindfulness works by introducing a completely novel mindset. It is one we already possess, but lays largely dormant, underused like the calf muscles of a top-heavy body builder, having been overwhelmed by another mode of thinking, overused like the wrist muscles of a teenage boy. The mental process we are so accustomed to is the problem-solving, critical-thinking mode, or in mindfulness vernacular, the Doing mode. It’s a mode we adopt because it is so useful for so many things in our life. For instance, in the simple task of muting the sound on TV, we utilise the doing mode; we have a target- namely avoiding Colin Murray’s MOTD2 nonsense – and engage ourselves in achieving it. The alternative is the Being mode, where we directly experience something without an internal cloud of thoughts completely taking over, analysing, planning, remembering or solving something. If these types of thoughts don’t sound particularly familiar, this is hardly surprising, as they’ve become so automatic for us all that we no longer notice them.
Mindfulness is about cultivating a greater awareness of our surroundings, thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and developing an ability to relate to them directly, and without judgement, so that we gain a greater sense of control over pretty much everything we do. Pretty ambitious right? It really is, and from personal experience, I can tell you it’s a pretty challenging endeavour. I was becoming increasingly stressed through work and study at the beginning of this year and felt the ominous boot of depression gradually strapping up to kick me in the arse, so I bought a book on mindfulness aimed at people dealing with stressful lives (although one thing that has become apparent is that the various forms of mindfulness programmes are essentially the same, just repackaged). The book walks through the compelling theory behind the misuse of the doing mode that we so automatically recruit and end up becoming totally enslaved by, and then goes through an eight week programme using guided meditations from a CD.
The same misguided use of the doing mode applies to when we encounter ‘internal’ problems rather than external, real-life issues. If we start to feel sad, for example, we automatically latch on to the emotion and try to ‘solve’ it. This works for practical problems but actually only serves to exacerbate negative feelings, as rumination or ‘brooding’- which is just internal problem-solving- seeks answers that usually do not exist. They are a mirage, but the mind is so instinctively drawn to the idea of there being a solution to the ‘problem’ of feeling sad, for example, that we get sucked in and end up dwelling for longer. If we’ve experienced long periods of sadness/depression in the past, a series of unhelpful memories and thoughts that relate to the mood are automatically recruited and we slip into the ‘depressed’ neurological groove. Not a good place to be.
So, by learning to see thoughts as mental events that come and go by their own accord if left un-scrutinised, rather than signals that something is wrong that we need to fix, in theory we can prevent such slides into darkness from happening. Now, I’ve been using mindfulness for a while, have fully bought into the theory of the model and believe strongly in the usefulness of its application, but it is fucking hard work. I still ruminate a lot, over-think things and generally allow the automatic pilot of the doing mode to take control even when it’s massively unhelpful. Importantly though, I have genuinely enhanced my awareness and as a result can make better, less reactive decisions, can savour moments with more pure enjoyment and can often stop thoughts from clicking my brain into a depressive groove by simply acknowledging them without taking them too seriously before moving on.
Developing mindfulness takes a hell of a lot of practice, and it can be really quite frustrating at times. Often the doing mode’s natural prominence tells you that sitting still for ten minutes concentrating on your breath when you could be emailing your boss about something really important is just a total waste of time. If you can persist, though, things do start to make sense and in a totally non-cheesy way, it can completely open your eyes in a refreshing, beautiful way. Right, I can see I’ve lost you…
If you fancy looking into an alternative way to deal with stress or depression that actually can work, though, I would highly recommend the two following books: