The dark mood I described in my most recent post lasted through the week. On the weekend, I awoke both days still weighed down by a mysterious heaviness that made it hard to think clearly. But both days, this leaden cloud lifted in the afternoon, something it hadn’t done earlier in the week.
Then on Monday, and again today, I was okay again. I woke up and could breathe. My thoughts slowed down and became clearer. Phew, survived another cycle.
I’ve had a lot of these cycles, and lately they seem to come and go faster than they used to. I’ve always compared it to a light switch flipping on or off, something out of my control. But I wonder. Is there something I do that either promotes or could interrupt the cycle?
I’ve been reading The Depression Book by Cheri Huber, a Zen Buddhist teacher. She argues that depression is something we do to ourselves. (I know, indignation was my first reaction too. I don’t do depression to myself! I don’t want this! You aren’t a psychologist; what do you know anyway?)
But instead of flinging the book across the room, I kept reading, I suppose because I already liked what she said about embracing yourself and your depression compassionately. So I learned that (in her view, at least), depression always follows the same pattern:
We feel some sensation.
We think or believe something about that sensation.
We attach emotions to it.
We repeat a conditioned behavior.
So, for example, I feel the heaviness on my chest and notice that my thinking has become faster but more chaotic; also “I’m so bad” thoughts seem to pop up out of nowhere.
This sets off a set of thoughts and beliefs I have learned over time: I’m sliding into another depressive cycle again. This is going to mean a week or more of misery. This keeps happening over and over, and it’s probably going to happen my entire life.
Those beliefs link to an emotional reaction. Oh no! I don’t like this. I’m afraid it will never stop. I’m afraid depression is making me waste my life.
And that moves me into a conditioned response behavior, usually some version of avoidance or escape, she says. For example, I quit my job (not clear though that it was escapism rather than a healthy departure from an unhealthy work environment). Or I want a drink–or in my case, more likely I want to burn myself. Or I think about suicide, imagining it as a relief. Or I stay in bed all day.
She says we do this sequence with everything, not just depression. We have sensations that don’t vary, we connect them to thoughts and beliefs that don’t vary, which prompt emotional reactions that don’t vary, triggering impulses to behave a certain way.
Huber doesn’t say this is BAD. (After all, ,she’s all about No Judgment.) Instead, she says, pay attention. Pay attention, get in the present moment, and become an authority on your own depression. Get all the information you can, and decide for yourself what helps you.
I could say “Okay, right, I have been in therapy for maybe 13 or 14 years, off and on. I have read about depression and treatments. I take meds, blah blah blah, I do what you suggest and so what? Still depressed.”
But then I think: what about all the things I know about and don’t do? I exercise sometimes, but lately not much. I eat very healthy food some of the time, and some of the time I don’t care. I meditate regularly but tend to stop when I feel the worst. I know yoga helps me, but I haven’t been able to establish a regular schedule of going to classes, even though my schedule is now quite flexible. I am kinder to myself than I used to be, but I heard that message for many, many years before it started to sink in.
I’m thinking now that I could do more for myself. This is not to scold myself for previous behavior. I did what I could manage then. Furthermore, I didn’t use to be able to identify sensations in my body or examine my own thoughts without judgment, skills which have developed a lot this year. So maybe it was impossible to do more earlier, maybe not; I can’t know what an alternative past might have looked like for me.
But here in the present, I can wonder if it’s possible to interrupt the sensation – thought/belief – emotion – impulse to act sequence. Maybe I can identify the sensations and approach them with curiosity and kindness, instead of making assumptions about what will happen next and allowing fear to guide me. It makes some sense that this might help me, so it’s worth experimenting with. After all, it’s not like the same-old, same-old sequence has worked all that well for me, has it?