Interrupting Depression

Sona Dimidjian
March 4, 2022

“I am just so weary,” said my friend, an educator who works with hundreds of high school students each week. “Actually, weary doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.”

She is not alone.

Here in my community in Boulder, Colorado,  as we look from the winter months to the promise of spring, people are still reckoning with the aftermath of the Marshall Fire environmental tragedy that destroyed over 1,000 homes just before New Year’s Eve. We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the King Soopers shooting, when ten people were killed while working and picking up groceries on a Monday afternoon.

And of course, beyond our local community, the challenges of the last two years of the pandemic have taken a toll, as has witnessing and experiencing continued inequality and oppression in this country in the face of energized movements for racial justice, and now, watching Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and the fragile nature of peace in our world. 

Weariness makes good sense. It’s the body’s way of saying, “This is too much. It is just too much.”  This is the body’s way of calling for gentleness and kindness, pausing and resting, allowing time to absorb and recover.

And yet, for many of us who have histories of feeling down, anxious or stressed, it’s exactly in these moments of weariness in the body that the mind goes into overdrive.  Negative, critical, and pessimistic thoughts begin to spread. Emotions of sadness, overwhelm, perhaps even moments of despair, often follow.

Pioneering work by my friend Zindel Segal focused on these “automatic thoughts,” which are common during times of depression.  For example: “My life is a mess,” “I feel like I’m up against the world.” “What’s wrong with me?” Zindel’s research found that these thoughts can be re-activated even when people are no longer depressed, simply by asking people to listen to sad music or recall sad times in their lives. It’s like those negative automatic thoughts are lying dormant, until our context becomes challenging enough, and we find ourselves thrust back in their grip.

The good news is that we have the capacity to work with these negative automatic thoughts in ways that can protect our hearts, minds, and bodies.

Attention is a superpower that we all possess, and it can help us against these negative automatic thoughts. My own research shows that strengthening our attention through mindfulness practice has direct and important impacts on mental health. In one study, pregnant and postpartum women who learned mindfulness were significantly protected from depression’s return compared to women who didn’t learn it. Why? Because mindfulness helps us notice negative automatic thoughts before they spread.  And that noticing – just becoming aware of what is happening – can help protect us from feeling down and can help us to act with kindness and gentleness at precisely those times when we are weary and the world around us continues to be challenging.

As Ten Percent Weekly readers know, practicing mindfulness doesn’t need to be lengthy or complicated, which is especially important when all you feel is weary. In fact, many people find great benefit from just a few minutes of practice.  For example, the three-minute breathing space is a core practice of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and the Mindful Mood Balance program, which has been demonstrated to help prevent depression and improve mood among thousands of people around the world. Zindel and I developed an online program specifically to support people in learning it.  And of course, there are many short mindfulness practices in the Ten Percent app.

Sometimes, though, even three minutes feels too long. In those moments, you can try just taking a few mindful breaths and reconnecting with sensations in the body. Place your hand on your belly to help anchor your attention. Your mind might be in the grip of negative automatic thoughts and you might be weary or anxious. You might find that it’s challenging to pay attention.  Know you are not alone. It’s OK. Invite the physical sensations of breathing in and breathing out to be an ally and an anchor to the present moment.  This simple act can be a building block as you learn to connect with your body, hold difficult thoughts and emotions in a wider perspective, and care for yourself during trying times.

Dr. Sona Dimidjian is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and the director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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