Mind Matters — Becoming Mindful: Thoughts Are Not Facts

How about some fireside non-fiction reading for winter hibernation?

When Antidepressants Aren’t Enough: Harnessing the Power of Mindfulness to Alleviate Depression by Stuart J. Eisendrath, M.D., would be a good start. This psychiatrist’s antidote to depression taps into the benefits of meditation and mindfulness.

Depression may be fleeting unhappiness or a temporary sadness, but it can also be debilitating, impairing cognitive functioning, concentration, sleep, and eating.

Eisendrath points out an evolutionary hypothesis for depression. It may be that depression has a potential adaptive function. It was found in the study of certain monkeys that when infants were separated from their mothers, the infants adopted what seemed to be a depressive state, curling up in withdrawal. If they gave a little cry and the mother didn’t return, the depressive state continued—perhaps as a means of conserving energy. The researchers considered that the infant monkeys would try to avoid this state by staying close to the mother as much as they could. It was concluded that “the attempt to prevent depressive states from occurring resulted in the enhancement of the drive for attachment of the infant to the mother … avoidance of depression served as an adaptive survival value for the infants, keeping them safely attached and under the protective purview of their mother.”

There are other factors that play into depression too: stress, grief, trauma, genetics, brain circuitry.

Eisendrath also notes that depression is not a one and done thing, but that it can recur. Most importantly, he says, “when depressive episodes hit, … see them for what they are: recurrences .. not personal weakness or moral failure.” He also stresses that depression’s hallmark is negative thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about oneself, and that these negative thoughts are “not facts but symptoms of the depression itself.”

The mindfulness meditation approach to depression is about changing a person’s relationships to negative thoughts and feelings rather than focusing on the origins of the negativity. Carl Jung would say, “we don’t solve our problems, we outgrow them.” So perhaps mindfulness is a tool for outgrowing our problems.

The MBCT—Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy—that Eisendrath outlines differs from cognitive therapy in that it is a noticing and letting go of the negativity and arises with no effort to actively rewrite or refute the negative beliefs (which he re-iterates are not facts).

Basically, mindfulness, as Eisendrath defines it, is becoming aware of experiences in the here and now—sensations, thoughts, feelings—and suspending judgment about them.

There are many guides to mindfulness that are helpful. The focus that Eisendrath provides in using mindfulness to alleviate depression is his abiding message that “our thoughts are not facts.” Remembering this in learning mindfulness meditation can make all the difference in quieting depression.