Meditation

Overcoming Depression with Mindful Meditation

These ancient practices offer an effective way to deal with the psychological consequences of the pandemic
BY Pamela Prince Pyle TIMEMarch 2, 2022 PRINT

It was an ordinary office—the couches and chairs were well worn by the patients who came before me. The therapist said, “Take a seat, anywhere you would like.”

My physician mindset thought, “I imagine my choice of chair or couch is already giving insight to this well-respected counselor.” When I mention this, he laughs and tells me “One’s sitting position, body language, and greeting all give me a sense of the comfort of the patient in the room. I want them to be comfortable.”

This was not my first visit to a therapist for the coat of depression I had worn. Most of the time it was light. On this day, however, it weighed on me. He was a new therapist for me but I expected a similar approach to what I’d known from previous therapists. I was wrong.

During this first visit, he began by showing me functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) pictures of control subjects without reported depression and comparison subjects who had depression. I sat up straight in the recliner (yes, I chose the comfy chair close to him). I could not believe the images displayed and the distinct differences of a healthy brain versus one that was trapped in depression. I was intrigued.

He then began to explain that the great majority of those who suffer from depression can be successfully treated through retraining or “re-wiring” how the brain processes negative emotions.

“It is not the negative emotion itself which causes depression. It is the struggle against it which can spiral an individual into negative self-talk, ultimately resulting in a sense of chronic depression,” he said.

I sat back and processed what he said. It was true, I could be having a great day and a fleeting sense of melancholy would occur. I have experienced significant depression in the past which felt as if I had been consumed in a “black hole.” I would then spend time focusing on avoiding that “black hole.” If you have ever had depression or anxiety, I am sure that you can relate.

He switched screens on his computer and said, “This is the good news. These are images after the development of mindfulness practice.”

I sat up again and was amazed at the differences which occurred on these fMRIs. I thought, “But, will this work for me?”

A New Approach

He must have read my mind because he stood up and walked over to the bookshelf. Turning back to me, he said, “I would like for you to read this book. It is called “The Mindful Way Through Depression: Free yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.” Also, there is a companion workbook to the book and part of an eight-week program which I believe will significantly help you. We can meet as you want while you complete it.”

I believe if he had not started with the images, I might not have been so willing to try this process of becoming mindful. I am so thankful he did. I went from skeptic to advocate during this time. It was a summer of change for me and a new way of thinking that benefits me to this day. I continue to share my story with those who suffer from fear, grief, anxiety, and depression. If I share my bruised authentic life, then perhaps I may be able to help others escape these emotions.

Each of these emotions has been exceedingly abundant over the past year and a half as the world grapples with a pandemic caused by a virus. The full impact on emotional health remains to be seen. These secondary effects are compounded by food insecurity, financial concerns, and loneliness. I have labeled this phenomenon, “The COVID-19 Second Pandemic.”

Many mental health care providers have made a rapid transition to phone and computer-based telehealth services. However, I realized the benefit of these services may not be in reach of those who choose not to see a therapist or are unable to do so. Perhaps, individuals suffering from emotional and mental health issues could find comfort in the combination of mindfulness and meditation as I did.

Definitions: Mindfulness and Meditation

  1. Marchand in the World Journal of Radiology describes mindfulness as “the dispassionate, moment-by-moment awareness of sensations, emotions, and thoughts.” The important point to understand is that mindfulness is awareness of a thought or emotion without judging that thought or emotion. While this may seem impossible at first (at least for me it did), it becomes easier with training and practice. Success is linked to practice.

Meditation is not so easily defined, as we recognize that there are many different types of meditation. Cahn & Polich (2006) described it best: “Meditation is used to describe practices that self-regulate the body and mind, thereby affecting mental events by engaging a specific attentional set… the regulation of attention is the central commonality across the many divergent methods.”

When we put together the ideas of mindfulness and meditation we have what Cathy Wong, a former writer for the Verywell Mind, describes as “a mental training practice that teaches you to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, and calm both your mind and body.” The beauty of this practice is that it can be done anywhere and at any time.

Modern Mindfulness

While mindfulness and meditation are ancient practices once revered for their potent ability to transform human consciousness, the modern origins of this methodology began in the 1970s at The University of Massachusetts under the leadership of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Then, the UMASS Center morphed into a program entitled, “The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.” As other universities and programs adopted or built upon Kabat-Zinn’s work, additional studies were performed to reveal significant changes in neurochemistry, neuroimaging, and most importantly quality of life.

As I reflect on this previous time in my mental and emotional health, I can truly say that I was relieved of many of the issues that would periodically present themselves. Rather than perseverate in the brief sense of melancholy, I would recognize it, not struggle against it, and then proceed with what I was doing. I also have added gratitude in my conscious thoughts regularly as it is impossible to feel sad and grateful at the same time.

The workbook associated with “The Mindful Way Through Depression: Free yourself from Chronic Unhappiness” worked for my style of learning. However, there are many resources that may work better for your situation such as mediation apps (Calm has helped me navigate frustrations, stop my racing thoughts and sleep well), podcasts, and websites like www.mindful.org.

Even if you have come through the other side of COVID-19 unscathed, having this tool in your toolbox will one day prove invaluable. In our world, we need as many tools as possible. My hope is that these resources will bring you encouragement and relief as they did for me.

This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.

 

Dr. Pamela Prince Pyle is a board-certified internal medicine physician. In 2009, Dr. Pyle began traveling to Rwanda for medical work with Africa New Life Ministries and was instrumental in the founding and growth of the Dream Medical Center in Kigali. She is the author of A Good Death: Learning to Live Like You Were Dying, coming in 2022. To learn more visit her website www.pamelaprincepyle.com and subscribe for more inspiring posts from a Doctor on Mission.
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