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Mindfulness can be useful in coping with anxiety

The effects of COVID-19 have rippled out far beyond the illness it causes. It has impacted the economy and changed our daily lives, ushering in new anxieties and increasing depressive thoughts.

Anxiety disorders and depression are both illnesses a portion of the population deal with on a regular basis and for those people this has possibly been even more devastating and may be putting them into a place of mental overwhelm. However even for those who are not prone to anxiety and depression they may be starting to experience symptoms of one or both of these mental illnesses as well, as we move into the second year of living under the stress of a pandemic.

The term “mental illness” has long carried with it a stigma. And it is vital that we all do our part in working to eliminate that and offer love and support to those dealing with any type of mental illness. Rather an illness is mental or physical is irrelevant to the fact that a person suffering from either needs help.

Often times, people who have not dealt with or ever been aware enough of their inner mental state to realize they may be dealing with or have dealt with anxiety or depression can inadvertently say damaging things to someone dealing with either of these illnesses.

Depression and anxiety disorders not only feel overwhelming to the people diagnosed with them, but can also feel overwhelming to family members, friends, or coworkers of the people closest to them. This can lead to confusion and misunderstandings of how to help. Even the advice they may offer in an effort to help may be incredibly damaging to the person suffering.

Saying things like, “just get over it, positive think your way out of it, suck it up, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or pray it away,” will not actually help the person in any way and may cause them to withdraw even more and limit their possibilities of getting treatment. This is why it is so important to be cautious what it is offered to others and be better educated as to what anxiety disorders and depression really are and how they actually affect a person’s brain.

Dr. Stuart Eisendrath wrote a book titled, “When Antidepressants Aren’t Enough: Harnessing the Power of Mindfulness to Alleviate Depression.” He says people in depressive states are stuck in damaging and painful thought loops of negative feedback and that when a person is stuck in those thought loops it can be so difficult to find their way out of the circular thinking. Eisendrath uses his book to talk about additional treatments for those patients who are not finding remission through an antidepressant medication alone.

Eisendrath is a psychiatrist who cares for patients with depressive disorders. He leads groups in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to treat depression and anxiety. He was the UCSF Depression Center’s founding director.

In an interview with New World Library about his new book he said, “Often times people believe their negative depressive thoughts are unique to them, thoughts such as, I will always be a failure, I won’t be as good as my friend, I am poor at everything and everything turns our bad for me.”

He shares that those thoughts are symptoms of depression which itself generates the negative thoughts. He encourages his readers and patients to realize the thoughts are not truth.

This is where the mindfulness practice can help. Mindfulness involves being present in each moment with whatever is arising and allowing it space and simply being curious about your thoughts, feelings, and emotions instead of grasping onto them or reacting strongly to them. Mindfulness helps a person learn to respond to emotions not react to them. Reactions are usually what lead to more negative outcomes, such as an outburst of angry words in response to the emotions of having someone challenge something you believe is right.

Mindfulness is effective in helping everyone, depressed or not. But for people dealing with depression or anxiety they may benefit from developing a different relationship with their depression or anxiety and learning the process of recognizing when thoughts simply are not the truth. Mindfulness cultivates awareness of what is happening in one’s mind and thought life and how that compares to their outer experiences.

Here is a simple test to try. For 21 days set a timer to go off every hour and when it goes off stop what you are doing and drop into the moment and ask yourself what you are doing. Once you have established what you are actually doing in that moment then ask yourself if your thoughts and emotions match the present moment facts. It is incredibly revealing and can really help to retrain the brain to stay present.

Mindfulness is not about mind control. The objective is not to control or judge thoughts or make them disappear but to simple observe them and give them space and stay grounded in the present moment, in what is happening right in front of you.

Feelings of depression and anxiety are oftentimes not able to be felt in the present moment since they are coming from ruminations on the past or projections into the future.

Rather a person is dealing with mild anxiety or depression or suffering from more serious forms of either there is hope and there is help.

Mindfulness can be a key part of accepting things in our lives as it involves recognizing the underlying thoughts of depression and anxiety and staying present and focused on the truths and facts in our daily lives. Things are often much better in reality than they appear in a severely depressed persons mind.

If someone has not experienced anxiety and depression, it is still important to be educated about the effects of them and be mindful and kind when interacting with those who are dealing with them. Because it is possible the majority of people will experience one or both at different times throughout their life. For those currently experiencing anxiety or depression please seek help.

Eisendrath said, “Depression is not a personal failure or something to be embarrassed about. It is an illness like any other and a person can do something to treat it. They do not have to be helpless and that in itself is an antidepressant. Because one of the thoughts that you have in depression is I am helpless to do anything about it and I am hopeless that anybody can help me.”

For those experiencing those types of feelings there are so many helpful resources. Start with talking to your Dr. and consider giving mindfulness a try. Try an app like Calm, Ten Percent Happier or Headspace. There is also the option of seeking out a mindfulness teacher. Another great way to learn more about these issues is to listen to podcasts that help educate and offer good advice for managing anxiety or depression. A few examples include The One You Feed with Eric Zimmer/Wondery, Unlocking Us with Brene’ Brown, Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris. There of course many more to discover. Another helpful resource is cdc.gov for those wondering if they are dealing with depression there is a helpful list of symptoms to help determine what type of help one may need to seek.

Eisendrath said, “The trap of depression is the person often thinks they will act once they feel better it’s actually the other way around, they will feel better once they act.”

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Sarah Hurlburt is a certified meditation and mindfulness teacher. She is continuing her education in mindfulness-base stress reduction.

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