Most of us welcome sadness and pain about as much as a root canal — without Novocaine. They’re uncomfortable, unpleasant, and just no fun at all, but let’s face it, negative emotions are an unavoidable part of life. When coupled with all the other things life throws at us, they can often lead to depression.
Depression is a complex, episodic, and recurring illness with a basis in brain neurochemicals and thought patterns with many other contributing factors such as life events, environment, biochemicals, and heredity. When someone is in the grips of depression, getting well is only half of the battle. Staying well is the other half.
When a person is depressed, upsetting feelings are part of the condition. When someone has recovered from a depressive episode and is just going about their normal life, negative emotions are part of that normal life. A beloved pet dies. A good friend moves away. The company downsizes and eliminates their job. Challenging experiences can and do happen at any time to any of us. Emotions over normal life events can be the trigger that starts a downward spiral leading somebody back into depression.
With negative emotions comprising part of the universal experience of being human, there’s no way people can avoid them, nor is it healthy to even try. However, people can learn to work with and develop a different relationship to their emotions, which helps maintain mental balance and prevent depression.
You do this through the practice of mindfulness.
What Exactly Is Mindfulness?
Being mindful means being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening without judgment. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as:
The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.
There are many different philosophies of mindfulness, but the basic elements that most include are:
- Becoming aware of perceptions, thoughts, feelings and remaining present with them, even when they’re unpleasant or painful.
- Observing your inner experience without reaction or judgment.
- Turning off your autopilot and consciously choosing thoughts and actions with awareness.
- Naming, describing or labeling your feelings with words.
A study by the University of Arizona found the five key benefits of mindfulness to be:
- It strengthened immune system and physiological responses to stress and negative emotions.
- It improved social relationships with family and strangers.
- It reduced stress, depression, and anxiety and increased well-being and happiness.
- It increased openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness and reduced negative associations with neuroticism.
- It led to greater psychological mindfulness, which included an awareness that is clear, nonconceptual, and flexible; a practical stance toward reality; and present attention to the individual’s consciousness and awareness.
Using mindfulness to cope with negative emotions is a skill that can be learned through Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and requires a person to acknowledge their feelings and notice their thoughts about them. When sadness shows up, MBCT asks them to stay present with and explore the emotion rather than worry about it, distract themselves, try to make it go away, or deal with it in some other habitual, unhealthy way.
MBCT combines ideas from cognitive therapy with meditative and mindfulness practices but doesn’t require that you meditate or burn incense. It’s a pragmatic mental health tool in which a person changes their relationship to their emotions, learns to regulate them, and harnesses their attention for self-care. When distressing emotions arise, a person anchors themselves in the present experience, so that the wave of negative feelings doesn’t knock them down or bring up a flood of bad memories and associations.
Research showed that MBCT reduced depression relapse by 43%. It also enhanced people’s ability to feel reward and positive emotions. One aspect of depression for many individuals is the inability to feel positive emotions. MBCT physically alters brain patterns and gives a person coping skills to use as they move forward through the muck and mire of life.
Don’t Let Depression Do The Thinking
Mindfulness allows people to access what’s been called “the present-moment pathway,” which involves and activates the brain’s insula and thalamus, among other parts. The thalamus is integral to sensory processing and plays a role in consciousness. The prune sized insulas, one in each hemisphere of your brain, are believed to be crucial to consciousness, feelings and emotions, and the regulation of the body’s homeostasis, the process that maintains the stability of your internal environment in response to external changes.
Studies determined that as the present moment pathway was activated more through mindfulness, activity in the executive control network decreases. The executive control network is the part of the brain that recognizes negative emotion and thinks about it. As the executive control network kicks in and revs up, a person’s brain is going to see the upsetting emotion as a threat, try to problem solve it, and want to do something to fix it, as it dredges up sad memories and associations.
When people trained in mindfulness activate their present moment pathways in response to negative emotions and limit their thinking about troubling feelings, it reduces the feelings, increases their tolerance for emotional pain, and boosts empathy and self-compassion. This, then, allows them to consciously choose a response rather than reacting to the sadness in the old ways that previously led to depression.
Mindfulness builds a person’s inner resources for working through and with upsetting emotions instead of sinking into depression. Also, it physically alters a person’s brain to reinforce and entrench mental strength. Mindfulness becomes less of a coping tool and becomes part of a happier, healthier way of life.
Please take the time to watch this TED talk by one of the founder’s of MBCT, Zindel Segal: