How I Use Mindfulness to Overcome Anxiety and Depression

Mindfulness promotes a non-judgemental approach to life, helping us avoid the pitfalls of cycling thoughts that feed depression.

After completing a course on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), I was better at identifying and challenging negative thoughts but this strategy didn’t work when painful emotions were too overwhelming. I signed up for another weekly course in mindfulness, but found the exercises too awkward and forced. For example, I felt very self-conscious when trying body scans (lying down listening to a voice direct my attention to focus on breathing into various parts of the body) and couldn’t see how this would be able to help me.

I decided the course wasn’t the best fit but I saw potential in mindfulness and followed along the text they had recommended, “The Mindful Way through Depression”, by Mark Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. I  found some exercises in the book to be awkward, but I did my best to give them all a try and in the end I found it to be a great introduction to mindfulness.

Acknowledging Painful Thoughts and Emotions

In the past, I was frustrated with depression and spent much of my energy hating the illness I was caught in. I worried about the thoughts I was having and became more depressed because of them. I dwelt on past mistakes and envisioned my failures in the future. With all that was going on in my mind, I didn’t have the energy to cope with depression and my recovery.

Today, I no longer struggle against my emotions and try not to further worry when feeling depressed. I can’t will myself into feeling better and it’s more helpful to sit with or ride out overwhelming thoughts and emotions, rather than tire myself out challenging them.

This approach goes against my instincts, to work and push myself harder through whatever situation I am in. Learning when not to fight overwhelming thoughts and emotions has made a significant difference in my recovery.

Using Our Senses to Stay in the Present

Another key aspect of mindfulness is using my physical senses to bring me out of my head and into reality. Though this doesn’t necessarily challenge thoughts the way CBT does, the ability to focus my attention elsewhere provides my mind with a break from endless rumination.

I also try to bring a more mindful approach to everyday life. I try to slow down to enjoy meals. I take note of my breathing or heart rate while exercising. I focus on my what’s happening in my environment. Slowly I focus my attention on the present, asking myself questions like the following:

  • Can I feel a soft breeze passing by?
  • How exactly does something taste?
  • What does the ground feel like beneath my feet?
  • What smells can I identify?
  • What sounds can I hear?

Staying in the moment also helps me focus on one task at a time. This helps limit distractions and my urge, when stressed, to multitask and fix everything at once.

Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques

Almost more than our skills and strengths, our ability to manage stress determines how well we are able to handle and perform in all aspects of life. 

When I started working on relaxation techniques, with a psychiatric resident at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) Outpatient Clinic, I was skeptical and self-conscious. I worried about what people would think if they knew I had to do exercises like this. Like other mindfulness exercises, they seemed forced and awkward. I reminded myself though, that people in many professions use similar strategies to help deal with stress. Whether professional athletes, lawyers, teachers or students we can all use relaxation and visualization techniques to calm our nerves. Once I had tried a few exercises, like those below, I had better understanding of what worked for me.

Focused Attention 

I’ve done exercises that focus on repeatedly drawing circles until I’ve drawn one that matches whatever criteria I like. I have done similar exercises in the past to warm up for drawing courses in university but had not thought about them as ways to de-stress.

I also did exercises that focused my attention on drinking a glass of water, exploring the taste in my mouth and the reflections of light in the water. Slowly drinking the water and trying to notice more and more details I would normally overlook.

At first, most of these exercises seem simple and pointless but they helped me practice slowing my thoughts and directing my attention.

I also worked with my resident on deep breathing and visualizations. I found these exercises a little helpful at reducing stress, but I didn’t really understand, until much later, what I was trying to achieve.  The point wasn’t to focus on breathing with the goal of increasing my lung capacity or anything like that, but simply to get out of my head and back into the moment.

Whether I’m playing sports or doing photography, anything I can do to bring myself back to the present and distract myself from overwhelming thoughts helps.

Deep Breathing

  • Breath in for 4 seconds, hold 2-4 seconds, breath out 4 seconds, hold 2-4 seconds. Repeat.
  • Breathing deeply into and expanding my belly (not only my chest).

This helps to lower my heart rate, ensures I’m receiving as much oxygen as I need and gives me something in the present to focus my attention on.

Visualizations

  • I don’t do many specific visualizations, but I often combine this idea with deep breathing. This way I’m focused on both controlling my physical movements and visualizing my lungs inflating and deflating.
  • Sometimes I’ll count my breaths, visualizing the numbers or their representation through a group of shapes (like the arrangement of dots on a die).
  • I’ve also done exercises to visualize myself in calm and relaxing places. I then use my senses to slowly fill in my imagined environment: the sounds, the smells, the feel of the ground beneath me, and what I can see.

Muscle Relaxation

Massaging or focusing on relaxing my muscles can reduce stress in and of itself.

When stressed my muscles are tensed and I carry a lot of stress in my shoulders and back.  Sometimes I also clench my jaw without realizing, straining muscles in my face and neck.  This works both ways though and if I can physically relax it can help to reduce the stress in my mind. Our minds and bodies are endlessly interwoven and working on one or the other helps both.

An exercise I used to do more frequently, started with my feet and focused on relaxing each muscle group moving up my legs, torso, chest, arms, back, shoulders, neck and face. I’d flex each major muscle group as I got to it, then try to relax it completely.

Again combining this sort of exercise with deep breathing and visualization helped to keep me in the present.

Yoga 

Yoga combines body movements with breathing, while strengthening and stretching muscles and ligaments.

Holding yoga poses, that can sometimes be physically uncomfortable, mirrors the basic concept of mindfulness and acknowledging these feelings without trying to change them.

Mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and a more mindful approach to everyday life have been an integral part of my journey to recovery.