“Embracing depression”. To many people, this title may seem shocking. Isn’t depression the very thing we are trying to get rid of? The idea of embracing depression may seem counter-intuitive, yet it can actually help us move past it. Struggle is an unavoidable part of the human experience. By learning to accept it and to recognize that it is not the only part, we can move forward and live our lives to the fullest.
Suffering is a part of life!
Suffering is a natural part of our lives, one that can neither be avoided nor ignored. Denying it is not only unrealistic, it also denies an important part of the human experience. Humans evolved in a world filled with threats. Our ancestors constantly needed to remain vigilant in order to avoid predators and confront the natural elements. In response, our brains developed expertise at identifying, analyzing, and neutralizing potential risks.
Our physical reaction to perceived threats involves mobilizing reserved energy for a “fight or flight” response. If the threat persists, this mobilization of energy gives way to a conservation of energy. In other words, the body attempts to preserve energy to continue counteracting the threat. This conservation of energy can manifest itself as a lack of motivation, low mood, and other physical symptoms often associated with depression. Even though many of us don’t live in situations where our survival is challenged on a daily basis, we rely on the same mental mechanisms to identify, analyze, and solve problems.
This ability to tackle threats arguably makes humans the most advanced species on earth. However, it also has a downside. It makes us more vulnerable to psychological threats such as financial pressure, academic or professional pressure, relationship difficulties, and even environmental issues. With the increasing pressures of daily life, human beings are becoming more and more stressed. Unlike physical threats, these psychological threats are more difficult to remove. Thus, the risk of developing depression is also rising. Correspondingly, in recent years, we have seen an overall increase in mental health issues, and overall decreases in life satisfaction and happiness.
Happiness is a Choice!
Even though suffering is a natural part of life, this does not mean we should allow it to take over our lives. There is a popular thought experiment in which a speaker draws a dot on a piece of white paper and asks the audience to say what they see. “A black dot” is the most common answer. However, many people don’t notice the piece of paper the dot is on until the speaker points it out.
People affected by depression often exhibit a similar fixation. They tend to zoom in and focus on the aspects of life that cause them to feel depressed, and to perceive the world through a depressed lens. This leads them to develop behavioral patterns that reinforce isolation and idleness. Eventually, this perpetuates a “vicious cycle”, in which people become more and more focused on their suffering, and more and more depressed. To get out of this cycle, it all comes down to a choice: the choice to feel helpless and stuck in the cycle, or the choice to accept our suffering and try to overcome it.
Accepting and Committing!
We can’t eliminate suffering from our lives by fixating on it. Rather, focusing on suffering can make us unable to enjoy other aspects of life, such as love, family, and the simple satisfaction of being alive. However, by accepting suffering as a natural part of our lives, we can learn to free our minds from the “vicious cycle” and to live our lives to the fullest. To accept suffering is to commit to a life of mindfulness.
The concept of mindfulness originally came from Eastern traditions, and from Buddhism in particular. Today, mindfulness is defined as a non-judgmental, moment to moment awareness of our inner states.
There are three aspects of mindfulness which can help us accept and move past suffering. First is the ability to actively direct and redirect our attention. This can allow us to shift our attention from trying to “solve” suffering, and refocus our attention on the positive aspects of living. Second is living in the “here and now”. Our mind is often trapped in ruminating over the past or worrying about the future, yet we only live in the present. In order to enjoy our lives, we need to redirect our mind to the present moment. Third is being non-judgmental. Our tendency to evaluate our experiences often causes us to expend unnecessary mental effort, and clouds our perception with biased expectations. Letting go of the need to judge is an essential step towards becoming mindful. The journey to mindfulness can take many forms, yet all require committed practice. Just like a muscle, reshaping our mental mechanisms takes time and effort, but it pays off. Adopting mindful practices can lead us to a new way of living and seeing the world. By using mindfulness to embrace everything that life offers, including depression, we can move past suffering and allow ourselves to feel happy again.
Of course, there are many ways to treat depression and reduce suffering. Mindfulness is one strategy that can support a full mental health care plan. Consult medical and/or therapy professionals with your mental health concerns.
If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to, Lifeline Shanghai is available in English from 10:00 am – 10:00 pm every day. Call 400 821 1215 or visit www.lifeline-shanghai.com for live chat and WeChat support details.
For support in Chinese, the Psychological National Line can be reached at 12320 and Hopeline is 400 161 9995.