An excerpt from When Antidepressants Aren’t Enough by Dr. Stuart Eisendrath
Seventeen years ago, Dr. Stuart Eisendrath piloted research into the therapeutic effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) on people experiencing clinical depression. Ever since, he has been helping those who struggle with depression dramatically improve their symptoms and quality of life by changing how they relate to their thoughts and feelings.
In When Antidepressants Aren’t Enough: Harnessing the Power of Mindfulness to Alleviate Depression, Dr. Eisendrath outlines an easy-to-implement MBCT program that has been scientifically proven in a National Institute of Health study to bring relief to chronic sufferers of depression by helping them realize that their thoughts are not their reality. We hope you’ll enjoy this except from the book.
The key element is that thoughts are not facts, even the ones that seem most compelling — perhaps the most compelling are even farther removed from the truth than other thoughts. If you can notice that your thoughts are just thoughts, passing mental events, they no longer hold compelling power over your responses.
The way the mind functions tends to remind me of a good friend I had growing up.
Don was a great guy with a big heart who would do anything for a friend. However, his behavior exhibited a pattern of prevarication and exaggeration. Everyone in our circle of friends knew this pattern was part of his behavior. In fact, if someone said something that seemed unbelievable, we’d joke, “Who told you that? Don?”
In many ways your mind is like Don. It has a lot of good features, but it prevaricates pretty regularly. It may not know it’s prevaricating, but it is doing so nonetheless. In fact, the ideas it puts forth most definitively are the most likely to be false.
Take the example of Tom, who was getting angry at a colleague who didn’t return an email. His mind was telling him quite strongly that he was being mistreated or rejected, but as we’ve seen, there are other options if you take a more mindful perspective.
Perhaps the email had gone into a spam folder, and in that case no response occurred because the colleague had never viewed the email. Perhaps the colleague had been so overwhelmed by current life problems that she simply could not get to a response. Perhaps she just did not notice the email.
As Tom began to view the possibilities from a wider perspective, his emotions shifted dramatically.
He realized that his thoughts about the email were just thoughts and that he really did not have much in the way of facts to shed light on his email experience. Although he had been so upset by the seeming lack of response that he considered cutting off all future communications with his colleague, he now realized that, had he continued to believe his initial thought, it could have ended disastrously.
Instead, he reconnected with the person he had sent the email to and felt particularly good about doing so after he learned that she had been having trouble with her computer.
The skill you learn through mindfulness is to observe your mind without getting involved with it. Try to recognize your mind as it thinks. Say, “Ah! There’s my mind playing depression stories” or “Ah! There’s my mind forecasting catastrophes.”
As you become proficient at observing these processes, don’t expect that your mind will stop generating negative thoughts or feelings — minds tend to have their own biases, just like the news reports from certain television networks. You are just trying to change your relationship to your thoughts, to hold them more lightly. Remember, just because the thoughts are there doesn’t mean you have to pay attention or be compelled to act because of them.
Sometimes our negative thoughts can be comforting, particularly because many of them are so familiar and often arose for the first time with important people in our lives. But if a thought produces an unpleasant sensation, it is most likely your mind not being your friend.
In one of the mindfulness classes we taught at UCSF, we were having a potluck to celebrate the end of the eight-week class. Before starting in on the treats, however, we had everyone lie on the floor on yoga mats, so we could do a body scan.
One woman illustrated the tendency of the mind’s voice to generate critical thoughts. She described lying down for the body-scan meditation and noticed that she smelled something with a strong odor. Her first thought was, “I think my feet smell. Maybe this will disturb other people.”
Then she went on to describe what happened next: “Before jumping onto the embarrassment train, I noticed I was lying near the table that had cheese on it that somebody had brought. Not accepting my first thought as a fact allowed me to realize that it was not my feet at all! The experience was the same — it was a smell, just a smell — but I labeled it initially as my smelly feet. When I obtained distance from that thought, I could perceive the truth of the situation.”