For nearly two decades, Dr. Stuart Eisendrath has been researching and teaching the therapeutic effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) on people experiencing clinical depression. His work has helped 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 proved in a National Institutes of Health study to bring relief to chronic sufferers of depression by helping them realize that their thoughts are not reality. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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A meditation teacher at a well-known meditation center had suffered from occasional depression. He described the walking meditation that he was doing outside in front of the meditation center’s main building. He would walk back and forth, paying attention to the sensations he was experiencing in his lower limbs from his feet to his hips as he walked. When his mind wandered, he would notice the wandering and bring his attention back to the lower limbs. At the time that he was doing this, a highly esteemed lama from Tibet was visiting the meditation center. As the teacher was walking back and forth, he happened to look up and see the lama watching him from the second-story window.
The teacher continued walking back and forth, glancing up regularly to see if the lama was still in the window. The lama continued to watch as the teacher carried out his walking meditation. The teacher began to wonder what he was doing wrong: “Why is he so concerned with me? What am I failing at?” Finally, after the forty-five-minute meditation session ended, the teacher went inside and up to the second floor to see the lama. He discovered that he had not been seeing the lama at all, but rather a coatrack that he had misinterpreted from the ground as being the lama looking out at him and finding fault with the way he was doing his meditation.
You see, even the most experienced meditator can create a false story to explain his perceptions! This is what our minds do. They create stories. This helps us feel secure that we understand what is happening in the world around us, and it can be very useful at times. The trouble is, for those of us with depressive disorders it is very likely that our stories will be negative and not an accurate reflection of reality.
Do you notice how you often choose a movie that is just like ones you have seen before? You may be drawn to dramas, action films, romances, comedies, or thrillers. In real life, we also tend to create stories that follow familiar themes. For example, in depression we may expect that someone will betray or reject us. We may imagine we will be found to be defective. We have a tendency to operate as if the theme that we selected is real and forget that we have brought our own theme to the party. Similarly, we may interact with colleagues or romantic partners as if they were figures based on old movies with familiar plots without realizing we wrote those dramas ourselves!
A forty-five-year-old man in one of my groups talked about the fact that he was never able to find a satisfactory romantic partner. He always felt betrayed by the women he became involved with. He also told a story from his teen years when he was in the kitchen with his stepfather and mother during an argument. His stepfather struck him in the face and knocked him to the floor. His mother walked out of the room and did not return for several hours. The man never got over feeling betrayed by his mother.
As he became more mindful, he began to see alternate explanations for his mother’s behavior in this story he had carried with him into his adult relationships. Perhaps his mother had been trying to cool off the situation by leaving (there was no further violence). Perhaps she was so frightened for herself that she could not tolerate being in the room. Whatever the facts of the case were, the story line of betrayal that he had carried for many years was only one of several possibilities. As he began to look back at his relationships with women, he could see other possibilities besides the perceived betrayals as well.
Another client, a thirty-five-year-old woman, often felt sure that she was going to be rejected in her relationships with men. She would expect this and, even shortly after meeting them, would react as if the rejection had already occurred. As she began practicing mindfulness, she came to realize that the idea that she was being rejected was not a fact or an eventuality, but just a thought, one that stemmed from the disappointment she had experienced as a teenager in her first serious relationship. This became evident to her as she developed new relationships and compared her automatic thought to a more decentered view of what might be happening. For example, when she was out on a date and her date checked his watch, it might be because he wanted to know the time and not because he was bored with her.
You might think of your stream of negative thoughts as similar to a television with the horror channel always on. The input from this channel has a way of coloring all your experience. But realizing it is the depression channel and that there are other options you can change to can be liberating. It requires courage to make the change, because the original channel may be rooted much earlier in life; it is so familiar. In fact, you may not be able to change the channel, but mindfulness offers you the opportunity to change your relationship to the channel. The same shows may be playing, but you don’t have to pay as much attention to them. They can be relegated to the background, so that unpleasant thoughts do not have to occupy center stage in your life.
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Stuart Eisendrath, MD, is the author of When Antidepressants Aren’t Enough and the founding director of the University of California San Francisco Depression Center. Visit him online at www.stuarteisendrath.com.
Excerpted from the book When Antidepressants Aren’t Enough. Copyright © 2019 by Stuart J. Eisendrath.