Depression is the major clinical problem for which people seek therapeutic assistance. Western medicine views depression as an illness, like a cancer consuming the person. Psychiatrists treat it with medication, psychologists with psychotherapy. The Western tradition is to treat clinical symptoms with various cures, in order to remove the offending symptom.
A Buddhist oriented psychology views depression as an experience of profound sadness. Sadness is one of the “afflictive emotions” along with anger, fear, and obsession, which characterize periods of suffering. Depression is a reactive emotion which frames events, and gives them meaning. For example a life disappointment, may be framed as an experience of loss with concomitant feelings of sadness. Rather than see depression as an illness it is seen as a world view, a consuming experience of life that becomes manifest when a person encounters a form of suffering. There is little concern for where the sadness came from or whether it is chemical or psychological. It is what it is and our job is to develop practices which provide reasonable control over the sad moods that are part of our nature. .
WE must develop a lifestyle that balances our natural depressive tendencies with a psycho-physical approach
Exercise: Aerobic Exercise should be the focus of depressive types. A good exercise program should contain cardio-vascular or aerobic exercise, stretching as in yoga or Pilates, and resistence training using weights, pulleys or calisthenics. The proportion of effort devoted to each exercise group varies, but for depressives I recommend that aerobics be the mainstay. Aerobic exercise pumps oxygen and blood through the system, improving mood, and combating the fatigue or lethargy that is part of depression. It also increases certain neurotransmitters in the brain which are associated with elevated mood.
Connect with people. When depressed, people generally withdraw and isolate themselves, Force yourself to connect with people. Join a gym, attend meet-up groups of your interest, Participate in Self -help groups where one speaks about themselves, and gains am empathic understanding of others. Form a connection, which balances for the loneliness which depressive narrative generates.
Avoid the “poor me” position. A natural narrative of depression is to fall into victimhood. We question “Why did this happened to me?”And we tend to ruminate about the external events that led to this depression. Or we dwell on the stigma of being depressed such ruminations deepen the depression. Instead make space for your sadness. Acknowledge that it is there, learn to recognize, feel and focus on the internal mood and cognitive narrative, Rather than identify with the depressive position, observe it as it operatives, without blame or cause.
The famous statesman Winston Churchill faced chronic depression. He called it his “black dog”. Yet he was able to lead England through World War II. He was able to talk and describe his depression while compartmentalizing it and working side by side with it.
Cultivate Compassion: I knew a religious leader who was fired. He desperately tried to find another congregation post. He experienced constant rejection. Finally he had an insight. “Since I cannot help myself, I might as well help others.” He obtained a volunteer job as chaplain, and in a few months he began his own congregation, and shepherded it until he retired.
A common feature with all suffering is the tendency to be self-preoccupied. We naturally turn our attention to us. In fact this likely makes our depression worse. If we turn our attention to the welfare of others, cultivate compassion and empathy, we heal others and ourselves.
Volunteer, reach out to others, do charitable work, do Loving kindness meditations toward others, and cultivate selflessness. Ironically the less we think about ourselves, the more we heal.
Set Goals: I begin my days by setting goals. My goals are not necessarily task oriented; I plan the way I will frame the day’s frustrations. I remind myself not to succumb to my own afflictions, but will let them go and return to problem solving. While my reflex may be a reflexive sadness, I practice letting it go and focusing on what I must accomplish.
Daily such a practice reminds me that depression can exist side-by-side with adequate functioning. Depression has its own space, but it does not impede me.
We train ourselves to be open to our depression but compartmentalize it.