Attention, Purpose and Exercise – Antidotes for Depression

Usually, depression is not a mystery. It's a state of mind/body which naturally and often elegantly reflects the circumstances of our life. The death of a loved one. The breakup of a long term relationship. The unexpected loss of our savings in an investment gone wrong. Rejection. Illness. Disappointment. All of this can stimulate a chain of emotions and thoughts characterized by sadness and despair. Our body also mirrors our suffering, often having difficulty sleeping, losing appetite, sex drive, and feeling fatigued. Just getting up from the sofa is experienced as an ordeal.

Depression does not necessarily require a crisis or triggering event. Years of poor diet, unhealthy living and lack of exercise take their toll. Some of us swim in the stress of unreasonable goals and a shortage of time to get things done. Others lack meaningful work and a useful role in the world. For many of us who experience periods of depression, even lengthy periods, the cause is not a mystery. We need not search for childhood trauma or corrupted brain chemistry. We need only examine our lives.

Yet, for some people depression is a most unusual and confounding mystery. I am thinking of the human being who is the model of health, engaged in meaningful and challenging work which he loves, surrounded by a loving and supportive family. Here is a person whose life rests on a solid spiritual foundation, who manages money responsibly, who complains little and expresses gratitude a lot. His life and lifestyle have no visible weak link — like a stone wall with every stone solidly in place — and yet this same being is repeatedly consumed by a mood of hopelessness, emptiness and despair. Here we have depression veiled in mystery, without any natural or visible connection to life. Though such people may be rare, the instances of unexplainable shifts and changes in our feelings are not. Have you ever awakened to the new day and found yourself feeling somewhat more happy and optimistic about things than you were when you went to bed? Yet the circumstances of your life are no different now than they were last night. Have you ever awakened and found yourself feeling somewhat down or even depressed though at bedtime you were feeling fine? One moment mystery, one moment not-mystery. So perhaps we can conclude that depression is not a mystery and, also, that it is.

Responding to Depression
Whether your depression is mysterious or not there are things you can do (and not do) that are likely to influence how you feel. There are also things you can do that will help you "live through" the feelings without your life collapsing. Many of these strategies are simple and make sense to us when we're not depressed. When we are depressed we forget them or our efforts to apply them give way to the quagmire of gloom which weighs us down. Yet it is those very moments in which depression is upon us, that we have the opportunity to learn a new way of responding to it. Even one small success gives us a foundation for doing something different.

A. Begin working with your attention.
Imagine that your attention is a flashlight. You can either shine it on yourself — your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and problems — or you can shine it on the world around you.

Depression goes hand in hand with self- focused attention. Watch a depressed person walking down the street and they often have their head slightly down and their mind's eye focused inward on feelings and thoughts. In fact, even when we're not depressed we often "live in our head" much of the time. Once we recognize this, we can begin working with our attention so we notice more of what's going on around us. Colors become more brilliant. The shapes of leaves on trees intrigue us. Architecture. Shadows in the late afternoon against the backdrop of day lilies. Even a sleazy character in a poorly lit parking garage gets noticed when we are looking around. And when we are awed by a crimson sunset or humored by a comedy routine we're… not depressed.

Consider this: You're only depressed when you're paying attention to your depression. Depression, like other feelings, isn't usually an all day affair. It's more of a moment-to-moment experience. More moments of noticing that means less moments of noticing this. And "this" may include feelings of depression. Broaden your attention, deepen your attention, and shift your attention to the world around you, the world beyond your own skin.

B. Find some meaningful purpose for living — one day at a time.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl spent several years in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. His profound story is told in the book, Mans' Search for Meaning. Through the daily horror of camp life there were people who gave up and people who did not. The survivors nearly always had some purpose for surviving-a purpose beyond themselves. For one person it was a child waiting in a foreign country. For another, it was a spouse who might still be alive in a different camp. For Frankl himself, it included rewriting the manuscript of his book which had been destroyed when he was taken prisoner.

When Frankl counseled depressed patients he saw the change that would take place when they became involved in some meaningful activity. He stated, "whenever I succeeded in persuading the patients to volunteer in youth organizations, adult education, public libraries and the like-in other words, as soon as they could fill their abundant free time with some sort of unpaid but meaningful activity — their depression disappeared…." C. Begin an exercise program.

When it comes to depression, psychologist Keith Johnsgard believes that strenuous exercise "is your very own virtually cost-free, self-administered, guaranteed intervention."

Study after study shows the dramatic effect exercise has on mental health, and specifically on combating depression. Many of these studies compare depressed individuals who begin an exercise program with those in relaxation and/or psychotherapy programs. In most cases the exercise group fares at least as well as psychotherapy, and in several studies exercise turns out to be more effective than psychotherapy when follow-up studies are done years later. Exercise may not only help to relieve the feelings of depression, but actually help prevent it as indicated in a 1988 study which indicated that a low level of exercise activity in non-depressed white women often predicted the onset of depression as much as 8 years later.

And in the meantime . . .
Most of us are quite pleased to feel happy, but hate feeling depressed. This seems quite reasonable, but it becomes a problem when our intolerance of unpleasant feelings turns into resistance. The energy we put into "I don't want to feel this way" is a good strategy for fueling the exact feeling we wish would go away. The alternative is to accept the feeling and simply co-exist with it for a while.

This was the approach recommended by Japanese Psychiatrist Shoma Morita (1874-1938), the founder of Morita Therapy. The key is not to allow the feeling to assume control of your life but rather to allow it to tag along while you continue to live your life. "Let's go, depression — it's time to go jogging." Or "excuse me depression, but would you like to join me in the garden while I pull some weeds." This type of response to depression takes much of the "punch" out of it. The strategy is similar to the approach used in many martial arts — don't try to defeat your opponent by attacking him directly, particularly if he's stronger. Instead, use the strength of his attack to defeat him. So, I'm suggesting a kind of martial arts strategy for responding to depression. It takes practice, but after a few successes you'll find that it's much less painful than an all out war and it has the advantage of allowing you to make progress during periods when you were previously immobilized.

These are seven strategies that can help you respond more effectively to depression. They're not easy and developing skill will take some time and effort. But you'll find that most of these strategies will benefit you in other areas of your life: a healthier body, more intimate relationships, and a closer connection between your spiritual beliefs and your daily life. And many of these same strategies will be helpful in dealing with other unpleasant feeling states — like anxiety, anger, shyness and fear. Sometimes they can hit you all at once. Then the whole group of you can jog down to the local restaurant for a healthy meal. They won't like that. They may even get mad and go somewhere else. Oh well.

Gregg Krech is one of the leading authorities on Japanese Psychology in North America and is the founding Director of the ToDo Institute, a Resource Center for Purposeful Living in Vermont. He is the author of the award-winning book: Naikan: Gratitude, Grace & the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection and the editor of Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living. Gregg has designed and delivered programs for diverse audiences around the globe for the past 20 years. His work has been featured in a wide range of publications including the SUN magazine, SELF, Utne Reader, Fitness, Counseling Today, and Experience Life.

– ToDo Institute homepage