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For the unbearable weight of depression

Unsplash/Eric Ward
Unsplash/Eric Ward

It was an ordinary office. The couches and chairs were well-worn by the patients who came before me. The therapist said, “Take a seat, anywhere you would like.”

My physician mindset thought, “I imagine my choice of couch or chair is already giving insight to this well-respected counselor.” When I mention this, he laughs. “Well, sitting position, body language, greeting, they all give me a sense of the comfort of the patient in the room. I want them to be comfortable.”

This was not my first visit to a therapist for the yoke of depression I had worn. Most of the time it was light, however, on this day, it was quite heavy. He was a new therapist for me and although I expected a similar approach to working through my issue at hand, I was wrong.

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During that first visit, he began by showing me Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of control subjects without reported depression in comparison to subjects who had depression. I sat up straight in the recliner (yes, I chose the comfy chair close to him). I could not believe the images he displayed and the distinct differences between a healthy brain versus one that was trapped in depression. I was intrigued.

He then began to explain that the great majority of those who suffer from depression can be successfully treated through retraining or “re-wiring” how the brain processes negative emotions. He said, “It is not the negative emotion itself that causes depression. It is the struggle against it which can spiral an individual into negative self-talk, ultimately resulting in a sense of chronic depression.”

I sat back and processed what he said. It was true, I could be having a great day and a fleeting sense of melancholy would occur. I have experienced significant depression in the past, which felt as if I was consumed by a black hole. In turn, I would then spend time focusing on avoiding this black hole. If you have ever had depression or anxiety, I am sure you can relate.

Shortly after, he switched screens on his computer and said, “This is the good news. These are images after development of a mindfulness practice.”

I sat up again, amazed at the clear differences on these fMRIs. I thought, “But, will this work for me?”

He must have read my mind because he abruptly stood up and walked over to the bookshelf. Turning back to me, he said, “I would like for you to read this book. It is called The Mindful Way Through Depression.1 Also, there is a companion workbook and part of an eight-week program which I believe will significantly help you. We can meet as you want while you complete it.”

Looking back on my experience, I believe if he had not started with the distinct imagery, I probably would not have been so willing to try a new process of becoming mindful. I cannot express how grateful I am that he did. I went from a strong skeptic to an advocate during this short time.

For me, it became a summer of change and I began to adopt a new way of thinking that benefits me still to this day. I continue to share my story with those who suffer from fear, grief, anxiety, and depression because of this. I thought, and still do, that if I share my bruised authentic life, then perhaps, I may be able to help in another’s bruised authentic life.

Mindfulness is described as “the dispassionate, moment-by-moment awareness of sensations, emotions and thoughts”.2  The importance of understanding mindfulness is key. It is the awareness of emotion and the ability to refrain from associating a corresponding judgment with this emotion. However, while this may seem impossible at first (at least for me it did), it becomes easier with training and practice.

Christians can view mindfulness through experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to pray without ceasing. He is describing mindfulness and that with the lens of God’s Grace, we no longer need to judge our thoughts.

On the other hand, meditation is not so easily defined because there are many different types. Cahn & Polich (2006) described it best: “Meditation is used to describe practices that self-regulate the body and mind, thereby affecting mental events by engaging a specific attentional set ... regulation of attention is the central commonality across the many divergent methods”3

I consider my times of meditation as opportunities for hearing from rather than speaking to God. My prayer life has changed because I am no longer doing most of the talking. Wouldn’t you rather that be the case when you consider who is talking most in this particular conversation? God knows our broken hearts and minds. He wants us to know His thoughts about them.

The workbook associated with The Mindful Way Through Depression: Free yourself from Chronic Unhappiness worked for my style of learning. However, there are many resources that may work better for your style of learning. A classic book is The Practice of the Presence of God in Modern English5. First written 300 years ago in French, its timeless message remains applicable. In today’s world, smartphone apps exist in this genre without a focus on Eastern Philosophies. I can recommend the following apps:

  • Reflect: Christian Mindfulness
  • Recenter with Christ — Christian Meditation
  • Centering Prayer
  • Smiling Mind
  • Mindfulness Coach

As I reflect on this time during my mental and emotional health journey, I can truly say that I was relieved of many of the issues that would periodically present themselves. Rather than perseverate in the brief sense of melancholy, I would recognize it, not struggle against it, and then proceed with what I was doing. I intentionally look to God’s creation for something beautiful. It is surprising how many seemingly ordinary objects are, in fact, drenched with beauty.

1. Williams, J. M. G, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness., 2007. Print. 

2.  Marchand, William R. “Neural mechanisms of mindfulness and meditation: Evidence from neuroimaging studies.” World journal of radiology vol. 6,7 (2014): 471-9. doi:10.4329/wjr. v6.i7.471

3. Cahn, B. Rael; Polich, John (2006). "Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies".Psychological Bulletin.132(2): 180–211.doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.2.180.PMID16536641.

4. Lawrence, B., & Davis, M. (2013). The Practice of the Presence of God in Modern English. Marshall Davis. 

Dr. Pamela Prince Pyle is a Board-Certified Internal Medicine physician who studied at Oklahoma State University, North Texas Health Science Center, and completed her training at Baylor University in Houston. She was one of three physicians selected in 1992 by Carolina Health Specialists (CHS) to begin the first hospital-based internal medicine practice outside of a university setting in the United States.

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