People who have been depressed for a long time often ask me, “How can I make my life feel better?”
Nobody likes to suffer. There is a sense of desperate longing to get away from the emotional pain. Long term depression signals that major changes are needed. Sometimes we need to change in ways that we’re not ready to or that we can’t yet imagine.
Moving out of depression is a process of learning – learning more about the problems we’re having as well as learning what the smallest steps are that we can take right now to create a better experience.
Notice a Pleasant Event, No Matter How Small
Regardless of how heavy we get, there are usually brief moments when the blues lift slightly. You have to study your experience to notice them. It might be the moment when you take your first sip of coffee in the morning; or when you put your head down for a nap.
Maybe it’s a moment when you notice something in nature, a sunset, the scent of a flower. One way to begin moving out of depression is to notice those moments and amplify them.
Be Mindful of Pleasant Moments
Amplify the moment by being mindful of it. Bring your attention to what you’re noticing. Take several deep, long breaths. Let go of anything else that is on your mind. Just be in the moment. Let your senses fill with the tastes, smells, and sensations of the moment.
Notice even the smallest shift in your mood for that moment. Stay with this for two to three minutes. Repeat as often as you can, throughout the day.
Create a Little “Island of Pleasure” in the Midst of a Sea of Unhappiness
Depression is caused in part by keeping our focus on painful issues of the past and on poor expectations of the future. The past is entirely out of your control – which is one reason why it’s so painful to think about it. The future is shaped by your actions and attitude in the present moment.
When we create a little island of pleasure, we are learning to exert a positive influence for our own sake, in the present. We deliberately draw our attention to something pleasurable to distract from the serious and complex issues that are causing so much pain. It gives us a little rest from the distress. Such moments become little islands of pleasure in the midst of an unhappy sea.
Make a Meal into an Island of Pleasure
When I was in my twenties, I was going through one of many very dark, deep, heavy depressions that I’d experienced since childhood.
My mother recommended that I make a date with myself, at least once a week, to sit down to dinner with the table nicely set. We’d always had candle-lit dinners growing up, so she emphasized lighting a candle.
Do It Even Though You Don’t Feel Like It
It was very, very hard to follow her advice. I didn’t feel like doing anything nice for myself. The thing is, when you are depressed, your brain can only give you depressing impulses. If you wait to feel better before you do something different, you’re going to be waiting a very long time.
Push yourself, even though it feels like walking through mud. Plan a menu, buy the groceries – make the meal happen. It’s fine to grumble all the way through the experience. Just do it! And make a date with yourself to do it again, on a regular basis.
Set the Table as if a Guest Were Coming
…Make it as pleasant as you can. Place mats? Napkins? Candles? Flowers? If you don’t have any of those items, improvise. But don’t camp out, with your plate on your lap, sitting on the couch in front of the TV. If nothing else, buy a candle and sit down to a candle-lit dinner. Be present to yourself. This is for YOU.
Soak in the Good Feelings
Once you’re at your meal, breathe deeply and slowly as you indulge your taste buds. Bring to your mind all the sensory data you notice about the experience: the taste, smell, texture, sound, and sight of what’s in front of you.
By bringing your full attention into this moment of pleasure and really soaking it in, you will give yourself a reprieve from the weight of the depression.
Note: if you don’t like the meal, don’t give up – promise to improve on it next time.
Small Moments Lead to Big Changes
As we’ve often heard, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
These moments of pleasure won’t solve all your problems. But research suggests that over time, as you focus on the good feelings, they will have a cumulative effect on your mood.
By focusing on small things that make you feel better, even for a moment, you give your brain a chance to develop neural pathways that “hold” the good feelings. At the same time you will interrupt the flow of distress, including the mental activity that keeps you focused on your pain. Those moments of relief, even slight, can bring insight and energy for deeper change.
I wish you the strength and discipline to do this practice and get moving toward a relaxed and hopeful frame of mind.