We all feel stressed, irritable, exhausted and low at times. This is completely normal. For those of us who suffer from depression, however, what starts as an ordinary bout of low mood can spiral into a full-blown depressive episode.
Depression is a serious medical condition whose effects can be totally debilitating. It can stop us from being able to function. We can find it hard to get out of bed, and may stop going out at all. Our relationships and work can suffer, and loved ones, carers, colleagues and friends may find it difficult to understand and cope with our behaviours and moods. The stigma and misunderstanding about depression make the condition even more problematic, and we may feel they have to hide our condition. We may also feel a deep sense of shame that we can’t just “get over it” or “cheer up” and that we are “weak” and “useless.”
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was developed to help people at risk for recurring depression learn the skills to stay well and to recover. Mindfulness is a mental training technique that teaches us to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, moods and bodily sensations as they are in the present moment so that we can see things as they are they are, and not as we wish them to be. When we pay attention to how we are thinking and feeling right now, we become better at spotting the build up of difficult emotions and thoughts so that we can deal with them more skilfully, instead of just reacting in ways that might not be good for us. We learn that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not facts and we can choose whether to give them power over our minds and hearts. Mindfulness practices include focusing on the breath and body as well as mindful movement and developing greater mindful attention to everyday activities. All of these approaches help us learn to recognise the feelings and patterns of thinking that cause unhappiness. In time they can even help us savour and enjoy all the things that give us pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. With practise, MBCT can help us learn to see more clearly how our minds work and to recognise the signs of oncoming depression, such as fatigue and low mood. This early detection can help nip depression in the bud before a full-blown depressive episode takes hold.
MBCT has proven to be effective and the National Institutes for Clinical Excellence (NICE) now recommends it as a treatment of choice for people with recurrent depression. In fact, studies have shown that for those of us with a history of depression, MBCT is as effective as staying on a maintenance dose of antidepressants, but without the side effects of medication.