In addition to the array of external adjustments that can make a difference, there is an equally diverse set of inner shifts that appear to make a significant difference in catalyzing emotional healing.
In the last section, we considered many external shifts that people consistently speak of making in their lives—from diet, exercise and physical activity, to adjustments in physical environment, schedule, and stress level. Here, we go inside to explore many internal shifts that people talk about making as part of their journey to healing. Although more elusive to describe, they are in no way less challenging or real in their tangible effects on mood.
Note: Although some kind of inner change is likely relevant to all the healing stories sampled here, we draw below on themes from 40 of the 77 accounts where participants spoke most prominently about the role these internal shifts played (2, 4, 6, 11, 21, 25, 32, 34, 36, 38, 43, 44, 46, 47, 50, 53, 59, 65, 69, 71, 72, 73, 75, 77, 78, 80, 81, 82, 88, 89, 92, 93, 96, 98, 100, 101, 102, 103, 105, 109).
Mental Diet, Mental Exercise, and Mental Rest
The importance of physical diet, exercise, and rest is clearly illustrated by healing narratives—while also receiving a great deal of attention in society today. Far less attention typically goes to mental diet, exercise and rest. Yet we see the importance of this other “big three” showing up in the same narratives of depression healing.
Refining mental content. For instance, it’s common to hear people reflecting on the mental health benefits of cutting back on negative (fearful or angry) media. As Mendek reflected, “Not that long ago, people weren’t flooded with information about the world or bombarded with advice about everything they should or shouldn’t be doing. Now, even when I turn off the news, I still feel distress in the air.” (44) That seems to be an observation more and more people are having, and these people decided to do something about it:
- Jada spoke of more generally bringing greater attention to “what I watch on TV, what music I listen to.” (78)
- Mark said, “I’ve found that steering clear of the anger and acrimony so abundant on the internet helps avoid a negativity that can trigger a depressive mood.” (6)
- Johann reported, “I changed my own environment, so I’m not surrounded by triggers that get me thinking about things that depress me—I’ve radically cut back on social media, I’ve stopped watching any TV with advertising.” (21)
- And Crystal said: “I even found that the morning or evening news was nothing but bad news, so I decided to cut it out. I’m not trying to live in denial or avoid real life, but for a season my recovery was more important. Plus, I found that major news stories have a way of reaching you regardless of whether or not you soaked in all of the other stories of scandal, murder, theft, loss, politics, arguments and riots. Sometimes it is beneficial to know that there are good things going on in the world, despite the brokenness.” (82)
Much of this is simply becoming aware of how different things around us can influence how we feel.
As with physical diet, more is needed than simply cutting back on the negative. Others emphasized the impact of taking in more positive content– aligning their mental/emotional intake with deeper values. For instance, Matt said:
As soon as I was aware of all the mental and emotional content that was like sludge in my body and mind, I started to be more choosy about what I watched on TV, what kind of books I read, who I hung out with because I had a really clear sense of how it was affecting me. And my relationships changed, and my relationship with literature changed, and the way I interacted with media, internet, things like that changed a lot.
He then explained the rippling effects this change had:
And that influenced my sleeping cycle. And I started to rest more; and I realized I felt really good when I exercised. And I realized that as I was more comfortable in my body…I noticed what foods made me feel good and what foods made me feel sick. And so I talk about my story in terms of this domino effect that started with this tiny bit of awareness, that started with being still and taking account of what was going on. This awareness then shone into different parts of my life, and I just knew what needed to be changed. (11)
Crystal described “a newfound awe and confidence” that came from reading every word of the Bible—admitting “it’s incredible to me that so few have read the book” where God “shows us His heart, plans, and instructions for how we are supposed to live.” (82) As part of his positive fuel, Robert spoke of turning to “the Psalms” while also finding “hope in films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Blazing Saddles.” (89)
The impact of what we’re exploring here goes beyond media diet to the actual people around us. One person described the importance of “surround[ing] yourself with positive people” and “cut[ting] off negative ties” (99) Danny spoke of being surrounded by the “wrong” people—and the impact of being surrounded by the “right” people. (98)
Enhancing mental activity. It’s not always explicitly positive media that people describe. Sometimes just positive mental activity makes a difference. For instance, Julie said, “I’m quilting again regularly” (71) Another spoke of “forcing myself to keep busy hands/mind by coloring in coloring books (you can even get nicer ones for adults, which help), reading novels, listening to audiobooks”—all of which helped in “distracting from my illness, stopping my mind from racing and ruminating.” (2) Another spoke of cultivating simple hobbies, journaling, and even spending time with a baby (99) as making a difference. And Marsha spoke of the impact of expanding her mind by going to college (43)—and another woman simply by taking a class on new approaches to healing, “which was insightful.” (77)
Elsewhere, I described the story of a man whose involvement in exploring his family history gradually eroded his despair and depression to the point it was non-existent. (19) In addition to the impact of a sense of connection—without being physically present to ancestors—this kind of work also seems to reflect a healthy place to consistently focus one’s mind in another direction.
Sarah described how filling life with positives helped with reducing alcohol dependence, as well as boosting mood: “I knew it wasn’t enough to say no to the alcohol; I needed things to say yes to.” (36)
Prioritizing mental rest. All this positive mental activity and improved mental diet does clear good for mental health. But something more is needed—something deeper than all the stimulation. Thomas described a moment where:
I just stopped, and just sat still, kind of like I’m doing right now, and I just closed my eyes. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. My focus was not taking more stuff in, not seeking more stimulation—but to just really, be in my own experience. When I did that, I was stunned at how immediately I was able to see into something that felt much more primary to me than my feelings, than my thoughts, than my beliefs, than my experience, than my memory. It was this…essence that I felt that I was really contacting and steeping in. It was an awareness beneath the din of thought and feeling. On one pole, there was total disaster, total chaos. I was as broken and beat up as I felt, emotionally, mentally. Things were a wreck. And yet, simultaneously, in that same moment, I observed this deep stillness, this profound calm, this restful quality of being okay, being sustained and supported in the moment. (11)
Many others spoke of similar experiences and emotional benefits:
- David described “using mindfulness and meditation to help me relax and achieve peacefulness in my life.” (59)
- “She taught me how to do meditation, and she demonstrated the connection between my mind and my body.” (88)
- Johann said, “I used techniques like meditation to be more calm.” (21)
- Julie said, “We started off with energy work and breathing exercises.” (71)
- Vicki said, “I have a daily regime of meditation, a sitting practice of meditation, which is the absolute core foundation practice for me. It helps me relate to what arises in my mind, and in my heart and my body, with a healthy regard.” (12)
- Marsha said, “The idea of meditation is to observe your mind, not what thoughts emerge. Observing without analyzing is the essence of meditation. I needed a place for quiet contemplation… I took a blanket, laid it on the grass, lay down in the sun and let go completely of thoughts.” (43)
“The beauty in meditation” Jonathan added, “lies for me in that, in its purest form, it creates breaks or gaps in your thought or feeling process. It creates a time out of your ever-persistent internal chatter; a break from yourself or a while.” He added that some of these breathing techniques “can help us create gaps in thought patterns, that can then, in turn, help to reset our feelings into a more tranquil state.” (96)
The impact of more silence, stillness and “mental rest” was significant for many individuals who found healing. One woman acknowledged that “the more I meditate, the less I want to drink. I don’t enjoy showing up on the cushion with a hangover. The contrast is striking.” Another person said:
It was in these moments of peace, during meditation, that I’d address everything and understand the problems I had. In that understanding I finally started to heal. Meditation opened a side of myself I had shut away. It was the side of me that could process my past on an emotionally mature level. It was in the moments I’d close my eyes, and tune out the noise to relax, that I’d finally sense something different about myself. I started to change; I started to grow. My level of emotional and mental well-being increased significantly. It was in those moments I’d have conversations with myself about what I knew was right in the world, right with me, even. I no longer had to listen to how others viewed me, because how I viewed myself meant more in the end. (26)
Juanita described her time with depression as “filled with deep silence,” yet discovering that “the silence too is a significant gift.” As she continued, “The extensive time in silence has revealed so much to me. I have been given time to be with things” and helping her “break down the tough issues in my heart.” (47)
Stillness itself can be a gateway to an awareness deeper than current sensations and emotions. As this same woman added:
In the stillness I am conscious; I am awake to my being. I know this may sound far-fetched, but I can sense myself beyond my body, my form; here I know that I am presence, energy, life, and light, and I am surrounded by love. (47)
Being Here, Even If It’s Hard
More than simply resting the mind, people who have found healing speak about the power of staying present in the moment, resting in a place beneath thoughts, feelings, and the chaos of life. (Note: this may seem a bit contradictory to the idea of presence—easy to interpret “beneath thoughts, feelings, and the chaos of life” as some kind of escape rather than simple presence. But it’s not—as will be explained as you keep reading).
Running away from what is here. It’s understandable in a distracting modern world, that many struggles to be present were apparent. Mendel spoke of his struggle to be present to his life when he was struggling: “Whenever I tied my shoelaces, my mind was occupied with something else. While I ate dinner, my mind was in another world. When I walked down the street, my mind was elsewhere. My mind was even distracted while I was making love.” He continued:
Constant engagement with my thoughts prevented me from experiencing full contact with life. I couldn’t enjoy the sweetness, security, and spontaneity that come with being truly united with the world around me. Instead of leading me toward peace, my mind continually led me away from the source of my being, toward loneliness and despair. (44)
Another man who struggled with rumination as a frequent trigger to worsening moods said something similar about this tendency as a form of avoidance:
We don’t realize that rumination—this process of thinking, thinking, thinking about our problems—it’s actually a form of resistance to the problem itself. We’re afraid to engage with the actual problem, just open up to it and see what’s going on with it—so we put up this barrier, we build this wall of defense—and that thinking becomes a problem in and of itself. Whatever your primary problem was, that is now side-lined, and what’s taking up the majority of your moment to moment experience is a lot of thinking itself. We’re primarily involved now in our thought process, and we’re not engaged with what was initially painful, what was initially causing the problem.
This struggle to be present is only compounded when people are hurting badly. It’s common to see an acknowledgment at how much people want to run away from their life—reflecting an “anything but here” attitude. As Crystal said:
At my lowest, the stench of hopelessness lingered in my soul. Much of the past years had been marked by an intense craving to escape. I didn’t really care where I would escape to, but figured anywhere would be better than where I was….that always seemed to be the case, wherever I was. [But] it wasn’t the job, the people or the place…As it turns out, you can’t get away from yourself, no matter how fast or far you run. (82)
Others spoke of a tempting “impulse to escape,” and condemning everything they knew and “get away from the life that had become an unhelpful normal for me.” Yet as this individual, Mark, went on to reflect, “’It’s not supposed to be this way’ holds us back. It’s a rigid way of thinking that collapses all possibility. It’s a judgment based more on what we want than on what is.”
He admitted that it’s how she felt when she was “on the bridge” and suicidal. (25)
Feeling like a robot. A number of people spoke of going through life feeling numb, robotic and not really there. As Juanita said:
I reflected on how often I felt as though I was just going through the motions of life. I felt empty inside, as though nothing about my life was filling me up, filling up the essential self. I was busy but not always present; so many things I did were by rote. Too many of my days before the crash felt like the mechanical wind-up bunny on the battery commercial just going through the motions beating my lil’ drum. (47)
Mendek said, “Although it felt as if I was constantly having fresh experiences, more often than not, I was thinking, feeling, and reacting to those experiences in predictable ways, as if I was on autopilot.” Realizing that his “mind’s behavior was automatic, keeping me trapped in a deep-rooted cycle of fear and pain.” Even though he had made great efforts to change this, “my old and unhappy script kept repeating itself, with no end in sight.” (44)
The power of presence. Practicing presence through intentional silence and stillness was reported as helpful. In the silence, Juanita said, “I experience no demands, no competing thoughts.” And by “marinating in the silence,” she describes coming away “poignantly aware of the deep transformation that the silence is working in me.” (47) As Thomas elaborated:
I was really heartened by the fact that it didn’t take a lifetime of training on the misty mountain tops of China to see this stuff. It was as simple as sitting in a chair and being willing to look at what was really going on. And I realized that aside from all the problems, aside from all the agitation—or maybe you could even say beneath all the problems and agitation, there was a sense that I was just aware. I was just aware of awareness. I was aware that I was aware. And there was something so calming about that to me—there was something so pristine about it—it was prior to any problem that I could ever experience. Even though I got pulled back into problems a thousand more times, a million more times, I knew that beneath that din, beneath that activity of problems coming up in my life, there was just something in awareness holding it. (11)
Others also spoke of finding stillness in small, everyday moments. As William recounted:
I found that a slow, warm, and quiet breakfast is the single most influential factor on how I will feel throughout the day. To this day, I get up early enough to not have to rush in the morning. I take in the sunlight by standing at the window for a few minutes, before sitting down to have breakfast. I don’t check my phone or emails during this time. I get into this mindful state where I’m just grateful for being able to have a roof over my head, warm and healthy food, and a cup of tea. I take the time to appreciate the food, the quietude…not allowing myself to think about any problems I have during this time. I will have time to deal with them later. I am simply present in the moment. This entire breakfast routine lasts for about 30-60 minutes. (100)
Mendek suggested that “Presence is where peace lives,” explaining: “It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. Nothing is too small or unimportant. Making oatmeal is my meditation. Folding laundry is my meditation. Mending holes in my socks is my meditation.” He elaborated:
I try to do only one thing at a time and never rush. I live deliberately and appreciate everything—a child’s laugher, the texture of a rose petal, clouds floating across the moon in the night sky. I pay attention from the moment I open my eyes in the morning and gaze out of my window at the beautiful mountains. I stay present as I get up, put on my clothes, and walk downstairs to the kitchen to make hot cereal for breakfast. I put water in the pot, add oatmeal when it begins to boil, and stir it every so often as it cooks. When my breakfast is ready, I sit in a chair and eat slowly, right from the pot—and in that moment, I don’t do anything but eat. I look at my food and enjoy the smell, texture, and taste of it. (44)
Directing the mind. Presence is wonderful and enjoyable when we’re talking about breakfast, rose gardens, or romance. But the idea of bringing more attention to hard things doesn’t quite make as much sense—especially when we tend to be absorbed in those anyway. As Thomas put it:
We’re kind of wired to focus on problems—there can be so many things right with me, and yet my awareness darts back to that little cough, and that tickle in my throat a thousand times a day. And because my awareness is flowing in that direction, it creates this experience of feeling like things are not okay. All I experience today is just, ‘I’m getting sick, I’m getting the flu.’ I think with mental health, there is a very similar analogy in mental health, where we tend to identify with the mess; we tend to become absorbed by the mess. (11)
We’ve got these amazing brains that are beautiful at mapping the terrain around us and detecting danger. And when something’s going wrong in ourselves, maybe emotional problems, maybe mental problems, our brains naturally go to that. It’s not just a mental or emotional problem that your brain detects, it might be that you’re bleeding or in mortal danger and your brain is telling you that. We tend to focus in on these problems, and that’s not a bad thing. But if we focus on them so reflexively, and so automatically, that our experience is that after being awake all day and at the time we’re ready to go to bed we had 50,000 thoughts, and 45,000 of those thoughts were flowing in the direction of, ‘I just feel depressed, I can hardly breathe I’m so depressed, it feels like I’m suffocating, I don’t like my job, I don’t really have any close friends who understand me.’ (11)
In this place, we can naturally miss all the good things in our life—including good thoughts. As another person reflected:
Thoughts are like a group of puppies, all clamoring for attention, all wagging their tails ready to be stroked and fussed. If your focus has been on the naughty ones that have been ripping up the sofa and doing their number twos on your nice new carpet, then it’s hardly a surprise that the good ones in the corner hardly get a look in.
Against our tendency to focus on the negative, Thomas continued, “ if I just stop for a moment, and redirect [my attention] I realize all these things going right.”
Jonathan spoke of learning to “agree with any good thoughts and bask in any good feelings that come your way, for however short a period.” This can include reflecting on past times that are “beautiful and filled with laughs and joy; these are the ones that deserve our attention, not memories that fill us with darkness and fear.” He also spoke of e looking forward, “Glimpsing a future that is as happy as it can be and stepping into that narrative in your mind…That’s where your focus needs to be.” (96)
Jonathan then clarified, “what you are doing here is not a fantasy of who you would like to be. What we are doing here is creating some inspiration outside of perhaps what you are capable of right now” (96)—or as one person put it simply, “visualize your dreams.” (99)
In addition to “believing that things can and will get better,” Jonathan encourages people to be “non-committal with negative thoughts on your future/past/present”—something she calls a “little Jedi mind trick” learned from nomadic Tibetan monks that she calls “believing in better.” (96)
Redirection is not coercion. And he added, just as we ought not to fixate on negative thoughts, “The trick is not to try and force positive thoughts, but to let them drift in and say with all your heart and soul—I agree! I want that life!”
Instead of over-focusing and “put[ting] too much emphasis” on the current feeling, this is about “let[ting] yourself feel how you feel.” As Jonathan added, “Remember that you feeling happy won’t last, but that’s ok! It will, one day, float back into your life if you just step back and let it.” (96)
Small joys. Closely connected to being with what is, then, is recognizing the beauty and goodness of the current reality—noticing the gems we often overlook. Robert spoke of having “regained the experience of small pleasures.” (89) Matt went on to reflect, “Success is finding packets of joy in experiences large and small, obvious and hidden, each day. Tucked away in every day are reasons to rejoice in being alive…Sometimes I have to pull the blinders of depression off to see it.” (6)
As a way to increase the salience of these positives, especially during hard moments, this man went on to recount:
For difficult days, I store up and treasure little notes, cards, letters, and photographs that come—commendations large and small that describe positive influences of my life, work, and relationships. These are my memorabilia against depression. When doubts assail me, sometimes just opening the file cabinet and seeing that growing file folder there helps; other times, I retrieve and read a few. Reassurances have repeatedly been sent by way of these notes, and the “divine coincidence” of their timely arrival in my precise moment of doubt and need is astounding. (6)
Mendel said, “I practiced thinking about things that made me feel cheerful every hour on the hour. …it took less than a minute each time, but it helped me shift my awareness to the positive.” (44) This kind of intentional feeding and affirming of the positive is something others have found helpful—exploring ways to “turn negative self-talk to positive affirmations.” (4) In another account, a set of affirmations were used specific to what was going on in someone’s body physically symptomatically. That’s what Juanita wrote on an index card and on her mirror in the bathroom. These included, “I love, accept and approve of myself. I trust the process of life. I am safe!” She even put them to a song to make them easier to remember. (47) One woman said, “I listened to a lot of podcasts and read a lot of books, to learn how to control my mind set, and to put me in a positive frame of mind.” (77)
Danny spoke of becoming aware of “having too many negative thoughts and not enough positive thoughts.” (98) Given her habit of “operat[ing] out of fear,” Melissa spoke of learning to be “deliberate about turning negativity into positivity to derive meaning.” (38) Mark reflected on the impact of “shifting focus. Just like how, sometimes, I’d forget the stars and instead look only at the empty black spaces between them.” (25)
To assist his mental shift, Kristian remarked that “techniques from positive psychology” were helpful from his experience to “change focus to the bright spots of your life.” (93)
This kind of relishing can include even mundane and challenging moments. The man who loved his oatmeal also spoke of his new grandson, saying, “I treasure every moment with him. I stay present as we crawl through his plastic toy tunnel, dig holes in the sand, and even when he cries inconsolably.” (44)
A prioritizing of the positive doesn’t mean pain doesn’t still come. The same man admitted, “Of course, there are still times when I feel sad and wonder why, but then I consciously return to the present moment. As soon as I stop worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, I can reconnect to the wisdom that resides within me. Once again, I am able to access a deep trust and find happiness in the little, everyday moments of my life.” Mendek concluded:
When I am fully present, there’s a shift in my frequency that enables me to access a new way of seeing the world. My old energy is washed away and replaced by a new energy…a state of grace in which barriers of thought melt away and peace becomes endless…I welcome each day as a glorious adventure, and I know simply being alive is magical. (44)
As Jonathan said, “this magical path to Utopia, the yellow brick road that we all seek,” well, maybe “you’re already on it.” Instead of appreciating this journey you’re on, he added, “you just stopped looking. You got lost on the way, overtaken by thoughts of the tiger that’s following you, the storm that’s brewing in the distance, and the sounds you don’t recognize in the air. Alas, you forgot the beauty in the flowers that already grow under your feet.” (96) Ashley said, “My life is complete and there is nothing I need in order to be happy. It’s all in front of me.” (75)
This kind of positivity and gratitude can be profoundly healing. As one woman wrote:
I also used to spend a lot of time fantasizing about things I wanted to be happening the future…a fantasy romance, a dream job, getting a lot of money, becoming famous. Many people spend a lot of time fantasizing about all the things they want…things that we think would make us happy if we could only get this relationship, that job, or that thing. Spending all that time focusing on what I didn’t have was a huge source of my unhappiness. So yep, it all had to go too…I learned to live in the moment, how to really be present and enjoy each moment. I learned how to accept my life situation exactly as it was with peace and gratitude. I learned how to be thankful. (69)
Letting yourself be with hard things. Being present to roses, romance and beautiful sunsets makes all the sense in the world. But it’s true that presence to other hard things feels, at least on the surface, to be almost irrational. Why would you ever want that?
Because of what we find in allowing ourselves to be present to hard things too, alongside the sweet and enjoyable things. People in our review speak of learning to stop fighting and let things be. As Jonathan put it:
Accept you feel this way. Accept you don’t feel like you once did. Accept you may feel nothing good for a while. Accept your life is not what you thought it would be. Acceptance sets you free; breaks the chains of what you think you deserve or what you think you need. Acceptance puts you into the now, even though the now is not good. You can’t hide from fear or from yourself; it’s pointless and futile…and with true acceptance, you can no longer be so afraid. (96)
As simple as this kind of acceptance sounds, it can be soul-stretching work to practice it. As Jonathan said, “Being truly present and spiritually open requires both perseverance and letting go.” (96)
This acceptance applies even to hard things. As Matt said, “Life is hard. I came to accept that, and to experience, validate, and find joy in the nobility of striving, even when it didn’t seem to make the difference I deeply wanted. Showing up was success; then gearing up; then gradually finding momentum for the moment.” (6) Another said:
Pain and difficulty are going to happen to you. Trying to fight this truth is pointless. You can’t win this fight and it will only fill you with despair. I’m not suggesting a pessimistic, fatalistic attitude. You can passionately work hard to improve your life and still accept that your life will inevitably include difficulties. That doesn’t mean that you want to have hardships; nobody wants that…but when they come, you don’t feel that your life is over. You only have to bear the difficulties for a season. Accept them. Learn from them. There is much to be gained from our hardships. (69)
This kind of acceptance can feel liberating—especially when the constant resistance stops. As Thomas said:
What I’m talking about is a kind of courage, and a kind of sincerity, where you look at your life and you’re willing to just see what’s there. And you realize in doing so, that where you are really losing your energy, what was really causing your suffering—what you didn’t realize was causing you to suffer—was all the energy you were spending on avoiding, all the energy you were spending on resisting. When you stop resisting, when you stop avoiding, and you look—you open your closet and look at that bogeyman, and you realize that you’re equal to that task, and that you can look at it and it won’t destroy you. It’s a willingness to hold your life—all of your life in awareness. It empowers you to take account and to start moving in a direction that feels right. (11)
This can also help us work through a fearful moment where we feel incredible pain. As Mendek shared, “I stopped resisting the pain and just let it be. I began to breathe into my fear. Even though the sensations I had labeled as pain were still there, the discomfort slowly disappeared. I was able to relax completely.” He added, “When I finally let my tears flow freely, it liberated me from some of the heavy weight I’d been carrying for my whole life.” (44)
Resisting the depressive pull. Accepting the experience of emotional pain is clearly not the same as resigning yourself to the momentum of depression and anxiety, however. As Matt noted:
I was quite surprised to recognize and learn that I had to resist a certain psychological seductiveness to depression. Who would have thought depression could be seductive?! Like a drug, it promised escape from life and all its struggle. All I needed to do was surrender to it, let it take over, and indulge in its permission to retreat and disappear from life. (6)
Ashley spoke of learning to stop “romanticizing the effects of depression.” As someone who loves art, she admitted, “There’s a propensity for artists to indulge in sadness because it has creative dimensions. But you can still be a great creator without the depression.” (75)
Mendek recounted, “Breaking the habit of living in perpetual dissatisfaction was extremely difficult. At first, I didn’t realize that I had docilely submitted myself to a legacy of pain I wasn’t able to see, much less admit, that a substantial part of me had become addicted to misery.” He continued, “Suffering added drama to my life, filled my conversations and keep me occupied day and night. My mind even invented problems where none existed.”
A gentle acceptance of the experience can ironically help release its hold on us. As the Mendek reflected, “fear feeds on fear and happiness feeds on happiness. Somewhere along the way, I began to notice a shift: instead of me trying hard to give up my fear, fear had begun to give up on me. I was no longer easily seduced by fear’s fatal attraction.” (44)
Working Differently with Thoughts
For anyone facing depression, thoughts can be torturous. People who found deeper healing reported new ways to work with dark and difficult thoughts that decreased their power over them.
The hamster wheel in my head. Many people speak of a churning, chattering, river of thoughts that they can’t seem to fully escape. Mendek spoke of “the constant chatter” of thoughts in his head and how his brain was “always active,” with a “buzzing noise in the background that never stopped.” (44) Jonathan described being “subjected to disturbing and random images” for many years that “conjure[d] up” in his mind. They were “highly graphic in their content, and also very elusive in their details.” (96)
Mendek further compares his mind to a “defective radio” with “static and other stations intruding on my frequency” every time he turned it on. But “since I’d been listening to these unpleasant sounds my whole life, I accepted these constant interruptions as the natural state of affairs.” He went on to explain how he hadn’t yet learned how so much of this was coming from a mind trained to “continually manufacture distortions that obstructed my ability to experience the beauty all around me.” He described learning that his mind was “meant to be a receiving station whose main function was to allow exquisite music to come through loud and clear.” (44)
“I was given to thinking,” Thomas said, “and I thought I could kind of think my way out of my emotional problems. It wasn’t until later that I realized how much anxiety the thought process itself was generating.” He added, “when all you have is thoughts, when your experience is characterized by this unbroken stream of thoughts. I felt like I was going crazy from a young age.” (11)
Our tendency with anxious thoughts, of course, is to think some more, analyze some more…maybe then we’ll get feeling better. Yet as this man described coming to realize, “you can’t think your way out of a think-hole.” Something more was needed. More thinking alone wasn’t going to do it.
“Thinking is overrated. Thinking will not help” another person agreed. More specifically, Jonathan said, “Thinking about how you feel will not help. Thinking that you had a bad life, thinking that you are a fantastic failure….will not help you feel better.” (96)
After admitting to his “constantly churning thoughts—the ones that ran in circles all day long,” Mendek similarly spoke of coming to realize that these thoughts “couldn’t possibly solve the problems that stood in the way of my happiness.” He added, “For more than fifty years, thinking hadn’t helped me solve the problems that stood in the way of my happiness.” And he added, “I grew to understand the depth, strength, and destructive tendencies of my slavish devotion to my thoughts.” (44)
The first man continued, “Thoughts in and of themselves are fine—they’re innocuous, they’re just thoughts. But when all you have is thoughts, when your whole experience is characterized by this unbroken stream of thoughts, they just start to beat in on you.”
It’s that thinking-wearing-you-down that psychologists call rumination. As Thomas elaborated:
The term rumination refers to this process by which we interpret, and reinterpret, and analyze, and reanalyze, and overanalyze—it’s the point at which the thought process, our ability to think, becomes pathological. In other words, it becomes the problem itself. Whatever the content was, whatever got us thinking in the first place, whatever problem we were responding to, that’s…still there. But what’s really problematic is the fact that we cannot see past our negative thoughts, and these negative thoughts are starting to call up emotion, trigger emotion in our body like battery acid, wearing through us. If we can’t work with the thought process itself, if we can’t become aware of the fact that we’re ruminating, that we’re over-thinking our problems, then we’re actually creating a bigger problem than the one that started this problem.
Douglas summarized what’s happening by referring to “something that a cow does when it chews its foods over and over again.” Then he said, “Even though we depressives are not cows, we tend to do the same thing with our thoughts. And these thoughts tend to be negative.” (4)
Melissa spoke of realizing that “I simply needed to cease rumination suffusing me in negativity and fear, since the scenarios envisioned rarely occurred and yet I exhausted and depressed myself with crazy anticipations.” She added, “My head was nothing more than a prison, actually-a dank, dark cavern and direct channel to despair.” (38)
A woman similarly reflected, “Many people are enslaved by their emotions. When the bad feelings come, they are helpless to defend themselves against them. And so they wallow in sadness, anger, and depression.” In her experience, “it doesn’t have to be this way”—noting “once you see feelings and emotions for what they are, you can choose to enjoy the pleasant ones and disregard the negative ones. You may not be able to keep from feeling the bad emotions.” But “you can control how you choose to respond to your feelings.” She admitted, “Our culture doesn’t teach us how to do this. Our culture doesn’t even acknowledge that is possible. Our culture tells us to worship our feelings and that we should be the center of our own universe. Both of these ideas lead directly to depression and misery.”
Part of why rumination is a problem was reviewed earlier—the way in which it removes us from the actual present moment, leaving us lost in our heads.
Getting out of our heads. Various ways to shift out of this ruminative place are well-known to be helpful with healing. As one person noted, “I started to notice ruminative behavior and redirect it.” (65)
This isn’t always so easy to notice, however! And one spouse described how she became a kind of rumination-alarm for her struggling husband, “I was usually the one who let him know he was ruminating, and that he should find something to occupy his mind.” She continued:
What worked well to engage his mind was strategy video games. He’s not a gamer, but we found that when he was ruminating, an hour session of games that occupied his mind 100% would do wonders for stopping rumination. He tried other things, like movies, drawing, or reading, but he would always ruminate while doing those because they didn’t require enough of his focus. He eventually found that studying a subject that really interested him helped, so he switched to doing that instead.
Stephanie described how “being around people can shut it off for the most part,” but admitted when they are alone, it’s much harder: “when I’m alone… I am never without my thoughts.” (109)
Anything that brings someone back to the body can help. As Alexi said, “I consider cooking a physical activity, at least when I’m in the kitchen. I love using my body and my coordination to produce a deliciously tangible result.” (81) Vicki said:
As you move, you are coming back to the present, coming back to the movement, so we are not letting the mind go off and visit friends, or prepare dinner, we are staying present for whatever is arising, through movement, and it’s wonderful. (12)
Mark reflected, “The problem with living entirely in your mind is that it’s decorated by memories. Memories are static, but life moves and changes.”
He added that things seemed to flow more quickly when she reconnected with everything around her—“Time moved a lot faster when I spent more of my days outside myself rather than confined inside my own mind….Things collapse, others are torn down, still others grow anew. If I let them.” (25)
Melissa said, “Whenever I stopped thinking and turned angst into spontaneous action and positive creation, I felt exhilarated and at peace.” She went on to describe coming to realize, “in order to move forward I needed to stay out of my head and either live in my heart with no mind story”—or, she said, “to reframe the story in my head to one of possibility.” (38)
Re-narrating one’s life. This kind of re-framing of our larger narrative—not only of our current life, but also of our past (and our future) can be huge for healing:
- Alexi said, “The story we tell ourselves about our past experiences dictates how we feel about them, and we can control our own narrative.” (81)
- Mark said, “I reflected on how it’s not the things we remember that define us, but the stories we tell ourselves about the things we think we remember.” (25)
- Brooke said, “Over time, the painful events become integrated into our greater life narrative. There is a cleansing and freedom in this process. But often it is the stories we tell about our initial pain that keep us stuck and feed the cycle of suffering.” (80)
When a story is feeding suffering—or any of its component beliefs—directly challenging them to make adjustments can be helpful. This is something that came up throughout accounts. This included anything from simply “identify[ing] limiting beliefs” (99) to going “beyond the confines” of our limiting beliefs, where, Mendek said “a magical world is waiting for all of us.” (44)
This usually starts with paying more attention to thinking that is distorted or inaccurate. As George said, “I cannot overcome anything in this world if I cannot learn to overcome the deception of my perception. It is our thinking that betrays us. It is thought that prevents us from moving forward.” (92) Getting more specific, Mendek remarked: “Nothing hurts as much as having an identity formed by a fear-based belief system.” (44)
Kristian spoke of various professional techniques they found helpful in this process, especially “CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and its various skills involved (59) as a way to “eliminate negative thought patterns” and “thought fallacies.” (93)
Thomas said, “As we think about the same thing over and over, we start to wear these grooves into our minds. The brain actually gets better at thinking a certain way because we do it so often.” Then he reflected on the shift he had experienced:
When you start to really scrutinize your thinking, when you really start to look at “what are the thoughts coming up in my brain day by day, and how do those lend to the beliefs I have, and the way I show up in the world?” If you can just push back from that thought—and anybody can do this, they can become aware of this recurring thought—they can push back from that and they can decide how much they want that belief to define their life. (11)
For others, this was more of a self-led process—like the woman who said, “I had to uproot some false beliefs. I had to just let go. I had to come to terms with what life is.” (78) Robert remarked that they learned about “speaking the truth to depression’s lies and [I] learned to distinguish truth from lies.” (89) Reflecting on work with his spouse, Matt said, “Together, we were able to derail thinking that triggers and amplifies depression. Gradually, I learned to practice my wife’s, “Or, on the other hand” challenges to depressive thinking. Managing my thoughts went a long way to achieving emotional regulation.” (6)
The experience of depression itself, according to Juanita, “has offered me enough space to see and to think through my beliefs and their impact on my life.” She went on to describe the emotional “weight of wrong thinking, delusion, disappointment, despair, grief and sheer exhaustion”—and being struck by the impact of ideas in her head alone: “I had never imagined that my beliefs could weigh my life down that way.” (47)
In cases of agonizing belief, seeing through a distortion can make a real difference. As one man recounted about a low moment:
Though I refused to contemplate ending life—I had so much and so many people to live for—I was struggling with the will to live, the joy to live. Depression saps the will to stay connected with life. I am grateful I was able to recognize it wasn’t life I wanted to be finished, but this painful distortion of life. (6, emphasis my own)
A battle for the mind vs. a training of the mind. Some of this internal work described above seems to take enormous effort. Yet Jonathan raises caution about our mind’s “continual battle for domination over our thoughts”—suggesting that “inevitably you will tire and suffer the consequences of this futile battle.” (96)
Yet others spoke of the battle of the mind in more positive terms. From their experience, one person stated, “Healing from depression starts in your mind. The war for your soul, for your peace and victory, takes place in your mind. So that is where the battle for healing must begin.”
But then she clarified, “you have to train your mind”—going on to describe learning to “recognize and reject the negative thoughts that fed depression” by asking herself about new mental content arising, “Does this thought benefit my soul?”
“If the answer was NO,” she continued, “I immediately dropped that thought. Immediately. No sitting around and thinking about it for even a few minutes:”
No wallowing in self-pity for a few minutes. No revisiting how someone said something that hurt my feelings. No fantasizing about that spiteful comeback I wish I had said to someone. If the thought wasn’t good for my soul then I dropped it immediately.
“This became my mantra” she said, “Minute by minute I consciously examined each thought and asked myself this question over and over and over, a thousand times a day if necessary—does this thought benefit my soul?”
She pointed out, “Notice what I wasn’t asking. I wasn’t asking if it was a happy thought. I wasn’t asking if it was a pleasant thought. I was asking if each thought benefitted my soul.” Sure, she admitted, “Happy pleasant thoughts were great.” And “thoughts that did benefit my soul also included lots of hard things I needed to work through to continue healing…forgiving myself for all my stupid mistakes…forgiving others for hurting me…learning to trust God instead of myself…learning to accept my life situation as it was with grace and peace.” She added:
Thoughts that did not benefit my soul included negative judgmental thoughts about myself or others. No more nursing old wounds that I gave myself or were inflicted on me by others. I used to spend a lot of time reliving painful memories and wallowing in my hurt. I played hours of mental what if movies…what if I had done this instead? What if that had happened instead? I fantasized about things I wished I had done or said differently. All these thoughts had to go. The past is the past and it can’t be changed. There is no benefit in reliving each negative memory over and over and over again like a broken record. (69)
This question of “is this good for my soul?” became central to her progress. “I had to be extremely intentional about my thought life”—admitting, “This wasn’t easy to do. It took a lot of practice to train my mind to work this way. It was easy to slip back into old thought patterns. But even though it took “exhausting…hard work” she said “it was so worth the work. It worked. After many months of this, it became my habitual way of thinking and eventually completely rewired my brain for happiness rather than depression.” (69)
She reported, “This was the huge key to my healing”…learning “how to observe my thoughts, to rise up out of my mental soup of emotions and take the reins of what was happening in my brain….Our culture does not teach us how to do this or even that it can be done.” Referring to “the thought chatter that fills up our minds every minute of every day” one woman said, “our thought life can be either life or death to our souls. We can and must control our thoughts if we want to be truly emotionally and spiritually healthy.” (69)
Pushing back on thoughts entirely. There is one belief, in particular, that people have found helpful to challenge: the belief that your thoughts are a reflection of reality itself—aka, “facts.” Most people “believe you are your feelings and thoughts,” Jonathan noted. (96) Yet Mendek described how he came to see otherwise:
I began to realize how dysfunctional it was to consider my beliefs to be facts…my thoughts were not my own, and often they told me lies, but still I did their bidding.” Often, he realized “I was trapped by my beliefs like an animal in a cage.” (44)
Many are not aware of any other way of relating to thoughts. But Juanita spoke of tuning in to the local public television station and “heard Wayne Dyer talking about being a witness, without judgment, just noticing our thoughts.” (47) Thomas likewise described learning to recognize thoughts as thoughts, rather than reality—and learning to push back on them and watch them:
From the moment of that recognition, it was a lot of practice learning to just push back from the thought process, and really see them for what they were, rather than getting absorbed in the content of the thought, rather than assuming that the thought is important and that it has meaning, and that I need to interpret it, which, of course, only leads to more thinking. I would just learn to push back a little bit, and start to observe the flow of thought, the movement of thought.
He reflected on both a practice and process of learning to “relate to thought in a different way so I’m not a slave, but rather it’s master”—reflecting a “steady, gradual process of pushing back from thought…and then getting pulled back in, because we always get pulled into our thoughts, we always get pulled into the drama of our lives.” Thomas compared this to “the same way you go to a gym and you work dumbbells.”
I felt like I was training the muscles of awareness by pushing back and getting pulled back in. This force of gravity you can liken it to—we’re so interested in our thoughts, we’re so interested in the content, we’re so convinced that the content is what’s important—we get pulled back—and we might wake up 5 seconds later, 5 minutes later, 5 years later, and realize ‘That was just a thought, and I’ve been acting it out, assuming that was my life and it was the only way.’ You realize just how limiting thoughts can be in your perception of who you are and what your life can be.
He elaborated on the practice:
I would just learn to push back a little bit and just observe the flow of thought, the movement of thought, and as I did so I realized there was an awareness deeper than the thought process itself. And that was probably one of the most shocking discoveries I ever made, to really connect with that first-hand—this experience of seeing my thought process as I observed it, becoming aware of awareness itself, and that gave me a lot of freedom. What was previously experienced as this kind of torture, being enslaved by the thought process, I was able to push back from that and just notice it as something a lot more innocuous, kind of like lying down on the bank of a river, just watching the stream float by.
Thomas then reflected on what was really taking place:
As far as this new relationship we can develop with the thought process, it seems challenging, maybe even impossible to some people, to become aware of the thought process. After all, we’re so identified with our thoughts, many of us have a deep belief that we are our thoughts, we are what we think. Think about Descartes and his declaration, “I think, therefore I am.” In our culture I think we believe that to a certain extent. It takes a little doing, takes a little practice, and it takes a willingness to experiment, but I find that any adult, or even reasonably mature child, can take up the practice of backing off from the thought process a little bit, rather than following every single thought and wondering what every thought means, and interpreting that thought, which leads to more thoughts, which are interpretations, and we all know where that road leads. If we just take a step back a little bit and just notice that there are thoughts there, that there is activity there, that it’s moving, that it’s flowing—we notice that we are not automatically caught into thought. We realize almost immediately that there is an awareness that can be aware of thinking. And we also notice just how calming it is to be aware of thought, as opposed to being thought. Being thought can be like being on a bucking bronco, right? And we’re getting tossed all over the place, and that’s all we are with the bronco, we’re this thinking mind. But it’s a lot nicer to be in the bullpen, behind those cages where the bull is bucking that poor cowboy around and say, ‘Wow, I’d hate to be that guy right now.’ And we can take that stance with the thinking process. And what’s amazing about it is, it doesn’t take much, just a simple willingness to watch your thoughts, and you certainly get better at it over time, practicing it, but there’s an incentive built into the process, it feels so good to be able to take a break, take a little vacation from thought. I find that a lot of adults, when I talk with them about this concept, they’re intrinsically motivated to do it because they know just how helpful it is for their mental health, their physical health, sometimes for their sanity. (11)
“Don’t try and stop both feelings and thinking; just let them be; don’t engage,” one man said—describing how he learned to “sit on the sidelines” of his feelings and thoughts in a way that let healing in his life “truly start.” Jonathan explained:
I have created a non-stick coating, a Teflon to my thoughts and feelings, by no longer believing in them. I am no longer a slave to their whims, like black clouds that pass by in the sky. I no longer believe in their doom and gloom. I’m no longer involved.”
Then he shared his encouragement to others:
Every thought and every feeling that comes our way…let them pass. Once they have passed, we are not going to chase them back like a dog bringing you a stick. New motto—once it’s gone, it’s gone! We are not going to analyze any new feelings we have, and we are not going to battle our thoughts.” (96)
Others describe a similar process of watching thoughts—and not engaging with the depressive ones. Referring to especially toxic thoughts, this same man said, unless you are going to die at this moment or your mental health requires serious help, then do not listen”—instead, practicing what he called the “art of being noncommittal” about thoughts.
Jonathan then admitted this answer was “Not so simple, because over the years, you have trained yourself to listen to your inner [monologue] and propel it to God-like status.” “But now,” he said, “you have to train yourself not to listen. This takes time and practice, remembering not to engage and being aware of when you are and then remembering not to engage.” He elaborated:
Every time, be the third person looking in; let that person be the one to ignore the ongoing debate and get on with your life. …If you do not give them the strength of that inner you agreeing with what you feel and think, then the thoughts will be less and also the feelings will be to.
Jonathan reiterated, “you are not your thoughts; you are not your feelings. Do not be fooled into believing that everything you think and feel has some tangible force over what you do. You will have millions of thoughts and feelings in your life…see them for what they are and then decide what is best for your mental health, by not being in agreement with thoughts that are doing you harm. Let bad feelings drift by, even if it’s slowly, like leaves on the river.” (96)
It’s not always simply a pleasant and sweet experience to awaken to the nature of thought, however. “Taking the time to be with my thoughts has been transformative” Juanita said, while admitting, “It was troubling to realize that I had been harboring thoughts of other people’s opinions and judgments about me…this wasn’t a new pattern but simply the first time I had been present fully to my own thoughts.” She added, “Awakening to my thoughts has been one of the most profound gifts of the crash, yet it felt wretched and distressing in the beginning. I had never made the connection that my thoughts were so deeply rooted in fear and my need to be preferred, the teacher’s pet as it were.” Juanita concluded:
I have heard people say that they were afraid of silence. I get it now! Because of the silence and slowing down, my thought life became magnified to me. It was almost overwhelming, but I wasn’t paralyzed by it; I was made glaringly aware. This was the me I had not wanted to see. (47)
Externalizing certain thoughts as an enemy. Some externalized thoughts metaphorically as a kind of mental practice. Approaching depression as a “separate entity” to his own mind, William spoke of experimenting with “earmark[ing] certain thoughts as those coming from my own true self (e.g., ‘I want to get better’) or as those coming from depression (e.g., ‘I’m worthless’).” He continued, “identifying when ‘it’s the depression talking’ allowed me to consciously and purposefully ignore and sideline.” (100)
For four years, two people struggled against each other to command my body and control my soul (that is, my mind, will and emotions). One was me. The other as Depression. On rare occasions during those four years, I stood near the front of the stage of my life as the main actor. Far more often, almost exclusively I might add, Depression played the lead role, and I shivered at the back of the stage…Depression was the enemy who assailed me, the invader who robbed me of my identity. I sarcastically refer to him today as my old friend, though he was anything but. He attacked when I least expected it. He’d sometimes rest in the shadows for days but always nearby, ready to pounce on me at any moment.
“Depression is not some nebulous, wispy thing best left unmentioned” he said, “He’s a real enemy, intent on destroying his victims, men and women, boys and girls. He won’t go away by just ignoring him.” (34)
Compared to this more metaphorical approach, others experienced threatening thoughts more literally as external entities. In this case, several people came to view negative thoughts through a Biblical lens as demonic forces—which prompted them to reach out to divine sources to support their healing. (Although this will be very different than the worldview and experience of many, it feels important to illustrate the diversity of experiences among those who find deeper healing):
At that very moment in time, the roaring noise of those lesser demons quieted, and a strange new and unfamiliar voice rang out crystal clear. He was offering me a solution to all the trials and tribulations surrounding my life. In a calm tone he simply said, “Why don’t you commit suicide.” (50)
Another person suspected “demonic forces were attacking my thoughts, trying to drag me back into depression”—describing how she would speak out loud “In the name of Jesus, I command you demon, to be quiet and get out of here.” She recounted, “Every time I did that I would feel immediate relief. We can invoke the Name of Jesus as many times as needed. There is no limit. There is great power in His name.” (69)
Aaron concluded the toxic thoughts were “not coming from me,” commanded them to depart: “rebuking the suicidal thoughts…In the name of Jesus Christ.” He described, “I waited like a minute, expecting it to come back. It didn’t. I waited an hour, a day later. A year and a half later, it completely stopped.” He reflected, “It was the name of Jesus that made the evil spirits and their thoughts go away.”
Aaron went on to say, “I started armoring up” for “spiritual warfare” by “putting on the armor of God. I started fighting back by believing in his promises.” He continued, “When the devil filled me with his lies and his words, it was the word of God who trumped all this.” (101)
Josh recollected on how he had “opened a lot of doors that allowed the adversary to have lots of control—which began affecting behavior and emotions.” (105) Nicole likewise shared their belief in “demonic forces that had been in my mind” and that God was “expelling away….As I repented, he was delivering me.” (102)
“I still deal with very small intrusive thoughts,” another person admitted, “the kind that used to paralyze me for days.” The difference now, he explained, is that “I still hear those things, but I remember that God speaks as well. So, I’ve learned not to listen to my voice, or others’ voices—but rather, to seek the voice of God. And when God speaks, he brings light into the situation.” (103)
Closely related to explorations of thought (above) and emotion (below) is identity itself—and our larger way of being in the world.
Resting in something deeper than thoughts. Most people see their own thoughts and feelings as a basic reflection of self. Many of these people who found healing also challenged that widespread view. “If you could stand outside yourself and watch your thoughts and feelings coming and going,” Jonathan said, “you could point and laugh at the observation of how much you think this is you.” (96)
The same individual who spoke of “constantly churning thoughts” that “ran in circles all day long” which couldn’t “possibly solve the problems” in his life went on to say: “The answers that arose from the source of love deep within me tapped into a far-reaching wisdom that was much greater than any human mind could produce.” (44)
Another individual described coming to understand that “Our thoughts are not who we are. Many people equate their identity with their mind…their thoughts. I did it for most of my life.” But she said: “Our identity is not our thoughts. Our thoughts actually form a false identity…that we portray to the world and even to ourselves. The internal chatter that fills our minds is a very surface level part of us. It is not actually who we are, our deepest essence, our true identity. Deep down within each of us there is an eternal part of us that is actually our true identity” that is different than our thoughts and “deeper than the words and language that form our thoughts.” (69)
Navigating these questions is easier said than done. As reflected above, closely related to emotional struggles are explorations about identity itself. Another man went on to speak of his “main goal” and one hope during this difficult period to be “all Patrick again”—to “recover who I had been…without the shadow of Depression hovering near me.” (34)
Jim spoke of a teaching that impacted him, which referred to “depression” as “deep rest”—adding, “your body needs to be depressed. It needs deep rest from the character that you’ve been trying to play.” He went on to insist that this kind of a discrepancy over one’s deepest sense of identity was a central driver of his own depression:
The difference between depression and sadness is that sadness is just from happenstance. Whatever happened or didn’t happen for you, or grief or whatever it is. Depression is your body saying ‘[to heck with] you, I don’t want to be this character anymore. I don’t want to hold up this avatar that you created. And the world is too much for me. (73)
Reflecting on what dragged her down in the first place, Juanita said, “my crash…was about finding out who I was deep down beneath the story that I had constructed about my life—a story of denial and blame, a story that only I could edit and transform.” She went on to describe lying flat on her back in the midst of the darkness and the silence for months in her emotional pain, until she described hearing “the Holy Spirit gently asked me, ‘Who are you?’ The question was so poignant it pierced through me like a hot knife cutting through butter.” (47)
One woman described being asked by her therapist, “Who is Sarah? What’s missing?” Another reflected on sorting through negative beliefs about oneself from childhood—then finding as many examples as you can that show that’s not true. Ask yourself what’s the truth? (36)
Moni spoke of seeing the self beneath their diagnosis, “I wanted to be in control of myself again; independent and capable. The [diagnostic] label …made me feel like I was seen as a crazy person who did not fit into society. I wanted my dignity back!” (46) Referring to professional comments he previously heard about his condition, Thomas said “we think that’s a definitive statement about our body or our brain, and we tend to identify with that. And that can create kind of this claustrophobic feeling of, ‘I can only do so much about it because that’s what I am.’” (11) Mike described coming to not identifying with “self” as merely a set of physical and mental attributes. (32)
Melissa spoke of “decades of despising myself”—recounting having spent “fifty years…assimilating, denying, repressing and living the life of an imposter.” She then spoke of the value of “embracing” what she called “her essence” without worrying as much about “’fixing’ or ‘changing’” herself. (38)
Jane admitted, “I felt worthless, despicable, ugly, and helpless. At that time I had very little understanding of my situation and no awareness at all of why I ended up emotionally and mentally shattered by age thirty.” She added, “I thought there was something intrinsically wrong with me. I thought I was a bad person because I could not overcome these problems on my own. I now know better than that”….God does not make junk.” (10) Mendek said, “I know that I existed before time was born and that I am eternal.” (44)
Moni described a retreat that “helped me discover the ‘real me,” including his “true values and strengths.” Based on this, “The urge to put myself down all the time vanished completely, and I can appreciate myself now for just being me. This helps me get back my inner balance whenever it is challenged by life circumstances.” (46)
Nicole reflected how God helped him see his own identity clearly: “He showed me my identity. That person I had lost over the years—who I was, what I was good at.” Referring to this new view, she said “I have an identity in Christ—and when I am in Christ, I inherit all his goodness, and all His promises. They cannot be taken away from me—I am a child of God! It also means I am loved unconditionally.” (102)
Mendek likewise spoke of a more resilient sense of self:
The Self I had just discovered transcended my proud little ego. No one could injure it or make it lose its equilibrium. While I could feel powerless, insecure and hellish, it never did. It didn’t experience fear, or share my needs, drives, or apprehensions. This Self was free from conflict…It had no wants besides just what is. Equanimity was its natural state of being. …I felt relaxed and free. (44)
If we don’t learn to access this deeper part of us that is aware of that thinking, and aware of that emotional activity, if we don’t have some kind of time or space set aside in our day where we can appreciate that inherent restful quality of awareness itself, where we can be aware that there are problems coming up, that the emotional pain is profound, that the mental problems are excruciating, but that there is something that is aware of that. And that there’s something that’s aware of all that, that holds all of that. It is untainted, the deepest part of ourselves that can hold all of life and all awareness. (11)
He went on to emphasize the power of learning to “just really rest in my fundamental okayness in this moment, without having to earn it, without having to do anything beyond what’s right here.” (11) One woman spoke of coming to see herself more clearly in a way that leaves her feeling “peaceful, strong, and in control.” This deeper sense of her true self has left her “free from fear” and “strong enough to appreciate life.” (77)
A woman shared her experience that, “becoming more aware of your soul, your true identity, is the most important element of healing. If you want your healing to be deep, lasting, and real, then it must reach down into your soul.” Yet, she says “it is possible, and quite common, for people to be completely unaware of the existence of their own soul” due to living in a modern western culture that has “shifted our focus from our eternal selves to surface pleasure and physical ambitions. We have become so separated from our true selves that many people don’t even believe that we have a soul.” (69)
All this wrestle ends up being worth it, if we are to believe many of these accounts. More than simply a way to protect oneself from intrusive thoughts, this can become a profound education. As Mendek said:
The most important thing I have ever done is to become an explorer of my mind and heart. I got to know myself as I really am, rather than who I imagined myself to be….through self-observation, the more mature, dispassionate part of me examined my conditioned self without condemnation, apology, or guilt.” (44)
Being vs. getting. Closely tied to this shift in identity is a broader shift in emphasis in way of being—away from acquiring, accumulating, to being. As Thomas said, “There was a shift from doing to being. And that played a huge role in cooling off that overstimulated nervous system that was manifesting as an anxiety disorder and chronic insomnia.” He reflected:
We’re taught to strive, we’re trying to improve the self, get more education, earn more money, have more relationships with important, beautiful people—as I started to make stillness a feature of my life, as I started to come back to it more and more, it wasn’t that I stopped striving. In fact, I think I had more energy than ever to strive and to accomplish goals I set for myself. But there was this place of rest that I could come back to, and there was this fundamental okayness with where I was—and that took the driven quality out of my goal setting, and it made accomplishing goals and going places and doing things fun, because I got to choose. And I knew if I wasn’t doing something, I could be doing nothing. I realized that accomplishing goals and being somebody was something that I got to do, something that I got to do because it was joyful, not because I had to, not because I wasn’t going to be worth anything if I didn’t.” (11)
Thomas added, “That was something lost on me before—I thought I had to be something.” Matt described “working hard to surrender perfectionism, competitive striving—including competitive Christianity—and frenetic “busyness” as markers of a worthwhile life.” He continued:
I learned to be more dismissive of artificial markers and external benchmarks ‘imposed’ by institutions and other people. In place of these I focused on identifying and living congruent with my own values and in peace and joy with my wife and my Maker. (6)
Working Differently with Emotions
So many of the same insights, lessons and shifts above apply to emotions—as reflected in these same stories.
Avoiding painful emotion. Like painful thoughts, difficult emotions are often something we push away, avoid and numb out from. Juanita described “Years of anger stuffed and turned inward, ignored, or swept under the rug for the sake of politeness. …my anger went underground. I thought that I would be better off and safer without it.” (47)
“Even though I wouldn’t admit to the anger, my body knew,” she said, going on to talk about headaches, stomach problems. She shared her feeling that “depression is anger turned inward, and judging is an unnecessary means of holding on to anger….kindling for anger…and “capable of destroying the good that God longs to bring to life in us. A judging and critical attitude blocks our flow of goodness.
The fundamental problem, she admitted, was “I didn’t take the time to process the pain. In fact, I had never allowed myself to grieve any of the losses I’d experienced, whether deaths, business setbacks, failures, broken relationships, or other disappointments. My way of coping with pain was to stuff it and keep moving.”
By not articulating and processing true anger, some described it coming out in unhealthy, harsh ways. More broadly, Juanita said, “My emotions were like beach balls in a swimming pool. I would push them under the water, but if I let go, all that pressure and energy sent the balls to the surface and flying out of the pool with rocketlike force.” (47)
Feeling what you feel. People described the power of learning a better way. This woman above went on to speak about learning “how to be with my feelings”—which “seemed so foreign” to her at first.
Describing the impact of new space in her life, Juanita then said, “in the silence, the deepest feelings tended to rise to the surface.” She added, “Marinating in silence for all those many months was exposing emotions I had stuffed away for far too long. I finally had the space to pay attention to them instead of going on autopilot to seek and destroy them, instead of normal responses like ‘ain’t nobody got time for all that!’” (47)
Ashley similarly reflected, “I spent my entire life telling everyone I was ‘OK, damn it.’ That’s how I got love as a kid. Supposedly my sister was the ‘messed-up’ one and I was the ‘perfect’ one.” (75) “Talking about emotions wasn’t really in our family culture,” another said, “so I maintained that it had all been a joke, and she left it alone. The lesson I learned at the time was that I needed to keep my issues to myself.” (103)
Contrary to these past patterns, many of these people found they had to make time and space for these emotions. David spoke of the value of “understanding my emotions and experiencing them instead of denying them.” (59) Mendek described how uncovering and releasing negative emotions helped him to then be “sailing on calmer waters—no longer tossed and turned by the stormy ocean” of unexamined emotions. (44)
Ashley said, “When you stop lying to yourself and feel what you try to deny or forget, you have a chance to recover.” More openness to discomfort, one person insisted, involves “gifts.” For instance, “Allowing yourself to feel loneliness forces you to reach out. Letting yourself get angry gives you strength, energy and motivation.” This individual went on to describe the new power of simply feeling what he was feeling, “In order to stay healthy, I have to feel all my feelings instead of numbing myself to them —and actually, when I allow myself to do that, they pass more quickly.” (75)
Other things arise from this kind of openness to emotion. Melissa said, “Once I stopped fighting to repress darkness there was a never-ending torrent of expression waiting to be freed and transform into palpable content.” She went on to describe a creative breakthrough where she began imagining an innovative new product—“from that very same despair was when my life began to change.” (38)
Expressing feeling in healthy ways. Melissa reflected, “I had no empowering means of expression, with countless feelings imprisoned and no idea what they meant or how to set them free. Hence my heart became so rife with sadness I was certain it would explode through my chest. This led to profound depression. And ultimately, this tangled mass of emotion had nowhere to go but into more darkness, pushing me even further within myself. When the burden of those feelings grew too great my hands would shake, my head pound, my heart race and I’d become weak with exhaustion-paralyzed by the futility of life.” (38)
Reflecting on his prior life, Jonathan likewise said “with no outlet for emotion, he had learnt, as so many people do, to bottle up and suppress his feelings.” (96) “When you hold everything inside,” Crystal said, “it’s like closing the Ziplock bag on your feelings and letting the bad things grow. Sooner or later you’ll have to open the bag. The longer it sits, the worse it will smell, the grosser it will be, and the harder it will be to clean. So, we need to “open” our hearts and get some airflow.” This person went on to report the power of writing in their experience, as a way to help this happen. (82)
For Joanne, writing was her creative outlet to help her deal with depression—attesting that she overcame depression by writing her first novel. As she described the time she first put pen to paper: “This is really where I turned my life around completely. My life changed so much….. I feel I really became myself here.” (72)
Not everyone feels the confidence to put out their words publicly. As Melissa said, “Throughout my life I documented the beauty, darkness and incongruity of life through words, yet kept them shrouded certain they were much too simple, despairing and personal to touch others.” (38)
Journaling is a common way of expressing emotion and encouraging healing. Sarah described using a method of “explor[ing] pieces of your life without consciously thinking about them or judging them, thereby sparking further inner awareness.” That means “allowing the words to flow on the page” without any “editing and no crossing out.” She elaborated:
Writing about where I was in my life in that period of time, what was happening, what potentially meaningful events had occurred. That was to include all aspects—work, health, relationships, culture, dreams, projects, and spirituality…. Then, you sit silently, breathing, allowing your inner thoughts to process the piece you had just written, noting any imagery that might occur and jotting it down in a nonjudgmental way. (36)
Others experimented with sharing more openly. Mark described getting involved with the high school newspaper—and writing about his experience:
I was surprised by how well-received the article was among my peers. Rather than isolating me, my openness soon had people coming up to me in the halls and sharing with me about their own struggles. It didn’t seem to matter if they were hockey players, cheerleaders, band members or kids who stood around in the smoking section outside even in the worst winter storms—they all had a story to tell, and they all had something in common. They wanted to tell me because I had opened the door, and many of them had never told anybody else.
“It felt good to be open” he said—“I was also finding my voice.” (25)
Putting yourself out there can feel unsettling. As Matt continued, “If I was going to recover and help others, I was going to have to get used to the uncomfortable fear of not knowing what might happen next, if I spoke my mind and followed my heart regardless of what people expected.” (25)
Others described other ways of expressing themselves. Jim describes how painting helped him—reflecting the “therapeutic release of art.” (73) Marsha reflected on “playing piano to express emotions.” (43) Ashley described acting as providing an “opportunity to sort through some chaos in a creative way.” (75)
After depression “effectively disabled me from finding communion or meaning in creation” for a long time, Melissa described how creating products for children helped her emotionally:
Suddenly every excruciating emotion made sense and a lifetime of sorrow swelled with purpose. And I knew it was imperative to morph pain into positivity and derive meaning through creation…I would transform every ounce of misery into tangible products able to stir hearts and foster genuine connections…Now, finally, I had my creative pathway leading out of obscurity into the blazing sunshine….it was as if a massive faucet had opened leading from my brain through my heart and then directly out my hands.
This was significant, since she admitted, “I was so restricted in my own body and imprisoned by the austere walls of my head fearing what it couldn’t control.” Through the opportunity to create, it felt she was “no longer constrained in a limited body but soaring miles above with the boundless potential of invention.”
That made the power of being able to imagine and create something “absolutely intoxicating.” Melissa added, “Almost overnight I felt utter liberation in my creative pursuits with no anxiety.” She reflected:
With such newfound freedom it was exhilarating arriving at work each morning, tingling with the promise of where the infinite realm of imagination might take me. And the more I was actively involved in starting from a blank canvas and finishing with a vibrant plaything touching multitudes of children, the greater my joy and sense of contentment.
“For the first time ever, I had something special to offer the world, Melissa added. “Creating had become my pathway out of despair in connecting to the freedom of my imagination.” She continued:
In the light of this newfound knowledge that creating was actually my unique path to finding meaning and purpose, I understood my separation from the rest of the world was actually not a flaw to be despised, but a special quality making me unique. Perhaps my difference was what allowed me to create-which I now understood was the greatest joy possible.
In addition to the joy, this reaffirmed a deeper sense of her own power:
I had proven darkness could transform into light and there was no greater freedom. And most importantly, I realized I actually controlled the creation process as well, which was revelatory. I could choose to create darkness out of darkness, or light out of darkness. Likewise, that meant I could decide whether to remain miserable from churning out dark, despairing content, or live in peace by funneling anguish into positivity and vibrant designs. It was entirely my choice. (38)
Creativity, of course, is often spoken of as associated with depression, with a long list of artists who have grappled with profound sorrow (Wolfgang Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Emily Dickinson, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Hans Christian Anderson, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf) But this suggests that creativity may not only be a way to navigate and channel this profound sorrow—but to move towards healing from it. Reflecting on these individuals, Melissa wrote, “while by no means was I comparing or elevating myself to these individuals’ prolific levels of creativity, I felt heartfelt communion in sharing the same source of misery birthing art.”
“My final sobering realization was the price I paid for creativity was living with depression,” this woman said. “The reason I was able to create was because of exactly who I was-with my hyper-sensitivities and overexcitabilities catalyzing to forge content.” As Melissa summarized, “what I had tried to mask, morph and destroy my entire life were actually the very qualities giving me the ability to create. She underscored her appreciation for the challenging qualities that moved her in a direction of such growth and creativity: “if I could channel my introversion, introspection, despondency, agitation, and questioning into positivity linking me to others, then my life would have meaning and my existence make sense. My salvation was birthed directly from my curse.” (38)
Learning to skillfully navigate emotion. Much that we experience naturally influences our emotional state. One person’s story centered on “recognizing all forces—how life—with all of its ups and downs, blessings and losses—can trigger” deep emotional pain. (53)
Yet it’s easy to become overly fragile and driven by our emotions. As another person said:
Our culture tells us instead to indulge our whims and emotions. Most people are completely at the mercy of their emotions. Our emotions are fickle and cannot be trusted. Emotions are unstable and can swing drastically from moment to moment. A life based on emotion is a life built on shifting sands. Stable happiness and real healing is not possible in a life built on emotions. The next unhappy situation or hardship will cause it all to come crashing down. (69)
Sarah spoke of learning to appreciate the inner dynamics prompting different emotions—“when we’re children we think that our emotions come from outside of us. The outside world makes us angry or frustrated or depressed. Part of the growth process is to see that anger and frustration and depression all come from within us. With this awareness, we can find more productive ways of coping.”
She went on to talk about working with CBT to “identify and cope with triggers” and learning more about what prompts emotions inside. (36) Some have experimented with techniques to help painful emotions pass sooner. One person recounted:
I began to visualize my self-destructive emotions—fear, anger, guilt, envy, insecurity, and loneliness—as piles of useless baggage. In my imagination, I carefully packed this baggage onto a raft by the shore of a rushing river and secured it tightly with a thick rope. Then I gave the heavy raft a big push and watched it float away. “You’ve kept me down for years, and I don’t need you anymore. Off you go!” I’d holler as I eagerly waved good-bye, feeling light, happy, and carefree.
Mendek said, “My deep intention to let go of my suffering was an essential part of my success.” (44) Others explored more gentle approaches that allow emotion to evolve more naturally. Thomas reflected that, “emotions feel like really solid things. Some emotions, perhaps, have been with us for a long time and they tend to characterize our experience in life. We find that when we look really closely at them, they are changing all the time. What seemed really solid and opaque, it’s actually maybe misty, but in constant change. The awareness, the willingness to be present with an emotion, it actually softens it, gives it a kind of permission to activate and do whatever it wants to do—whether it’s anger showing up in the body, whether it’s sadness showing up in the body.” He then asked:
How often do we take a close look at the activity of emotion in the body and give it permission to just do what it’s doing? After all, our only other option is to deny it permission and push it down into the cellar where we keep all those unwanted emotions, only to manifest in our dream world, or in an inopportune time, and inappropriate place, with a certain person we wish we hadn’t said that to. I mean, if we don’t face these things, if we don’t make room for them, do we really think it goes away?
Thomas went on to describe how he has learned to work with challenging emotion:
I’ve just found this practice of letting emotional activity well up, and expand, and grow, and just show up in me in whatever way it wants to, to be so empowering. Because every time, if I’m willing to stick with it, if I’m willing to stick with the movement quality of the emotion, then eventually, at some point, like all things, it exhausts itself, it burns out, it uses up its life force. However you want to describe it. It was there one moment ago, getting bigger and bigger, and now it’s getting smaller. Now it’s—where did it go? And I started to spot the crests and troughs, the depressive crests and the happy troughs. And we can ride those waves. We can come into a relation with our emotions in a way that we’re not making problems of the negative emotions, and we’re not clinging onto the positive emotions and wanting more—but we’re just vitalized, again and again continually by the emotional activity of the body. And that’s some satisfying emotional wave riding.
He continued to reflect:
In my experience, it’s been the willingness to just be really open and honest about what’s coming up, and to allow them to come up—it doesn’t mean to act on them, doesn’t mean to act the anger out, but just acknowledging that this is happening in our body. That is our experience here in this moment. There is such a power in welcoming that. If we can just let that activate, let it well up, get really big, and listen to what they are saying. We find over time that these emotions after welling up they just kind of dissipate. They die down. And before we know it, we’re back to this calm. (11)
The full spectrum of emotion. Thomas went on to reflect on the narrowness of our common experience with emotion, “As individuals, we usually have preferences in terms of what emotions are okay, or what’s welcome. And it’s often negative emotion that we have such a problem with, like we’re judgmental with ourselves for being angry, or we’re judgmental with ourselves for being judgmental. Or there are feelings coming up in the body we can’t make room for.” (11)
Through daily meditation practice, Mike’s story reflected his widening ability to embrace things as they are. By “letting go of his attachments and aversions to everything, he was able to begin to accept life as it is, not as he interpreted it to be.” (32)
While acknowledging the value of optimism and hope, Brooke remarked, “Positive thinking is not enough to set us free. True joy comes through wholeness—welcoming every part of us home, not ignoring our suffering or fixating on it.” (80)
Thomas qualified “this kind of rosy view of reality, where we just ‘buck up’ and have an optimistic view. It’s not about optimism,” he said:
It’s about realism, it’s about really training awareness to look at All of Life—everything that’s happening moment to moment, and you’ll be surprised. Whereas you’ve been focusing on this mess, all the things going wrong. You’ll actually see that outside of that wrongness, outside of that area arising as a problem, you’ll realize all the things that are going right and you’ll realize that represents that totality of your experience. (11)
Reflecting this broad view, Sarah said, “Happiness is only one aspect of emotions—pain and suffering and loss are part of a full life, too.” This was a brand-new insight—“a perspective I could not have possibly seen just a few years before.” She continued, “I was beginning to integrate all of my emotions, accepting all of what I’d experienced as an expression of what it meant to be alive.” (36)
Welcoming the evolution of experience. Accompanying the welcome of the full spectrum of emotion, is an appreciation at the wide evolutions these emotions pass through, day by day. As one person remarked, “Day becomes night, months become years and so on, but feelings also follow this pattern. They come and go, like the passing of clouds”—comparing that to what happens inside, adding, “these fleeting moments in time are coming and going all your life. When did you start making them so important?” Yes, “they are important at the time, because you feel a certain way, and I totally understand how distressing this is.” But he encourages a patient allowance of mind states to pass. By contrast, Jonathan says, “if you chase it back down the path, grabbing hold of its coat and asking, ‘hey mister why me? When am I going to be ok? When am I going to be normal again?’ I guarantee it will look at you with the dead eyes of a fish and never give you the answer.” (96)
“Time is powerful,” he suggests, “because of the very essence of moving onwards”—noting that “you cannot turn it back, no matter what you think. It’s far bigger than you, and it will carry on regardless of your pleas to go back, or slow down, or even to speed up.”
A moment never lasts; neither does an hour, a day, a week; they all fade in time. How you feel will fade like glimpsing into the past or a fleeing image of the future. Don’t act on feelings. Don’t stare at the bottle of pills thinking that your salvation lies within—ride the waves of time, be the silver white of the wave not the dark below.
And where does that leave any of us who face emotional wrestles? “Every minute is always now.” If that’s true—and the present moment is so important, then we might be able to regard even emotional pain differently. As Jonathan said, “if it’s bad at this minute then so be it.” He encourages people to explore the “possibilities of using time” in recovery “almost like a stopwatch that you can stop and rest anytime.” (96)