“And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” – Oh The Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss
Whether you wake up in an unexplainably foul mood, or whether you have been dealing with depression for months or years, we all know what it feels like to be in a “slump.” And once we get stuck, it really can be difficult to get un-stuck. It seems our brains more easily ruminate on bad feelings than relish the pleasant ones.
Are You Dealing with Depression?
According to Rick Hanson in his book, Hardwiring Happiness, our brains are wired to take in the bad and ignore the good. This makes us worried, irritated, and stressed, instead of confident, secure, and happy. The good news here is that we can build inner strengths through daily practice and actually change our brain.
Sit down for a minute and just let your mind wander. If you can, take note of the thoughts as they seemingly involuntarily come and go. Whether we’re dealing with depression or not, the majority of our thoughts naturally turn to the negative things – ruminating about how a partner constantly lets you down, or a boss who is unfair, the limits of a chronic illness, or just an unpleasant interaction with the salesperson at the store. The brain’s default is pessimism. But we can change this through time and steady practice.
Practicing this simple exercise for a few minutes a day can make a huge difference – not just in your mood – but in your relationships, your career, your creativity, your success. This is not just positive thinking, which only impacts your thinking short-term. This is going more deeply into your brain to change patterns that have been deeply rooted for years and years. This exercise will teach you how to relish the pleasant experiences in your life – experiences that are just as real as the negative ones. We can change our way of being in the world.
Sit down in a safe, comfortable spot. With hands relaxed and shoulders relaxed, give the full weight of your body to the chair, couch, or floor. Close your eyes and simply breathe. In slowing down like this, thoughts may become rapid fire: To Do list, what you need at the grocery store, an upcoming work deadline. Just observe these thoughts and then create distance between you and them. One way to do this is to imagine your thoughts as clouds in the sky – way up there – passing by one by one. Then immediately return your focus to your breaths – how the air feels as you inhale and where you feel it is as you exhale. Breath by breath, move into deeper inhales and longer exhales until you find your rhythm.
Once you are there, remember one moment of joy or contentment – whatever comes into your mind as you keep breathing. (This may take a few minutes, and that is okay. Our brains are not naturally wired to relish those positive experiences. Just keep breathing and waiting.) When you have your moment – maybe from years ago, from childhood, or from just yesterday – picture in your mind’s eye what you saw around you in that moment. A color, an outdoor setting, a person, a beloved animal…. As you breathe in and out still, just picture where you were in that moment of joy.
Next, with each inhale you take, imagine what you were smelling in that moment of contentment or joy. The freshly cut grass, the cake baking in the oven, the puppy breath, the salty air surrounding the ocean water….
Now remember what you heard in that pleasant moment. The waves crashing, the laughter of your children, complete silence, the music that was playing….
What was your body experiencing in that moment of joy? Maybe you were lying on the sand looking up at the sun, or your feet were pounding the dirt trail in the mountains as you ran…. Maybe your body was immersed in warm water as you took a bath, or your fingers were intentionally feeling each blade of grass….
Even your sense of taste was involved in that moment joy. Whether it was that cup of coffee or tea you could still taste, or the lingering dark chocolate flavor…. The gum or favorite candy in your mouth.
Next time you find yourself dealing with depression, stuck in a negative thought cycle, ruminating on an unpleasant interaction, or feeling overtaken by a bad mood or depressing sadness, try this exercise. Be patient with yourself as you start practicing. But have hope that this will make a huge difference in your brain and in your life.
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8
“Downcast,” courtesy of AvenueG, Flickr Creative Commons; “Journal Entry,” courtesy of Ray Dumas, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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