How does mindfulness help reduce downward mood spirals?

1. When you enter a phase in our life during which you are vulnerable to depression, you lose touch with what is going on around you. It is a sort of tunnel vision: you can only see part of the landscape. You do not notice the moment when a spiral of low mood is starting.

Mindfulness practice helps you to see more clearly the patterns of the mind; and to learn how to recognise when your mood is beginning to go down. This means you can ‘nip it in the bud’ much earlier than before.

2. The very ‘losing touch’ with things can put a barrier between yourself and the small things in life that might have given you pleasure. This tendency can become extreme in clinical depression where it is known as ‘anhedonia’ (lack of pleasure from things we used to enjoy). But we all may know the feeling, especially when there is too much to do at work or home, or we are preoccupied on a project, when we don’t notice the small pleasures around us.

Mindfulness teaches you a way in which you can get back in touch with the experience of being alive.

3. Low mood can bring back memories and thoughts from the past, and make you worry about the future.

Mindfulness helps to halt the escalation of these negative thoughts and teaches you to focus on the present moment, rather than reliving the past or pre-living the future.

4. When you start to feel low, you tend to react as if your emotions were a problem to be solved: you start trying to use your critical thinking strategies. When these do not work, you re-double your efforts to use them. You end up over-thinking, brooding, ruminating, and living in your head.

Mindfulness helps you to enter an alternative mode of mind that includes thinking but is bigger than thinking. It teaches you to shift mental gears, from the mode of mind dominated by critical thinking (likely to provoke and accelerate downward mood spirals) to another mode of mind in which you experience the world directly, non-conceptually, and non-judgementally.

5. When you have been depressed, you understandably dread it coming back. At its first sign, you may try to suppress the symptoms, pretend they aren’t there, or push away any unwanted thoughts or memories. But such suppression often does not work, and the very things you tried to get rid of come back with renewed force.

Mindfulness takes a different approach. It helps develop your willingness to experience emotions, your capacity to be open to even painful emotions. It helps give you the courage to allow distressing mood, thoughts and sensations to come and go, without battling with them. We discover that difficult and unwanted thoughts and feelings can be held in awareness, and seen from an altogether different perspective – a perspective that brings with it a sense of warmth and compassion to the suffering you are experiencing.