I’m taking part in a research study into the efficacy of mindfulness in preventing depression relapse. People who’ve experienced depression often report difficulties with the following:
- Turning off my mind
- Thinking too much
- Being caught in my mind
- Taking things too personally
- Being a perfectionist
- Finding more energy
- Setting limits in my relationships
If any of these sound familiar, you may want to follow my progress to see if mindfulness could help you.
The study comprises eight weekly sessions. In this post I’ll tell you what we covered in Session 1 and about the homework I completed over the course of the first week.
What is Mindfulness?
The first session introduced the concept of Mindfulness, and it’s arch-enemy, Auto-pilot. A certain amount of auto-pilot activity is desirable in life (walking, reading), but when it controls emotions and feelings it can make you more vulnerable to negative thought patterns. Mindfulness starts with self-awareness, becoming more conscious of the body and physical sensations, then moves beyond that to the external world as we learn to notice the feel of the breeze on our faces, the warmth of the sun on our skin, the smells carried on the air and the solidity of the ground beneath our feet. Gradually, we learn to absorb the details in our surroundings. It’s difficult to begin with but it can open up a wealth of new enriching experiences if you’re willing to persevere. After finding a comfortable seated position, I prepared for my first taste of mindfulness:
The Raisin Exercise
The aim is to take a raisin and try to examine it as though you had never seen one before. Here’s a transcript of the instructions I followed, if you want to do the exercise yourself you can find various video guides on Youtube:
Note. There is at least a 10-second pause between phrases, and the instructions are delivered in a matter-of-fact way, at a slow but deliberate pace, asking you to do the following:
You’re taking a raisin and holding it in the palm of your hand, or between your
finger and thumb. (Pause)
Paying attention to seeing it. (Pause)
Looking at it carefully, as if you had never seen such a thing before. (Pause)
Turning it over between your fingers, (Pause)
Exploring its texture between your fingers. (Pause)
Examining the highlights where the light shines … the darker hollows and folds.
Letting your eyes explore every part of it, as if you had never seen such a thing
And if, while you are doing this any thoughts come to mind about “what a strange
thing we are doing” or “what is the point of this” or “I don’t like these,” then just
noting them as thoughts and bringing your awareness back to the object. (Pause)
And now smelling the object, taking it and holding it beneath your nose, and with
each inbreath, carefully noticing the smell of it. (Pause)
And now taking another look at it (Pause)
And now slowly taking the object to your mouth, maybe noticing how your hand and
arm know exactly where to put it, perhaps noticing your mouth watering as it comes
And then gently placing the object in the mouth, noticing how it is “received” without
biting it, just exploring the sensations of having it in your mouth. (Pause)
And when you are ready, very consciously taking a bite into it and noticing the tastes
that it releases. (Pause)
Slowly chewing it … noticing the saliva in the mouth, … the change in consistency of
the object. (Pause)
Then, when you feel ready to swallow, seeing if you can first detect the intention to
swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you
actually swallow it. (Pause)
Finally, seeing if you can follow the sensations of swallowing it, sensing it moving
down to your stomach, and also realizing that your body is now exactly one raisin
At different points throughout the 10 minute exercise, my mind wandered and I had to bring my focus back, and more than once I just wanted to eat the damn raisin and be done with it! But in the end, I have to confess, I got a lot out of this. It really brings home what we miss, what we fail to register as we zoom through life with our minds on other things. It was the fullest 10 minutes of my life – and it made me wonder, “What if…?”
What if I could apply this to the rest of my life?
What if I could get this much out of activities I do everyday?
I used to be an avid reader – I could get through two or three books in a week, but with three small children, I’m lucky if I get 10 minutes to myself. My concentration is weak, and staying focused takes more effort – my mind wanders as soon as my back’s turned. But I can see how developing this kind of deliberate awareness could help.
Becoming mindful daily
My homework for the week, which I logged on a daily basis, was to eat one meal and complete one routine activity, mindfully, each day. This was harder than I thought. When I ate my raisin I was alone; I could give my full attention to what I was doing. It was impossible to replicate this at mealtimes when my children needed to be monitored and family conversation was taking place. I tried eating breakfast before the morning rush and that was better, but I couldn’t always get that quiet time to myself, so I settled for dipping in and out of mindfulness over the course of a meal – or eating a snack mindfully, alone, during the day. I quickly became aware of aromas and their ability to make my mouth water, and of flavours, like the orange flavour of my toothpaste (bought by mistake!) – normally I barely register them, because my attention is elsewhere.
For the mindful routine activity, I did a variety of tasks: brushing my teeth, washing up, making dough, going to the store for bread, and trying to be mindful when I went for a run or a walk. Some days, going to an enclosed public area like a shop or waiting room alone can make me anxious, but I found being mindful forced me to slow down and take each moment at a time, instead of becoming tense thinking ahead. It helped too, with the mental struggle in my run, when your mind is telling you your body can’t do it. I concentrated on my breathing, and on staying in the present instead of thinking of the distance still to cover.
Mindfulness made me feel calmer and more open and accepting when I was practicing it – a little bit Zen – and although Nirvana is a way off yet, it felt good, positive.
So how will it help with depression?
As the sessions continue, the goal is to strengthen this skill so we can bring this quality of awareness to situations where we get stuck in difficult thoughts and emotions - the kind of situations that can spiral into depression.
Paying attention in this way will help me to connect with aspects of life that otherwise might just slide by unnoticed, both the enjoyable and the difficult. Missing out on the enjoyable means that life isn’t as rich as it might be. Not being aware of the difficult means that depression can creep up on you when your mind’s elsewhere. A wandering mind is particularly dangerous when you’re feeling low because automatic thoughts (remember auto-pilot?) and memories can easily pull you back into depression. That’s why it’s helpful to be aware of your stream of thoughts and to be able to disengage from them intentionally.
Next week: We crank up the intensity with the Body Scan and three daily mindfulness exercises…