Depression’s Early Warning System

“Depression is not who you are–it involves a conditioned habit that your brain has learned and that your brain can unlearn.”–Elisha Goldstein, Uncovering Happiness

depression sloth
Five Hindrances to Mental Health

The authors of the original mindfulness manual suggested five mental hindrances (temporary mind states that hindered mental health) long before the idea of mental disorders existed in the West.

The five they came up with were addiction to sense pleasures, hatred or ill will, restlessness and worry, doubt, and the one I find most challenging during the shortest days of the year: sloth and torpor.

Sloth and Torpor

Sloth is the reluctance to work or make an effort. 

Torpor is a state of physical or mental inactivity, sluggishness or apathy.

Since I first began practicing mindfulness of the hindrances, I’ve paid a lot of attention to what brings them on.  

The Hindrance Protocol

Simply put, the protocol for working with the hindrances is to notice when they’re present and when they’re not present, notice how they arise and how they disappear, and, as a serious stretch goal, how once they disappear, they don’t arise again (at least not as often) in the future.

In Uncovering Happiness, Elisha Goldstein writes about the depression loop in much the same way. “The first step in uncovering happiness and experiencing freedom from the depression loop is learning how to objectively see the loop in action instead of getting lost in it.”

He compares a depression loop to a traffic circle fed by four access points: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors.  

When Sloth and Torpor are Present

One way that sloth and torpor might serve as an on-ramp for a depression loop is through my reluctance to make the effort to follow my usual wellness regimen (sloth) out of apathy (torpor). 

Given the vital role exercise plays in promoting well-being, I set a daily intention of walking 10,000 steps, which I track with my pedometer.

Here’s how that intention is impacted when sloth and torpor are present.

Physical sensations: There’s a physical sensation of being weighed down. It’s like I’m carrying a child on my shoulders so they can watch a parade, only I’m not getting the positive reinforcement of their enthusiastic responses to the spectacle. 

Thoughts: I do mental simulations of various rainy walking routes, all of them have negative features like mud or submerged sidewalks. I imagine water seeping in through my shoes, deep puddles at corners that I can’t get around without risking my life by stepping out into traffic. Before I can mentally map a route of sufficient distance, the obstacles become insurmountable and the simulation ceases. The physical and psychological benefits seem entirely hypothetical.

Emotions: The voice in my head is judging me, calling me lazy and weak, lacking in character and grit. It feels shameful.  

Behaviors: I’m more likely to check the radar and weather forecast looking for an opportunity to reschedule the activity.

When Sloth and Torpor Are Absent

Behaviors: I check the weather, put on the appropriate clothing, and step outside.

Thoughts: No advance route planning is necessary unless there’s a specific errand to run. 

Emotions: General amusement at squirrel, bird, or crow activity, positivity resonance from seeing fellow pedestrians and dogs.  

Physical sensations: It feels good to be moving. 

How Not Yet Arisen, Sloth and Torpor Arise

Behaviors: Lack of a solid stretch of sleep the night before. This can turn into a cycle if I give in to taking a nap to “catch up” on my sleep.

Physical Sensations: An early production of melatonin due to the muted daylight and early sunset produces a weighty sluggishness.

Thoughts: Traditionally, two kinds of thought are associated with the onset of sloth and torpor. One occurs when there are unresolved conflicts in my life that I contemplate but never work through. This is the same kind of dead-end thinking as unsuccessfully simulating a walking route. It eats up energy, but there’s no renewal from a sense of accomplishment. It’s spinning my wheels.

The second kind would be continually looping back to rationalizations like, “But I’m too tired” or “I’ll do it later.”

Overestimation of the effort required to put on rain gear is another contributing thought.

Emotions: Free-floating resentment or frustration about the shortness of daylight, cloud cover of an already weak sun, a vague sense of injustice about it raining too many days in a row, or before my clothes actually dry from the previous day’s walk.

How Once Arisen, Sloth and Torpor are Abandoned

Thoughts: A rationalization process goes on where I bargain with myself to merely dress for the weather and step outside without a commitment to meet my step count. It also helps if there’s someplace I need to be or an errand I need to run. Then I can combine the task with that objective. 

Emotions: My partner is on the same page as I am as far as walking for fitness goes. It helps to arrange a time when we can walk together to engage in agreeable conversation and take our minds off the weather. 

Behaviors: Setting a time to walk, dressing for the weather, and stepping out the door.

Physical Sensations: Usually some pleasant sensations will kick in if I can manage to get in motion. They may not be as pleasant as they usually are, but once I’m out and moving I acclimate to the damp and/or cold. Once begun, it’s easier to complete the steps, or at least get a decent number, than to return and get out of the rain gear.

How Once Abandoned, Sloth and Torpor Do Not Arise Again

Okay, I’m still struggling with sloth and torpor. I haven’t kicked it, but the more aware I am of the thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors that accompany the hindrance, the more quickly I begin to engage with one of the strategies to overcome it. Writing this post is actually a strong, positive step in strengthening an early warning system before my habitual reactions can take hold.

Ten Minute Exercise

Goldstein recommends keeping a diary of depression cues. Since both the hindrances and depression loops become more challenging once they set habitual reactions in motion, it’s helpful to practice noting our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and behaviors, and selecting appropriate coping strategies in advance when we’re not under their distorting influence.

1. Set an alarm on your phone, computer or other timer to ping you two or more times a day when you’ll be free to pause for a minute or two (or five. You can divide the ten minutes by the number of pings accordingly.)

2. Take a few breaths to check in with yourself and write a brief description of your current thoughts, emotions, any physical sensations that you notice, and the behavior you were engaged in at the time you were pinged.

3. Note whether any hindrances or depression cues are present, absent, or arising.

4. Keep this document with you so that you can add thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors that coincide with hindrances and depression cues.

Starting and keeping such a document will help you recognize that a hindrance that seems permanent (once you’re inside it) is actually changing all the time. Developing curiosity about those changes gives you greater freedom when they arise.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.