A Friendly Antidote to Depression

The topic of an antidote to depression came up on a recent episode of the 10% Happier with Dan Harris podcast in a friendly way. Here’s a paraphrased-condensed version of what caught my ear when broadcast journalist Harris asked guest Andrew Scheffer what the most beneficial part of his meditation was.

Andrew Scheffer: When we lose our happiness, when we become overwhelmed with anger, or frustration, or sadness, I had never been taught a method to recover from that.

And so, all of a sudden, I started seeing there were things that I  could do with my mind that would help me avoid those dramas. And, if I did get caught up in a spell of something, I had a means that I could actually overcome it. That’s empowering.

I can suffer from depression at times and I know there’s something I can do to overcome depression. That is incredibly liberating rather than just feeling like you’re always a victim to this state of mind that can come.

Dan Harris: I suffer from depression occasionally too. So what do you do when depression descends.

Scheffer: I’ve had many years of investigating my mind at times when it’s depressed, and seeing what those variable emotions that arise together are, and so I recognize it now.

There’s also just been a shift in my whole relationship to things. Sadness or loneliness, the depth of those emotions that used to arise don’t arise to that extent anymore.

There’s been a diminishment in their strength, and it’s very heartening to know that there are practices that I can do that will overcome those. It’s not just waiting for them to go away. There’s an antidote to them.

Harris: Can you take me into how that works, the antidote?

Scheffer: Using the practices of loving-kindness and mindfulness. Those two practices for me are very helpful in challenging physical pain, mental pain, emotional pain that comes up. Loving-kindness can soften or strengthen my mind or provide some peace within very difficult emotional or physical circumstances, and mindfulness has that cutting through power.

Inward Friendliness.

I was introduced to the loving-kindness or metta exercise as a series of recitations that helped the mind relax into a state suitable for concentration. The teacher Henepola Gunaratana translated metta as loving-friendliness. Since “loving” can come with so many connotations, I’m happy to refer to it as the friendly intention exercise.

There are many versions of suggested friendly intentions. For the sake of illustration, I currently use these.

May I be well, happy, and peaceful.

May my compassionate efforts always meet with success. 

May I have the patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome the inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

May I always rise above them with ethics, integrity, forgiveness, awareness, and wisdom.

The first round of friendly intentions are directed toward the self because in the culture where the practice originated, the idea of low self-esteem was unheard of. I’m skeptical about starting here when dealing with depression, but see its potential value as a speed bump if one can be aware of a negative thought spiral arising and use it as a cue to recollect these intentions instead. Friendly intentions toward oneself can gradually re-wire the brain’s negative self-talk circuitry.

Outward Friendliness.

The second round extends the friendly intentions to a close friend or family member.

May you be well, happy, and peaceful.

May your compassionate efforts always meet with success. 

May you have the patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome the inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

May you always rise above them with ethics, integrity, forgiveness, awareness, and wisdom.

When negative self-talk makes it hard to believe these friendly intentions toward oneself, directing them to someone close to us may be an easier starting point. Plus, it gives the depressed or anxious brain a respite from focusing on the sticky situation that the self is currently facing.

The third round extends these intentions to casual acquaintances or strangers. By extending our friendly intentions to them, we no longer see them as neutral non-entities. Thinking of these casual acquaintances or strangers as we would a friend can make us feel somewhat more connected.

The fourth round should make us want to cry foul. This is where we extend friendly intentions to the difficult people in our lives. People who frequently or always disagree with us. People who are mean to us. People who anger us. I know! That sounds insane. But, here’s an argument for why it isn’t.

There’s a popular adage that goes: hatred is a poison that you drink expecting someone else to die. The more science-based version of this adage is hatred raises cortisol levels, which can lead to heart disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer, and depression in you, while the object of your hatred remains healthy just to spite you.

In Dan Harris’s book, 10% Happier, my favorite chapter title is “The Self-Interested Case for Not Being a Dick.”

Harris cites a study of people who had practiced a version of the friendliness exercise where the subjects “released significantly lower doses of a stress hormone called cortisol. In other words, practicing compassion appeared to be helping their bodies handle stress in a better way.”

And…if that’s not enough…

“Brain scans showed that acts of kindness registered more like eating chocolate than, say, fulfilling an obligation. The same pleasure centers lit up when we received a gift as when we donated to charity.”

Universal Friendliness.

If extending friendly intentions to difficult people struck me as challenging, the final step, extending friendly intentions toward everyone sounded too cosmic. But, it actually lends some perspective on how to incorporate these intentions into one’s life, which can be especially helpful when feeling isolated.

Re-wiring our brains to acknowledge that we’re not alone in our challenges can help us feel more connected. When we feel slighted, it makes understanding and forgiveness easier, which, again, benefits us. We’re not bad people. We’re just going through a difficult time.

A pitfall to avoid as a friendly intention newbie is to allow this internal attitude to radically change our outward behavior while we’re finding our sea legs. There’s nothing easier to spot than an insincere smile. We’re all conditioned to be wary when strangers are too friendly.

Changing mental habits takes time. And to take the time we need to build a habit, we have to have some confidence that the habit we’re trying to create is useful. Many of us divert ourselves with other people’s struggles by watching a TV show, or movie, or sports to relieve stress. This helps us put our own troubles on hold for a while. Developing this mental habit, systematically widening our circle of friendly intentions can work in a similar real-world way.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.