by Jackie Gardner-Nix
‘Tis the season to be in a good mood, but for some of us the holiday season may not be so great. We can be at the mercy of extended family who don’t understand “why you still haven’t recovered from the pain yet”, and others who wish you a “truly wonderful holiday” when it brings sad memories, not happy ones. We recently coined the phrase in class that these are examples of “emotional fender benders”.
This is also the season of shorter days and low light. Those prone to onset of depression, or just low mood at these bleaker times of the year, called “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (“SAD”), may be hauling out the therapeutic lights which help to treat the disorder, and/or booking a vacation in the sun, if affordable. (see light-therapy.com
Mindfulness and daily meditation practice can help to limit the extent of the low mood and prevent the depression setting in, similar to the way we can use this skill to prevent physical pain exacerbations.
How does this work?
When a challenging event happens or when triggered by something which reminds us of a difficult experience in the past, propelling us into a sad or low mood, the mind tends to generate thoughts which support the sadness, “feeding” and amplifying the sad, difficult feelings. Research shows that when a list of sad, happy and neutral words is read to experimental subjects to see which ones they can remember, sad people remember the sad words much more than the neutral or happy ones.
We generally don’t like the sad thoughts, so, as they are accumulating we may be trying to push them away and avoid them, which usually makes the situation worse. Working at supressing them lowers our mood even more and a feedback loop occurs.
As we see in the diagram above, upsetting event or context leads to a sad mood which, in turn, leads to automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) which leads to emotional amplification. When adding the attempt to suppress negative thoughts the cycle leads to an even lower mood.
Mindfully, even when sad, we can notice the ANTs and know what they are capable of doing—dropping us further into a bad state, even depression or a physical pain exacerbation. We can also acknowledge that the ANTs are “cognitive distortions”, meaning not really true, or overly pessimistic and not the most likely to happen, such as “I’m going to fail”; or “I’ll never amount to anything”, or what ever internal programming we may have picked up from critics from our past.
The skill we practice in Mindfulness is allowing ourselves to feel the sad mood without running from it, and notice the negative thoughts as part of a usual train of events which used to take us on the journey to “never want to go there” land. So we can note the ANTs as familiar (“There I go again”) and like clouds in the sky, know they will pass. Not fine while we watch them, but we know nothing stays, and at some future time, sooner rather than later if we can see it this way, we will feel a lighter mood.
Even watching our mood fluctuate throughout a day in response to all the events which happen can tell us this.
The down side of course, is: remember that ex-boyfriend (girlfriend) who swore s/he loved you and would love you forever? S/he may well have loved you at the time, but, with what we now know about how things change, s/he was on dangerous ground with the second statement!