Before moving on to the next theme, take a moment to look back at last week’s themes and assignments.
Think about the exercise involving unpleasant experiences. How was it to try to examine unpleasant or difficult experiences consciously? Did you notice anything new about yourself or your experiences? How could this exercise be related to your mood?
How was it to examine familiar things with the mind of a beginner? What kinds of emotions did this exercise arouse in you? How could you continue to practise using your beginner’s mind?
Finally, do the familiar three-minute meditation exercise to settle yourself in the present moment.
Activating yourself for functioning
Depression very often has a negative impact on a person’s ability to function. In cases of minor depression, the person usually has enough of their ability to function left to be able to manage obligatory everyday tasks. In more severe states of depression, the person’s ability to function may become so low that they do not even get out of bed every day, for example.
It may take time for a person to regain their ability to function after depression. As such, this is something to pay special attention to. The next video provides more information about regaining one’s ability to function.
Regaining functional ability
Contemplate: How is your ability to function at the moment? Are you able to take care of yourself? How are you with everyday chores? Would you like to improve your ability to function in some area of your life?
A decline in a person’s ability to function, e.g. due to an illness, may be an underlying cause of depression. You could say that the relationship between depression and functional ability goes both ways: they both affect each other. Accordingly, the activation of functioning is one of the best ways to treat depression.
It is important to start with small steps, especially if we have lost our ability to function. We people have a tendency to overestimate what we can achieve in the short term and underestimate what we can achieve in the long term. We often strive for excessively large changes too fast, thus exposing ourselves to experiences of failure.
Our functioning may have been on autopilot for a long time. As we learned in the previous weeks, the autopilot mode often steers our thinking towards patterns that are harmful, unfortunately. It may also prompt us to act in ways that do not take us towards recovery. Conscious choices of what we want to do and carrying out these actions consume mental resources, but they give back a lot.
Our mind has a natural tendency to avoid unnecessary strain and things that can cause negative emotions. This results in procrastination and various mental blocks that cause us to fail to carry out actions that would contribute to our wellbeing and even gratification. These mental blocks can be something like:
- “I can’t do this.”
- “I don’t know how.”
- “This is too difficult.”
- “I’m going to fail.”
- “It’s not worth it.”
- “It’s not going to help anyway.”
- “I’m too tired.”
- “I’m not going to finish it anyway.”
Contemplate: Do the sentences above sound familiar to you? Do you notice similar thoughts racing through your mind when planning to do something? Write down your own mental blocks.
The aim of mental blocks, such as the examples above, is to protect us from failures, disappointments, discomfort and other difficult mental states. However, they also gradually narrow our life. The more power we give to such thoughts, the more difficult it becomes to take action. In turn, this contributes to our perception of ourselves as lazy, incapable, not good enough, etc.
You have previously tried approaching your thoughts as mere thoughts. Our thoughts are not always true. You can apply the same principle to mental blocks. They are not necessarily an indication of how things are in reality. When you notice such thoughts in your mind, see if you can thank your mind for producing a thought to protect you and tell your mind that you are not currently in need of protection.
Exercise: examine the mental blocks you wrote down. Try to turn them into new sentences with words and phrases such as ‘yet’, ‘I believe that’, ‘I think that’, ‘my depression is telling me that’, ‘I’m afraid that’, etc. For example:
“My depression is telling me that I can’t do this.”
“I don’t know how, yet. I can learn.”
“I think that I’m going to fail.”
A marathon is run one step at a time. A book is read one sentence at a time. Mental wellbeing is built one deed at a time. One of the most important questions you can ask yourself when recovering from depression is: “What is the smallest possible deed that I could do right now for my own wellbeing?” You can formulate the question in many different ways, but the basic principle is the same.
It is very likely that a single small deed will not have a significant effect on your mood. But a small deed has a significantly lower threshold than something major. As such, especially when you are having challenges with activating yourself for functioning or your goal is to modify your own behaviour, you should always start from something small. This way, you make it possible for yourself to succeed and realise that achieving a change or activating yourself for functioning is not as arduous, difficult and frightening as it may have been in your thoughts.
Exercise: write down a few tiny deeds that you could do right now. One deed can last less than a minute. Do one such deed right now. Place a piece of paper in a visible spot and write down any small deeds you have done.
Gratification is one of the strongest sources of motivation for almost all people. You can and should seek gratification as part of balanced life. The significance of gratification in wellbeing can be illustrated with the following mental image.
Imagine an old-time scale with two pans. This scale represents wellbeing and balance in life. On one pan, you place all difficult and unpleasant things that undermine wellbeing. On the other pan, you place all nice, pleasant, important and valuable things that increase wellbeing. With depression, the pan with negative things becomes filled to the brim, while the pan with things that bring you joy only has a few items at the bottom. Additionally, every negative thing is several times heavier than a positive thing. It would take five positive things to counterbalance one negative thing. As such, when you do a small deed that gives you joy, it will not tip the scale visibly in any direction. But do not be discouraged – when you keep accumulating positive things in their pan one at a time over a long period of time, the scale begins to balance itself out.
At this point, you may think that there are still negative things on the scale and that you should get rid of them altogether. You should bear in mind that while such a wish is very understandable, it is unfortunately impossible. As we discussed at the beginning of this programme, suffering is an inevitable part of human life, and we can make life very difficult for ourselves if we try to avoid suffering altogether.
It may be that depression has flattened your emotions so much that it is difficult for you to even recognise what gratification feels like. Your experience of gratification may have changed – it may not be as bright or intense as before. This is all the more reason for you to pay very conscious attention to gratification, joy, satisfaction and other pleasant emotions. In a way, you can start looking into what kinds of activities, situations and interactions, and thoughts and memories feel pleasant to you at this moment.
Contemplate: what kinds of things made you happy or gave you joy as a child? Look back to situations, games, people, places, views, hobbies and other things from your childhood. Things that bring us joy as children can often be something very small and mundane. Could you return to these things now?
A decline in a person’s ability to function is likely to affect their sense of capability or so-called self-efficacy. This refers to the person’s own beliefs and assessments regarding their capability to carry out different tasks. For example, the belief “I’ll get through this” could indicate a positive sense of capability.
A positive sense of capability is usually connected to our wellbeing and increases our motivation to do things. When we feel that we are incapable or unmotivated to do anything, we may not even want to try. Because of this, reinforcing our sense of capability may lead to a positive cycle in which doing one thing leads to another and every deed increases our sense of capability.
Our sense of capability grows stronger with experiences of success, and the most likely way to have experiences of success is to set sufficiently small goals for ourselves. In other words, the small step principle is applicable here as well.
In addition to experiences of success, our sense of capability is reinforced through positive feedback. We need to have people around us who will motivate, compliment and encourage us. Do you have such people in your inner circle? Could you ask someone directly for feedback on your work or achievements in your studies or hobbies?
The sense of capability also involves a realistic view of our own capabilities, as well as the learning of skills. Depression is likely to make us see ourselves as more helpless than we actually are. Learning new skills or even performing familiar tasks can give us a much-needed view that we are not helpless after all and that we are able to accomplish things. This can increase our sense of self-direction, which is key for motivation. When we feel capable of influencing our own actions and situation, we take on a more active approach than we would if we felt completely powerless over them.
No deed is insignificant. However, deeds that contribute especially much to reinforcing our sense of capability have to do with taking care of ourselves and managing our everyday life. Organising things, cleaning, planning our use of time and exercise are good examples of such deeds. Of course, you should take your own resources into consideration, and there is no need to berate yourself if you do not manage to do something you had planned. Instead, you can be grateful to yourself for every small deed that contributes to your wellbeing and a smoother everyday life.
Exercises for the week
This week, consciously observe pleasant experiences the same way you observed unpleasant experiences last week. When examining such experiences, write down the following:
- What was your experience?
- What did you feel in your body during the experience? Describe the different sensations as accurately as you can.
- What emotions did you notice?
- What kinds of thoughts were going on in your mind?
- What are your thoughts now as you are writing about your experience?
Additionally, try to consciously carry out small deeds that you have planned for your wellbeing. When doing so, pay conscious attention to how carrying out these deeds feels to you, what kinds of thoughts and emotions they arouse in you and what kinds of bodily experiences they entail. Enable yourself to see it when you successfully complete these deeds. For example, you can cross off completed deeds on your list, place a sticker by each completed deed, go pick a flower for yourself for every completed deed or otherwise make the completion of deeds visible to yourself.