Free Yourself from Depression
Build STEAM to lift out of that black hole
Posted Mar 12, 2018
Depression can show itself in many ways, and it is expressed differently in different people. While depressed people generally don’t enjoy doing much, they can feel sad or be emotionally numb. They may overeat or lack an appetite. They may sleep all day; or struggle with chronic insomnia. But, no matter how your particular depression manifests, it involves a negative relationship with yourself or being cut off from your inner experiences. So freeing yourself from it means you must change that relationship.
To do this, get to know yourself better. Increased self-awareness offers an opportunity to reconnect with yourself (if you tend to be emotionally numb) or change your negative self-relationship to a positive one. As explained in the article, Want to Better Yourself? Start Here, one way to approach increasing your self-awareness is to attend to five basic domains of awareness, referred to as STEAM: Sensations, Thoughts, Emotions, Actions, and Mentalizing (explained below).
In your efforts to free yourself from depression, you can gain STEAM by considering each domain of awareness separately:
Sensations: What do you sense in your body?
Depression doesn’t just take hold of your mind. It is centered in your body, too. So, getting to know your depression means recognizing it in your body. You may notice that your body feels numb or heavy; or that you feel very tired. You might get to know these different sensations by being broadly open to them or by slowly scanning your body from your feet up to your head.
Thoughts: What are your thoughts?
When you observe your thoughts as an outside person might, you can reflect on them. You can decide whether or not you agree with them. You can decide whether or not the perspective they offer is beneficial.
To help you shift into this observer role, try adding “I’m thinking that” before any of your thoughts. So, rather than just thinking, “I’m all alone in the world,” you can choose to say, “I am thinking that I am all alone in the world.” With this observation, you introduce doubt into an otherwise accepted statement.
Emotions: What are you feeling?
You are probably experiencing a number of different emotions. For instance you might feel lonely, sad, hurt, or angry. These different painful feelings can combine to create a sense of overwhelming depression. People often unconsciously try to guard themselves from this by becoming emotionally numb. However, this self-protection frequently backfires, creating a sense of being alienated from yourself and the world.
Just being aware of your emotions and labeling them can help you relate differently to them. If you identify an emotion as sadness, this label helps you to intellectually observe the emotion. But by focusing on it, you can also allow yourself to feel it. When you experience a number of emotions simultaneously, pick one to focus on. You will likely feel a surge of the emotion that will eventually subside. (If you don’t know what you are feeling, try focusing on your sensations. This can often lead to an awareness of emotions.)
Actions: What are your actions and re-actions?
Pay attention to what you are doing or how you are reacting to situations. For instance, you might have stopped exercising, be staying in bed late, or binging on cookies instead of eating healthy meals. When friends reach out, you might ignore their calls or find that you are quick to snap at them. The more aware you are of your actions and re-actions, the more you will be able to reflect on how they relate to other aspects of your experiences, such as your thoughts and feelings, as well as how others respond to them.
Mentalizing: Do you really “get” what’s going on in you and understand your motivations?
Mentalizing is psychological jargon for really “getting” you or someone else. Using your self-awareness, you can intellectually understand and emotionally connect with your own or someone else’s motivation. So, you might “get” that your friend really does like you despite feeling like no one wants to be around you. Furthermore, you might really appreciate how your father’s harsh criticism when you were a child has left you in a constant state of self-doubt and fear of being rejected.
(If you want to learn more about mentalizing, check out: Feeling Stuck, Lost or Overwhelmed? There is Hope, Emotional Struggles: One Concept Helps A Lot, or the Menninger Clinic's Understanding Mentalizing.)
The process of building STEAM might look something like this: You are aware that you’ve been procrastinating chores in the house and just mindlessly perusing Facebook (Actions). You realize that your inaction is affecting your body – it feels stiff, your lower back hurts, and you sense an emptiness in your chest (Sensations). As you attend to that emptiness, you are struck by sadness and loneliness (Emotions). Almost immediately, you realize that you are criticizing yourself for being such a loser for making mistakes in your new job (Thoughts) – which causes the emptiness and sadness to get stronger. As you process all of this, you realize that your struggles are ones that have been with you since your adolescence and so they are not really about your current situation (Mentalizing).
By increasing your self-awareness, you develop both empathy and compassion for your experience. And this can motivate you to want to make a change. If you have been really depressed, you might start by getting yourself out of bed and showered. Or, if your biggest struggle seems to be self-criticism, you might start to be more aware of how you are hurting yourself. In this way, your compassionate self-awareness will enable you to feel better about yourself and to take action that will help to free yourself from depression.
If you would like to learn more about this topic, check out this brief video:
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships Message Board.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Making change through compassionate awareness