Most people who experience depression — or even just a bout of the blues — try to “fix” it with an antidepressant or something else to make them feel better.

A different but highly effective approach: Do not try to fix the uncomfortable feelings. That’s a key aspect of mindfulness — which involves paying special attention to what’s going on in our minds and bodies in a nonjudgmental way. With this approach, many people who have battled depression or sadness have experienced significant improvement in their symptoms.

For anyone who has ever suffered the pain of depression or low moods, this approach may sound wrongheaded. But the truth is it works. Of course, there are instances in which antidepressants may be needed. However, when people stop taking the drugs, depression often returns.

Important finding: People with a history of depression who used mindfulness in an organized program had half as many recurrences as people not on the program.

Here’s what you need to know to use mindfulness to cope with sadness or depression… *


Most people don’t realize that it’s not the sad thoughts and feelings that cause us to spiral downward. It’s what we do about them that matters. Two of the most common coping mechanisms to get out of a bad mood — trying to think our way out of a problem or trying to avoid painful feelings — actually trap us in the darkness.

The reasons…

Why thinking doesn’t help. We are accustomed to believing that we can think our way out of any problem. So it’s only natural to regard a dark mood as a problem to be solved. When we’re in this dreary state, we might ask ourselves questions such as Why do I feel this way? How can I change my life? What should I be doing differently? We believe that if we think hard enough, we’ll find a solution.

But the opposite is true. Dwelling on how bad you feel, on the distance between the way things are and the way things should be, just reinforces your mood. Your mind begins running in an endless circle — and it seems as though there is no way out.

Why ignoring feelings doesn’t help. We often think that if we ignore painful feelings, they will go away. When we try to push away these strong emotions, they rebound, stronger than ever. Think about it this way: If someone told you not to think about a white bear, guess what you would do. You couldn’t help but think about a white bear or how you shouldn’t think about it. Suppressing thoughts or feelings doesn’t work.


The practice of mindfulness enables you to look at your thoughts and feelings in a different way. Instead of dwelling on how bad you feel and struggling to do something about it, you simply experience what’s going on.

Mindfulness encourages you to be aware of your emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations without judging or interpreting them. You “watch” them… identify them… and acknowledge them instead of lingering over each one.

To get an idea of what mindfulness feels like, apply it to an ordinary activity that you do every day. While washing the dishes, for instance, notice how the warm water feels on your hands… how your hands and arms feel as you turn a dish over and rinse it off. Make washing dishes the full focus of your attention, not a task to get past. If your mind wanders, bring your focus back to the dishes. What you’ve done is to bring physical sensations into the realm of mindfulness.

Next, take thoughts and feelings into the realm of mindfulness. Being aware of your thoughts and feelings without reacting to them is the key to keeping negative emotions from cascading. This can be particularly challenging, which is why it’s helpful to begin as though thoughts are sounds that you are simply listening to.

Here’s how: While sitting quietly, let your attention shift to your hearing. Open your mind to sounds from all directions, near and far, subtle as well as obvious sounds. Be aware of these auditory sensations without thinking about where they’re coming from or what they mean. Note the way they appear and fade. When you realize that your attention has drifted, note where it has gone and gently come back to the sounds.

After trying this a few times with sounds, shift your awareness to your thoughts. Let your mind “hear” them as if they were coming from outside, noting how they arise, linger and move on.

Helpful: Imagine your thoughts projected on a screen at the movies… or see them as clouds passing across a clear sky. When a thought provokes strong emotions or physical feelings, notice this as well but only notice it, without trying to draw any conclusions from it.

Acknowledge if a feeling is particularly unpleasant. Does it cause any physical sensations or discomfort? Instead of ignoring the thought or the discomfort because it’s unpleasant and you don’t want to deal with it, sit with it for a little while. This can be difficult to do.

Helpful: Notice your thought patterns. If you are feeling like this — I’ll never be happy again or I feel like a failure — you can say to yourself, There’s that “never- be-happy-ever” feeling again.

How often to practice: It is recommended that you set aside 30 minutes every day to practice mindfulness. You can do this in a variety of ways — lying on the floor comfortably and focusing on your breathing… or walking and focusing on how your legs and arms feel as they move.

Even incorporating mindfulness for just five minutes at a time into routine daily activities — such as showering… brushing your teeth… or taking out the garbage — can help. The point is to be able to focus on what you are doing when you are doing it.

When you practice mindfulness regularly, it makes it easier to use the technique when you need it most — when you are upset because you are stuck in traffic… are in the middle of a heated argument… or begin to feel a bout of depression coming on.

*Consult a doctor before trying this approach if you have experienced suicidal thoughts or your depression interferes with your ability to perform daily activities.