When I first meet clients who are suffering from persistent low mood or depression, a common question I ask them is about what hobbies or activities they are interested in and that give them pleasure.
A previous article (H is for Hobbies) looked at the benefits of having a hobby or pastime and my question to new clients is not a mere idle topic of conversation. I am particularly interested in hobbies, pastimes or interests that take the individual outside - not just physically outdoors, but outside their minds.
It is undoubtedly a positive thing to be aware of one’s own thoughts. Mindfulness-based practices (meditative or contemplative tasks that enable us to become more in touch with our thoughts, feelings and the relationship between the two) are enormously popular at the moment and have been proven to have benefits for one’s mental health. However, there is a fine line between being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings and becoming completely absorbed in them.
A common symptom of depression is the individual’s inability to see beyond their thoughts and feelings at that time. It has been likened to being trapped in the prison of one’s own mind. When someone is suffering from low mood, their negative feelings lead to negative thoughts which, in turn, reinforce the way they are feeling. It becomes a vicious circle from which it can be extremely difficult to break free.
This is where an activity that takes you outside your mind can be a welcome respite. The ability to ‘lose yourself’ in an enjoyable task can be extremely therapeutic. For the time that we are absorbed in a pleasurable activity, we are able to ‘switch off’ that cycle of negative thoughts and feelings. We allow ourselves to step outside the prison of our mind.
Sometimes, stepping outside your mind might also involve leaving the house and engaging with the world outside our front door. When suffering from low mood, anxiety or depression, people have a tendency to shut themselves away from the rest of the world. This is an avoidant behaviour, normally with the intention of self-protection (“the world is a scary place but it can’t get to me here”).
Unfortunately, when people shut themselves away, they are often shutting themselves in with their negative thoughts and feelings. The trap is sprung - they are now likely to continue to isolate themselves as endless rumination on their thoughts and feelings will reinforce the sense of threat from the outside world. They find themselves stuck in both their house and their mind.
The only way to challenge the belief that the world is a scary place is to step outside and experience some of the positive things that the world has to offer. This is not easy, particularly when you has been hiding away for a long time. The first stage of freeing yourself from a trap is understanding that you are stuck in one.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
01851 871094 / 07815662208