Often times the funniest things come out of the darkest places. As more information comes out on the death of Robin Williams, we are learning about the addictions and depression that he struggled with for decades. Like a lot of people who struggle with depression, the indulgence in drugs and alcohol was for Robin Williams a way to cope with his depression. Like he said in an interview with the comedian Marc Maron when talking about the addictions that he battled, “It’s trying to fill the hole. It’s fear.”
But fear of what?
To many people Williams had it all- success, fame, adulation, a beautiful wife, children, money, a nice house and the freedom to do whatever he wanted. With all that, we wonder why he would take his own life? But still today, the tormenting feeling of fear is something that we understand very little about. With all of the philosophical and psychological literature on the nature of fear, we still seem unaware of the way that fear works on our minds and bodies. Human beings (as far as I am aware) are the only species who have the ability to think about what comes next, our future. A maladaptive result of this ingrained natural ability can often be excessive amounts of worry, a discontent with the present moment, a constant feeling of incompletion, stress, a nagging feeling of impending doom and an unpleasant awareness of our mortality. Where some turn towards religion others turn towards alcohol and drugs to escape from this existential despair.
There are two major forms of depressive disorders, major depression and persistent depressive disorder, which is a depressed mood that lasts for more than two years. Within these two forms, the severity of depression can vary over time. Depression can manifest in a number of forms: a sad mood, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities, fluctuation in weight, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue, inappropriate guilt, difficulty with concentration, as well as repeated and often obsessive thoughts of death. Individuals often become defenseless under the weight of depression. They have no energy to engage in physical activity and they often endure sleep abnormalities. As a result their health and relationships deteriorate and they find themselves stuck in a downward spiral that is hard to come back from.
The most widely prescribed medication for depression is SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). The aim of SSRIs is to regenerate or modify the balance of critical signaling molecules in the brain, called neurotransmitters. As effective as SSRIs can be for some individuals in the short term, they tend to have more extreme negative physiological and psychological effects in the long term (all though this is still being studied). Individuals who try and go off SSRIs have to deal with a lengthy and sometimes frightening withdrawal process and those who do eventually go off their SSRI medication often find themselves back in the dark hole of depression and anxiety. SSRIs are not that different from the ouroboros- the serpent who is always eating his own tail.
The Western medical model does not offer individuals who struggle with depression (or excessive fear) many effective options. Some individuals who are not helped by traditional treatments will try targeted radiation therapy or a more contemporary form of electroshock therapy known as ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). The benefits of these treatments are not yet proven to outweigh the negative effects on a person’s long-term psychological well-being and longevity. No matter how hard Western medicine tries to re-wire the mind, the fear that Robin Williams spoke of seems to grow in proportion to the amount of drugs and medical therapies that we use to try and kill it. Fear seems to be as much apart of us as are our eyes and hands. Fear is what makes us human, but for many individuals fear drains them of any long lasting pleasure and/or satisfaction that can come with being alive. For many, the only way to get away from the continual black cloud that fear can place over every aspect of their life is to no longer exist.
Mindfulness is a tool and an effective option for dealing with the depression that is often triggered by chronic fear. Psychologists from the University of Exeter recently published a study into “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” (MBCT), finding it to be better than drugs or counseling for depression. Remarkably, four months after starting, three quarters of the patients felt well enough to stop taking antidepressants.
In mentally healthy people, fearful thoughts pass quickly but in people who suffer from depression they don’t. These negative thoughts hang around like bugs stuck in a spider’s web. MBCT tackles the chronic negative rumination (brooding) and teaches people to be more compassionate to themselves and others. It helps individuals to become fully present with what is (acceptance). Through the practice of mindfulness, individuals come to realize that thoughts come and go of their own accord, and that your conscious self or your awareness is distinctly different from your thoughts. When we can learn how to disidentify from over-thinking by becoming aware of our thoughts and allowing thoughts to move across the screen of our consciousness like clouds in the sky. When we are able to do this, suddenly our lives and emotional states become more balanced. This may not make the depression go away, but it certainly makes it more manageable. The effects of mindfulness practice are similar to turning the volume on your stereo way down. The negative thoughts and feeling are often still there (although they no longer hang around very long), but they are no longer disrupting our entire life.
“One of the key features of depression is that it hijacks your attention,” says Professor Mark Williams, who is the author of Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. “We all tend to bring to the forefront of our minds the thoughts and feelings that reflect our current mood.” If we are depressed or anxious, we tend to think about the bad things that have happened to us and/or the future bad things that are going (so we think) to happen to us. Our thoughts become obsessively negative and we can spiral into a deep depression. Again and again, the scientific and psychological research shows that mindfulness practices are an incredibly effective and non-harmful way to prevent and break the downward spiral that sadly claimed the life of a talented actor who was able to make many of us laugh and cry.
A Typical Mindfulness Meditation:
1. Sit upright in a straight-backed chair, with your spine about an inch from the back of the chair, and your feet flat on the floor.
2. Close your eyes. Use your mind to watch your breath as it flows in and out. Observe your sensations without judgment. Do not try to alter your breathing.
3. After a while your mind will wander. Gently bring your attention back to your breath. The act of realizing that your mind has wandered – and bringing your attention back – is the key thing.
4. Your mind will eventually become calm.
5. Repeat every day for 20-30 minutes.