Depression – in the form of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) – remains the leading cause of disability among Americans aged 15 to 44 years old. In the recent past, depression was the most common mental health issue in the U.S. (now surpassed by anxiety), and it remains a major problem, affecting tens of millions of Americans annually.
While medication can be a helpful and necessary form of treatment, Buddhist psychology takes a different approach when it comes to managing depression. A great deal of Buddhism focuses on the mind and our patterns of thought. When it comes to thinking, the Buddha said “the mind is everything: what you think, you become”. Other famous quotes by the Buddha include “Rule your mind or it will rule you”, “Peace comes from within, do not seek it without” and “Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” To sum it up – suffering stems from the mind, from our own thinking.
Our brains are wired to have what’s called a “negativity bias”, which is a protective evolutionary mechanism. We’re wired to detect possible threats so that we can ensure our own safety and survival, but this bias can also lead to mental health problems such as depression. When we believe everything our inner critic says, and we listen to all the negative self-talk in our minds, we can far too easily become depressed, anxious or afraid. By focusing on the negative, constantly comparing ourselves to others and trying to mind-read (or assume we know what other people are thinking or feeling), our minds lead us into all sorts of emotionally-distressing traps.
Luckily, techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga are able to help us detach from our toxic thinking. We learn how to step back from the incessant noise in our heads and create space between ourselves and our inner monologue. While we can’t necessarily erase or even change the content of our thoughts, in stepping back from the stream of consciousness, we can choose whether or not to believe them. And in creating this choice for ourselves, we find empowerment – and possibly even liberation from depression.