Coping with depression in academic life: creating space through contemplative practice

I have felt this blog developing in my mind for sometime and was finally inspired to get on with it after receiving an email on 4th February about it being ‘Time to Talk Day‘. I currently work as a Senior Lecturer and in this blog I explore how I cope with academic life when depressive symptoms arise and explain how contemplative practice has transformed my response to things when the colour drains out of life.

These are just personal reflections on what has helped me. I describe some symptoms that some may find upsetting. I am not suggesting that these steps will be appropriate for everyone to respond to acute mental illness nor should they replace seeking appropriate health care.

Waves with no ’cause’

I suffered from my first episode of severe depression when I was 19. It took several years, inpatient and out-patient treatment and antidepressants to begin to live independently again. Since then there have been numerous periods of depression some deeper and longer than others, each requiring different levels of intervention. I now consider myself to be well much of the time but I still experience waves of depressive symptoms at least once or twice a year.

The ways these symptoms manifest does shift but tearfulness, sleep disruption, no sense of self-worth, irritability, wanting to be alone (this is fun in lock down!) and poor concentration often feature. This excerpt from Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘It was not death’ captures my sense of living with depression:

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down-
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –

When everything that ticked-has stopped-
And Space stares-all around-
Or Grisly frosts-first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground-

Excerpt from It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up by Emily Dickinson (Accessed at Poetry Foundation)

I used to try and understand why these symptoms arose at a particular time, keen to fix whatever the cause was. However, I have found this investigation to be futile as often no one thing can be pin pointed. I have therefore come to accept that every now and again these feelings are part of my experience – this acceptance alone has brought its own peace. I no longer hold myself responsible for ‘curing’ myself or making these symptoms go away. My role is to respond appropriately to what is arising, take care of myself as best I can and when necessary seek help from others.

Mindfulness – noticing untrustworthy thoughts…

One of the things I find most challenging when one of these waves manifests is the sudden shift in my confidence and sense of self-worth. It feels as though suddenly everyone else in the world is doing amazingly and everything I have ever done adds up to nothing. Within academia where there is pressure to perform and show that you are performing as an individual I think this can be particularly pernicious. My thoughts drag others into this too and without any reason I suddenly feel that others don’t want to work with me or have a low opinion of my work.

What my mindfulness practice has given me is the ability to stand back and really question these thoughts. Why was I working very happily with these supportive colleagues just a week or so ago? Do I really think they have the time or inclination to be judging my performance? I love my job and for the most part I am very happy in what I do. I know that I contribute, that I am valued and that I can teach. So there is an incongruence between what I think and feel about myself in these times and what I know to be the case. The difficulty of course is that the longer a period of depression goes on for the harder it can be keep hold of these threads.

…but being cautious with meditation

The application of mindfulness awareness to my thoughts is therefore an important tool in getting through these difficult periods but one area of practice that gets more difficult for me during these times is meditation. I usually meditate in the mornings but during these times, on my worst days, I can find myself crying before getting out of bed. Long periods of unguided meditation when I am in this place can be unpleasant and unsettling and poor preparation for the day ahead. I sometimes avoid meditation for a period of time but more often do shorter guided practices that feel manageable. I find it important to minimise demands on myself in all dimensions of my life although the extent to which this is possible does vary.

Self-compassion – making space for what is

This lack of self-worth and sense of colour draining from life is not just a cognitive process but an emotional one too. The experience of depression is emotionally painful in a way that is so hard to capture but never forgotten once experienced and cannot be far enough away for those of us in whom it recurs. The need for self-compassion in response is key particularly when working in a demanding environment such as academia.

Managing demands

The first way that I exercise self-compassion is prioritising tasks that feel manageable and not embarking on anything new or pushing myself in areas which feel difficult. I focus on logistical and administrative tasks that are quite straight forward and give a sense of satisfaction on completion. I delay embarking on projects that I don’t have the head space for such as writing which requires creativity and sustained attention. I have to be careful not to take on too much in an attempt to reinforce my faltering self-worth. Sometimes, however there are limited choices and responsibilities that must urgently be attended to.

I usually find that work helps me through these times as it provides routine and connection with others. I usually don’t share how I am feeling with colleagues because I like work to be a way of distancing myself from how I am feeling for part of the day. This is not always sustainable though. I also know that for many people work is a key stressor that contributes to poor mental health and I am open to the idea that a wave in the future may require time off work to recover from. Self-compassion means letting ourselves off the hook, acknowledging where we are, knowing that others have experienced similar situations and responding with kindness. How this manifests with regards to work will be different for each of us. The key is not pushing on and pushing on despite cues in the body and mind that all is not well.

Experiencing kindness through the body

I also find that getting into my body can be an important way of expressing self-compassion. I have found practices such as the bodyscan or yoga nidra can be accessible ways of engaging with my body. Walking is also helpful – the soft repetitive movements and escaping from the house. Overtime I have found that being sensitive to my embodied experience helps me relate to how I am with kindness and become more accepting and curious as life flows moment to moment. I also use the physiological responses of the body to create a sense of greater safety and wellbeing. This might be through engaging in gentle or fun exercise as well as hot showers, heavy blankets and comforting food and drinks. I find that all these can help reduce the painful vulnerability and sense of exposure that characterises these periods.

Contemplating kindness

Meditative practices such as the Metta Bhavana (Loving-kindness) have also proven helpful for getting in touch with kindness when this feels very distant from my experience. It has also helped me to release the tension and defensiveness that can build up when I am struggling. However, sometimes it can just be too much and overwhelming. Often I try things for a few minutes to just see how I respond with full permission to step away if it becomes too difficult. But even this is hard – I often catch myself striving to make myself ‘feel better’ and ‘get it right’ which easily becomes another source of self-flagellation and blame. Written reflections as well as art and creativity may also appeal as ways of allowing space for how we are feeling to come to the fore. This is important – how can we respond with compassion if we are not aware of, or deny, our suffering?

Distraction – passing the time and finding pleasure

Lastly, sometimes when I am feeling really low the question changes from ‘how do I look after myself’ to ‘how do I get through the next few hours’. Even when I can engage more constructively, time out and small pleasures are really important for riding the waves.

Depression is boring, I think

and I would do better to make

some soup and light up the cave.

Excerpt from The Fury of Rainstorms by Anne Sexton (Accessed at All Poetry)

I agree with Sexton that depression is boring and yet it can be all consuming at times. I sometimes feel as though I can’t trust my own mind and having things that distract me in gentle, undemanding ways feels so important. Even if feeling joy or contentment feels out of my reach at least I know that the next few hours are taken care of. TV is my go to. Contemplative practice should not feel like a punishment. Recognising those times when we choose distraction as a way of looking after ourselves is very different from a mindless life caught up in perpetual distraction.

And even if that is where we find ourselves, caught in the grasp of craving, resistance and pain our response is still the same – noticing, softening and kindness. I have tried fighting depression for many years both internally and externally. But found that fighting and denying it just digs a bigger hole. That is not to say we should not address things in our life that are causing us harm, to the extent that that is possible. Or reach out for help when we feel we need to. It is not about being passive in the face of suffering. What a contemplative approach has taught me is the need for awareness, kindness and patience and a responsiveness that makes space for my vulnerability without making me a martyr to it.

I hope this is helpful in some way.

Caroline

4 thoughts on “Coping with depression in academic life: creating space through contemplative practice

  1. Dear Caroline,
    Thank you for sharing and for being just who you are.
    I have been struggling too with my mindfulness practice and felt guilty about that , but have found that my heart tells me what I need in those challenging moments. I trust that and lead myself along the way.
    Best wishes
    Mary

    Like

  2. Thank you for your openness and honesty Caroline. Remember to re-read this blog in times of difficulty to remind yourself what a remarkable, insightful and compassionate human being you are.
    With metta,
    Stuart

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Caroline,
    At the end of this touching and inspiring post you put a line ‘I hope this is helpful in some way’ and I just wanted to say that this is not just helpful but enlightening and encouraging for some of us. That is the kind of impact your introduction of mindfulness in education had on me (back when I was your student in 2015). The short, improving focus and concentration meditations in the beginning of each seminar became the cause of my interest in practicing and researching meditation and mindfulness. I can’t thank you enough.
    Now I am an educator myself and soon in the scope of professional development I will be delivering a talk about mindfulness overall and it’s application in the work environment. I wish to put an acknowledgment in the beginning of my presentation:
    “Inspired by Dr Caroline Barratt, my university professor and introducer to mindfulness”.
    Warmly,
    Anna

    Like

  4. Thank you, Caroline

    It takes courage to express your vulnerability and I find your openness inspirational.
    As a senior lecturer, your experience resonates with me and ignites my hope.

    I’m reminded of the words ” let your light shine, it gives other people permission to do the same”
    Warm wishes,
    Ann

    Like

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