I don’t want to feel this way. When I’m anxious, I start thinking of ways I can be in control. So many little things have been bothering me lately, which only makes me madder at myself for letting them bother me. I wish I were different. When I get upset, I start thinking about what I did wrong. About what’s wrong with me.
These are all examples of aversion. “Aversion is the drive to avoid, escape, get rid of, numb out from, or destroy things we experience as unpleasant,” according to authors John Teasdale, Mark Williams and Zindel Segal in The Mindful Way Workbook: An 8-Week Program to Free Yourself from Depression and Emotional Distress.
Aversion used to be life-saving. According to the authors, it protected us from outside dangers, such as saber-toothed tigers, human adversaries and forest fires. Today, however, aversion is problematic because the “dangers” are within us. The dangers are our negative thoughts and feelings.
Aversion keeps us entangled in negative emotions, perpetuating depression. The more we try to push away our depressed thoughts and feelings, the harder they push back. And we just “end up exhausting ourselves and creating ever more unpleasant feelings,” they write.
However, you can unlearn the habit of avoiding and disconnecting from your emotions.
Depressed Thoughts & Feelings
When you’re struggling with depression, you feel horrible about yourself and your life. You might think: I’m such a loser. I’m so weak. I’m a failure. My life is a mess. I can’t finish anything. Nothing feels good anymore. I’m worthless. I’m so lazy.
But even though your thoughts are telling you these “facts,” they’re anything but. These thoughts and negative states are symptoms of depression. They are in no way reflections of reality or signs of your supposed inadequacy. It’s key to remember that this is the illness of depression talking. It is not you.
According to the authors, “If we can see our negative states of mind for what they really are, we can take them less personally, we react with less aversion, and we have a chance to act in ways that will let the states of mind pass, rather than get us stuck even deeper in them.”
According to the authors, aversion looks different in different people. But it tends to involve two things: wanting things to be different, such as not wanting to be feeling what you’re feeling or not wanting to be the person you think you are; and a pattern of sensations in the body, such as tightness, clenched hands or tension in your forehead.
It helps to recognize your own pattern of aversion, which the authors call your “aversion signature.” It’s simply the bodily sensations you experience when aversion is present.
They suggest asking yourself: “What does aversion feel like? Where and how do you experience it in the body? What effect does it have on your thinking?”
Notice when aversion arises. You can even label it: “Here’s aversion.” Try not to get upset with yourself. Rather, simply notice and explore how aversion manifests.
Moving Toward Emotions
“Physical discomfort provides a wonderful opportunity to learn how to relate more skillfully to all kinds of unwanted experience — including emotional discomfort,” the authors write.
When you notice that you’re experiencing discomfort, intentionally bring your attention to the part of the body where the discomfort is most intense.
Then, with curiosity, explore the sensations: What do the sensations feel like? Do the sensations vary over time? Does the intensity vary?
Instead of thinking about what you’re feeling, the authors suggest experiencing the sensations directly. You also might try breathing into the intense areas.
Moving directly toward the discomfort reverses the automatic tendency to move away, disconnect and avoid.
Aversion takes you away from your body and the present moment. Mindful walking helps you get back. According to the authors, “In mindful walking, you walk, knowing that you are walking, feeling the walking, being fully present with each step, walking for its own sake, without any destination.”
The key is to simply focus on the sensations of walking. They suggest these steps:
- Find a place, inside or out, where you can pace.
- Stand at one end with your feet about four to six inches apart, knees unlocked and arms loose. Gaze softly ahead.
- Focus on your feet touching the ground.
- Transfer the weight of your body to your right leg, and notice the sensations of your right leg supporting you.
- Allow your left heel to rise slowly. Notice the sensations in your calf muscles. Keep lifting your left foot, noticing the sensations. Then move forward.
- Move from one end to the other, focusing on the sensations in the bottoms of your feet and heels as they make contact with the floor.
- Appreciate the complex movements your body makes as you walk.
- If your mind wanders, which is totally natural, bring your attention back to the sensation of your feet contacting the floor.
- Walk for 10 to 15 minutes or longer.
- Vary the speed of your walking.
- Try to bring this same awareness to your everyday walking.
When you’re experiencing negative thoughts and painful emotions, it’s understandable that you’d want to move away from them. But this may only fuel them. Instead, experiment with using mindfulness to move toward these thoughts and feelings. And remember that they’re part of depression.
You are not weak or lazy or a failure. You are experiencing an illness that distorts your thoughts and emotions — an illness that with strategies like the above and professional treatment reduces in its power and dissipates.