Friday, August 22, 2014



This much is true: you can get the monkey off your back. Please read on.

The most satisfying work I’ve done in my long career as a lawyer, educator, therapist, and minister of religion is my ongoing lectureship at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry. It’s like this. Whenever I go there to lecture---and I've been doing that for some 12 years now---I hear real-life stories from mental health workers of various kinds about the stark reality of mental illness (or mental illnesses and mental disorders, I should say). Besides that, I have my own very real and at times very ugly story of mental illness---years of clinical depression and active alcoholism

Yes, I'm lucky to be here today to write this post. I kid you not. Only my wife and a few others know just how close I was to throwing in the towel. I even tried to do that on one occasion. As I say, it was an ugly story---and I've only told you a small part of it.

Auditorium/lecture room at the NSW Institute of Psychiaty
North Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia

Fortunately, those things are for me now well in the past, but many people still suffer from those and other mental illnesses---not only the actual sufferers themselves but also those with whom they’re closely associated. The untimely death of the actor and comedian Robin Williams reminds us all, if we needed any further reminder, that mental illness of all kinds is no respecter of persons. The main reason I write this blog is the hope that something I say may from time to time be of some help to someone else. That may sound a bit patronizing but it’s the goddamn truth.

Now, there have been many studies, and now even some meta-analytic reviews of studies, on the efficacy of mindfulness in treating depression. For example, one  such meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in April 2010, which was based on 39 studies totaling 1,140 participants receiving mindfulness-based therapy for a range of conditions including cancer, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and other psychiatric or medical conditions, concluded that mindfulness-based therapy was a useful intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems (including depression) in clinical populations.

I will in this post discuss yet another study---and, I think, a most interesting one---but first let me tell you about the phenomenon known as the wandering mind’ (also known as the ‘monkey mind’). You will know that of which I speak, irrespective of whether or not you suffer from depression or certain other mental illnesses. Please note that we all have within us the wandering or monkey mind. In and of itself it is not a sign of mental illness or mental disorder. Got that? Our task is to quieten down the machinations and noise generated by this 'monkey' inside of our minds. MIndfulness is particularly useful for calming and slowing down the monkey mind. Of that there is no doubt.

Now, one of the very real problems associated with depression---and not just depression---is that the wandering mind chatters and chatters and wanders off and ruminates, often obsessively, on thoughts and situations that are ‘sad’ or ‘depressing' resulting in a plethora of related health problems both in the mind and in the body. 

Albert Einstein once said, 'I accept that thoughts influence the body.' That's so true. A depressed and ruminating wandering mind results in the immune system being lowered, which makes us more susceptible to illnesses of various kinds. Also, a depressed state of mind tends to breed further depression as well as stress resulting in a decrease in neurotransmitter levels. (Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and the body. Adverse symptoms appear throughout the body when these levels are 'out-of-balance.') 

The effect of depression on neurotransmitters also impacts on our mental health. This is because a state of depression in the mind tends to result in the depletion of feel-good chemicals such as serontonin and endorphins---a state of affairs which results in a further lowering of one's neurotransmitter levels. This only adds more fuel to the already smouldering fires of depression. (Note. When we are 'happy,' the brain releases other chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oyytocin.)

In short, when the wandering mind ruminates on negative thoughts and situations anxiety and stress levels are heightened. Further biochemical changes occur in the mind and the body through the release of certain chemicals including cortisol, which results in a lowering of the immune system. This predisposes us to illnesses of various kinds including heart disease, stroke, and possibly also certain cancers. Worse still, a cycle of negativity tends to set in, leading to a further lowering of neurotransmitter levels, and on it goes. The good news is that the vicious cycle can be broken.

As I've said, even if we aren’t suffering from major depression we all know the presence and effects of the wandering mind. At times this ‘monkey’ can be almost a cute little thing but for some people this ‘monkey’ is nothing short of a ferocious King Kong. Its presence and effects destroy their peace of mind and have even been known to drive some to the brink of despair and even suicide

But what can be done about this state of affairs? Well, I am not one who believes that there is ever one single ‘magic bullet’ cure for any mental illness or mental disorder, and certainly not major depression. A combination of therapies, including drug therapy, is usually required. I got a lot of help for my depression from insight-oriented psychotheraypy and antidepressants. As regards alcoholism the only thing that saved me was AA---and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who has a problem with drinking and has a desire to stop drinking. (Note. A desire to stop drinking, which is essential to giving up alcholol, is the only requirement for AA membership. Belief in a traditional God is not required. You simply need to be willing to accept the fact that alcoholism is an illness where 'self' is powerless to change 'self.')

More than one study has examined the relationship between wandering mind, depression and mindfulness. Here's one that I found especially interesting. The researchers used the Sustained Attention to Response Task to assess the wandering mind, while the online thought probes were employed as the subjective marker for mind-wandering. The Beck Depression Inventory and Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale were used to assess depression and dispositional mindfulness respectively. The results revealed that the wandering mind, even without awareness, was not only positively associated with depression, but also negatively related to dispositional mindfulness. Depression was negatively related to dispositional mindfulness.

In other words, depression and the wandering mind tend to cohabit, and it would seem the greater the activity and intensity of the wandering mind, the worse is the depression. (Note: The researchers are not actually saying that wandering mind is the cause, or even one of the possible causes, of a person’s depression.) So-called dispositional mindfulness---that is, a mindset, regularly held, practised and sustained, of mindful awareness of what is, including an awareness of awareness itself---reduces the activity and intensity of the wandering mind. Finally, depression and dispositional mindfulness do not ordinarily cohabit.

The researchers conclude that the results of the study might provide evidence that a wandering mind is positively associated with depression and mindfulness.

Now, although I am ‘sold’ on the efficacy of mindfulness I never advise anyone to give up their present treatment(s), and rely entirely upon mindfulness, for the treatment of mental illness until after discussing the matter with their health care professionals. There is also an important notice at the foot of this post.

Study: Deng Y, Li S, and Yang Y. ‘The Relationship Between Wandering Mind, Depression and Mindfulness,’ Mindfulness, April 2014Vol 5Issue 2pp 124-128. Date: 13 Oct 2012.






IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blog.
For immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via

1 comment:

  1. Great and important post. A family member of mine who has suffered from depression and addiction for decades has gained great benefit from both AA and mindfulness meditation. Can't overemphasize the importance or both resources.


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