Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Depression: Summertime Blues

ACT and Depression: Summertime Blues
ACT and Depression: Summertime Blues


This week, writing in the heat and heart of summer, I am thinking about what a wide range of feelings the vacation season can bring up.

Having had several personal concerns turn out much better than I expected – Could I have been wearing gray glasses in the recent past? – I find it easier to be present to the transient glory of a New England summer.  Climbing roses have burst out into bloom, and suddenly bees don’t seem to be so rare any more.  The rich colors of begonias are glowing in shady places.

A few years ago I was struck by a comment a friend from another country made at a party.  “They work so hard on it”,  he said about my garden,  “and it’s all over by September.”  Because I have lived my whole life in the UK and Massachusetts, of course  that’s the natural order of things to me.  Some of my family used to live in New Orleans, and though I loved the food and the music there, I was conscious that I would feel a certain flatness if life just went on in sunny monotony.

For a few years after a  bereavement,  I didn’t do much to the garden, my pride and joy previously.  I was going on with my life in other ways, but the spring ritual of filling pots and moving perennials was left to my husband.  I would start to plan it, but then I would be attacked by the thought,  “What’s the point?”

Summer, like the winter holidays, can be very hard for people who are depressed or who have had losses.  There’s a reason that the poet T.S. Eliot said that April (when it all starts) is the cruelest month.  Haunted by should-have-beens and should-have-dones or by absence, depressed people are not “present” to the joy of summer.

A key insight of Acceptance and Commitment therapy is that having meaningful lives is what makes us happy.  There is no escaping the sorrows of life and we will all have our share.  Flowers die and summer passes.  Meaning can seem lost when we can’t have what we believe we need.

Perhaps, just as grief is the price we pay for love, depression is the price we pay for our need for meaning.

People sometimes think that the benefit of being mindful is peace.  Down the road, that’s true.    In the meantime, sometimes what comes up is the thoughts and feelings that cause us pain.  There’s sorrow and the regret and self-blame we use to avoid feeling sorrow’s  deeper levels.

The experience of people from many cultures has been that once we can “sit with” our feelings and allow ourselves to experience them, we are able to move on.  Our “gut” feelings (which we have had all along but not been able to acknowledge or trust) will “tell” us what to do next.

Summer, when we may have more opportunities to “sit”, is a great time to explore this.   – Imagine sitting on the beach and listening to the waves break against the sand.

As we experience and let go of pain, we are able to find our own new meanings.

Marigolds and petunias die.  Clematis can live for fifty years, and trees for many hundreds.  Summer is transitory, but underpinning it is the deeper cycle that goes on.