Back before there were psychiatrists and therapists, way before the introduction of Prozac and Xanax, people were using mantras to calm their nervous systems and sooth symptoms of depression and malaise. In fact, the earliest mantras were used by Hindus more than 3,000 years ago. Employed by Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, and persons of most faith traditions, mantras defined in the strict sense consist of hymns, chants, syllables, or groups of words that are considered sacred, having psychological and spiritual powers. I use the term loosely to refer to a phrase repeated over and over, or whenever a painful emotion or thought surfaces. During periods of acute depression and anxiety, I have uttered these words as many as 500 times a day. They are especially useful when caught in tormenting ruminations.
Focused repetition of a soothing word or phrase, called autogenic training, helps you to relax and primes your body’s parasympathetic nervous system. A 2008 study at the University of Melbourne in Australia found that autogenic training, along with other relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and imagery, reduced depressive symptoms among some participants.
It’s best to develop your own mantras that will appeal to your emotions, ones that make you feel safe and are able to calm you down. Here are ten that have helped me.
1. This Too Shall Pass
The reminder of impermanence is a powerful antidote to fear—that everything is passing, even those emotions, thoughts, and situations that feel permanent and etched in our brains forever. Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Medication Society, once said that “Wisdom is the clear seeing of the impermanent, conditioned nature of all phenomena, knowing that whatever arises has the nature to cease. When we se this impermanence deeply, we no longer cling; and when we no longer cling, we come to the end of suffering.”
2. Just for Today
I can do most things if I know it’s a 24-hour gig. By reminding myself that I only have to give this day my best shot—or maybe even the next 15 minutes—suddenly what I thought was truly impossible. Just as I repeated “one day at a time,” to myself over and over again when I quit drinking, “just for today” prompts me to get back in the moment, and not to sweat too much about a month from now or ten years out. It forces me to concentrate on now, which is the only thing that matters and the only thing I can control.
3. I Will Get Better
One of the most painful symptoms of depression is the despair and hopelessness you feel—the certainty that you will feel this way for the rest of your life. Before she died, my great aunt Gigi, who struggled with depression her entire life, left me with one word of advice: always repeat, “I WILL get better.” “Keep saying it over and over,” she said, “even when you don’t believe it.” She told me that eventually I would believe it, and those four words would bring me hope. She was right.
4. This Is a Moment of Suffering
In her book, Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D. offers a beautiful mantra she developed to help her deal with negative emotions, a reminder to treat herself with self-compassion when discomfort arises: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” I simplify it to the first sentence, which also makes me think of American Buddhist Pema Chodron’s instructions to “lean into the sharp points” when we are faced with fear, uncertainty, panic, and pain.
5. May My Life Be Of Benefit To All Beings
I acquired this mantra in meditation teacher Tara Brach, Ph.D.’s book, Radical Acceptance. One of the ways we can respond to pain is by transforming it into compassion. “As we transform suffering into compassion, we realize our interconnectedness with all of life,” she writes. Sometimes I also say “Make me an instrument of your peace,” the first line of the Prayer of St. Francis. Both mantras help me to use compassion to transcend my pain.
6. I Am Breathing In, I am Breathing Out
In his book, You Are Here, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh instructs us to say with each in-breath, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” And with each out-breath, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” Mindful breathing, he explains, is the bridge that unites the body and the mind. By concentrating on our breath, we generate peacefulness and calm. This abbreviated mantra helps me stay mindful of my breath.
7. Be Not Afraid
The words “fear not” are used over 80 times in scripture, and “be not afraid” or the equivalent, another 30 times. There is no scripture passage that calms me down more than these three words. In fact, when I would begin to panic even as a grade-schooler, I used to sing the lyrics of the song “Be Not Afraid.”
8. Let It Go
It’s hard not to hear Elsa belting out the lyrics to “Let It Go” (from Disney’s “Frozen”) when these three words are assembled, but this phrase offers wisdom for everyone, not just those cursed with a syndrome that makes everything into an icicle. It’s especially helpful for me when I’m caught in obsessive thinking, ruminations that take on a life of their own.
9. There Is No Danger
As those who have experienced panic know, anxiety can often feel like you’re dying—that there is some inherent danger in your situation that could end your life. A great mantra for me, then, to keep my anxiety in check, is “There is no danger.” I picked up this gem in the book Mental Health Through Will Training by psychiatrist Abraham Low. He writes, “You will realize that the idea of danger created by your imagination can easily disrupt any of your functions … If behavior is to be adjusted imagination must interpret events in such a fashion that the sense of security … overbalances the sentence of insecurity.”
10. I Am Enough
Since many of my ruminations stem from feeling unworthy on some level, I remind myself that I am enough. I don’t need kids on the dean’s list nor do I need to be a superstar blogger with millions of Twitter followers to earn my place in this world. I am enough as I am, as a child of God, doing my best while battling a chronic health condition.
Join Project Hope & Beyond, the new depression community.
Illustration: Simone Golob/Getty Images
Published on Sanity Break.