It’s hard to describe depression to people who haven’t experienced it. The world shrinks completely, everyday tasks like having a shower take enormous effort and willpower, sleep patterns go out the window, and nothing has any meaning. The constant negative thoughts - including cycles of self-criticism and self-blame - are always there. Doing the smallest task feels like wading through treacle.

I had my first episode of clinical depression aged just 18. Since then I have had a number of relapses, with the most recent being around seven years ago. I was an anxious child, and have also experience severe anxiety as an adult – sweating palms, palpitations, pins and needles, and have had panic attacks in the past where I really believed I was having a heart attack. The combination of anxiety and depression is truly horrible: The surge of adrenaline from anxiety coupled with the extreme lethargy and exhaustion of depression does not make a good combination.

Although I have taken time off work in the past, the last episode I 'battled through'. And it did feel like a huge battle. I felt like I had to put a suit of armour on every day in order to go to work and pretend to be 'normal'. I was working full time as a senior civil servant, and it was really hard. I’d go home and just go straight to bed I was so exhausted. I stopped seeing friends and family, I stopped going out, I stopped exercising. All I did was work, eat and sleep. I didn’t tell anyone at work how I was feeling. There is still such a stigma about mental health even though 1 in 4 of us experience mental health problems at some time in our life.

The type of depression I suffer from is not always triggered by a specific event – although I was never very good at talking about my feelings or showing vulnerability and bottling up or pushing away my emotions definitely contributed. When I got depressed, I would duly trot off to my GP for anti-depressants, and I also had counselling and CBT. They all worked in the short term, but eventually I would relapse. I knew that with each episode of depression, the likelihood of relapse increased, and I needed to do something different.

I had read about mindfulness, and the evidence showing that mindfulness can help with depression and anxiety. So I signed up for a course, and it has made an enormous difference to my life. As a result of practicing mindfulness, I now know the signs that I am getting depressed, and I have the tools and techniques to stop it in its tracks.

Being tired, feeling a bit overwhelmed, or feeling ill, would previously have sent me into a downward spiral of negative thoughts: 'Oh no, I’m getting depressed again'. 'I feel awful and can’t cope'. 'I just want to sleep'. 'I can’t do this', which would then turn into all encompassing depression: 'I can’t do anything'. 'It’s not worth it'. 'I can’t bear it', etc.

I now recognise these triggers and have a choice about how I react to them. I think the most important thing I have learnt in my journey is 'thoughts are not facts', or 'don’t believe everything you think'. I am practicing seeing my (negative) thoughts, acknowledging them, and letting them go rather than getting completely caught up in the thoughts. I like to use the analogy of the clouds in the sky – my thoughts are like clouds, they might be dark and stormy or light and fast moving, but they will pass, and there is always the blue sky of awareness above.

My mindfulness practice includes both formal meditation and being mindful in my daily life. The other thing that has really helped me is mindful walking. I love being in nature, and recently moved to East Sussex from London so I could spend more time in the countryside. I know that however bad I feel, if I get outside even for 5 minutes, my mood will change. So going outside, noticing the sounds and smells, the feel of the breeze on my skin, and looking at trees and plants, really takes me out of my (over)thinking self into a different space.

Finally, learning to be with my emotions, including negative emotions, has been revolutionary. I spent much of my life trying to push away negative emotions, not wanting to feel my feelings. Guess how that turned out! Much of my practice now is around turning towards my emotions, and really feeling them in my body rather than fighting them. Lying on the floor, feeling my feelings, turning towards difficulty, is an important part of my practice now. I feel much more integrated, my body, heart and head are working together rather than against each other, and I am better able to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life.

As a result of my own experiences, I trained with Breathworks to become a mindfulness teacher in order to help other people who experience pain, stress and illness. I know from personal experience how these practices can transform our lives and I wanted to put my own experiences of mental illness to good use.

So many people suffer from stress, anxiety and depression but we don’t talk about it. There is so much we can do to help and support each other, but to do that we need to be open about our experiences of mental ill health. We need to end the stigma, and that’s why I wanted to share my story.

Nicola Lowit