Counting strategy? Yes. When depression threatens to take hold of you, counting things can be a really effective strategy. But before I get to that, let's pay tribute to Count Count.
Many of us will recognize the Count from his many guest appearances in the funny and educational Sesame Street children’s TV series, where he helps our little ones to master the fine art of counting. Despite his Dracula looks, the Count comes across as a well-meaning and helpful character. Young children love him. He looks just scary enough to be fascinating.
Only a few insiders know that his full name is Dr. Sigmund von Count, and that in daily life he works as a renowned psychiatrist in Austria. Depressed patients flock to his offices at the Sesammerstraße in Vienna, where on his couch they can benefit from the Count Therapy that was first developed by him in the 1970s. His therapy is not an analytic but a behavioral one that is entirely based on… counting.
In Sesame Street, he just plays the role of a slightly autistic and therefore pleasantly predictable person who is a compulsive counter. The Count always has this urge to count everything: counting will keep him happy. He goes to extremes I wouldn’t recommend actually, even trying to count his own feelings: see this great YouTube video clip.
Now my own contribution (with thanks to the Count).
Depression often puts us on autopilot. Meaning that we get stuck in a hazy kind of cycle where both actions and thoughts are not consciously under our control anymore, where everything just seem to happen to us in an automatic, inevitable way.
The latest therapeutic trend here is Mindfulness training. This will teach you how to switch off that depressing autopilot. Using techniques borrowed from Buddhist meditation practice (applied here in a non-religious way) it can make us more aware of our own body and mind again. It can help to regain the direct intensity of basic bodily sensations, and to clear away the mess in your head.
But… although learning to actually meditate in this Mindfulness way may help some of us, this kind of thing can be just a bridge too far for others. So what I want to show here, is how simple counting can serve as a poor man’s alternative to meditation. An alternative that may be crude, but sometimes will work.
It is easy to fall into the trap of an autopilot effect, the loss of active control. Sometimes the cause is not depression itself, but simply forgetting to properly shift your focus between different activities. A classic case: that coffee mug next to your computer screen. You’re staring at this great site, pick up the mug to take another gulp, and only then you notice it’s empty. You had already drank it all without noticing, in a barely conscious, not-concentrated way.
So how to make drinking your coffee – tasting it, swallowing it – a conscious experience again? I bet you don’t even know how many gulps it takes to empty your mug. Now try counting them. This may be less easy than you thought: your coffee-drinking movements may have degenerated into such a mechanical habit that before you know, your autopilot takes over and you forget keeping count.
But eventually, you will make it all the way from a full mug to the bottom: counting. And this forces you to better concentrate on your coffee-drinking activity. In fact because you have to count them, you’ll now better (more intensely) taste each gulp of coffee. You’re now back to drinking your coffee in a conscious way. Instead of your autopilot, you are now the master of this activity again. I admit the woman in this picture is overdoing it, but you got my point.
As a second important effect, this new way of drinking coffee will help to clear your mind a little: at least for a few minutes, you’ll be focused more on every swallow, than on the depression occupying your mind. In this respect, even the hottest coffee can now be refreshing!
Case two, one that most of us know very well. You’re tired. Maybe exhausted after a terrible day. You go to bed, pull up the blankets and switch off the light. Under cover of the night’s darkness, now suddenly the full weight of your depression drops down on you. Waves of desperation and anxiety begin to keep you awake. Restless, you move from your left to your right side, and back again. Your anxiety begins to feel like panic. What to do? Get up to find a sleeping pill?
Instead of getting up, try counting your breaths, each time you inhale. Think of a goal (making 200 or so) and start counting. Of course you don’t need to count aloud. I can predict right now that the nasty depression beast in your brain will not like this. The beast will tell you to give up this ridiculous nonsense, will try to interfere and distract, will try to force its own negative thoughts onto you. But do go on. Keep stubbornly counting, every single intake of air. 63… 64… 65… Yes, the beast will protest this is boring and dull. Still, keep going.
After a few minutes, you’ll already notice how this simple act of counting makes your breathing rhythm much more relaxed and regular. You’re now focusing on your breathing, and less on your depressed thoughts. By the time you actually make the goal you set for yourself (those 200) without missing a breath, you’ll not just feel some satisfaction for having made it. More important, you’ll find that your panic and anxiety have been reduced: that by breathing more evenly you’ve also become more calm yourself.
At this point your depression beast may perhaps try to make a new onslaught. Well, why not begin a new run of counting your breaths? When you go on counting a little longer, this may even calm down you so much that next morning you’ll realize you’ve drifted away into sleep while counting your breaths. Without taking that numbing pill.
The counting strategy can work in nearly all situations. Just focus on some repetitive element (gulps, breaths, the swipes you are making with your vacuum cleaner, whatever) and start counting them. This really can help in, forgive me the pun, countless cases. You can easily think this up for yourself, and easily put it into practice. Just one more example:
You know walking is good for you, so you’re taking a lone walk. On a street, a country road, a forest trail, a beach. But while walking, you may happen to gradually lose your focus on yourself and your environment. You may start brooding. Negative thoughts and feelings begin to encroach on you, depression taking over while you keep walking on in an ever more mechanical way. This autopilot thing, you know… Feeling more and more depressed, you may even start asking yourself: why am I doing this? Why am I still walking here? What’s the point of all this? Meanwhile, you forget where you are.
This is the right moment to remember the counting strategy. Identify some faraway object – a pole, a house, a hilltop, a tree, a bend in the road, a dune. Simply start counting your steps and keep doing it, without missing a step, until you’ve reached your goal. I can assure you: often this works very well. Soon, you’ll be less occupied by the depressing thoughts that had begun to cycle around aimlessly through your mind, and much better focused on the actual experience of walking again.
To jump to a conclusion: in many different situations we can really use counting as an improvised, viable antidepression strategy. If you’ve never given this a try, you really should.
• tip: Whatever you are trying to do, you can always just start simply counting some physical, repetitive element. Often, this can work as a primitive form of meditation.
Counting can help you to clear obsessive thoughts from your mind, and to refocus on what you’re actually doing.
Author: Henk van Setten