A Potential Problem

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Photo by L Boatwright

“James” is a Billy Joel song from the 70s.  It’s the story of childhood friends, one who fulfilled his own dreams and another who tried fulfilling everyone else’s.  Has anybody ever told you that you weren’t living up to your potential?  (Don’t you just hate that?) There are always areas in our life where we could stand a little improvement, but there is a difference between self-improvement and living up to potential.

Self-improvement is self-driven – we identify an area of improvement within ourselves and set about changing our thoughts and behaviors in order to improve in that area.  Our potential is rarely up to us, but rather is told to us by other people.  In other words, we are expected to meet somebody else’s expectations.

Very often, there is a mixed message here – one which fuels frustration and depression for many.  It starts in childhood, sometimes with comparisons such as why can’t you get good grades like your brother or you should try to be sweet like your sister.  The comparisons continue into adolescence and adulthood.  So-and-so’s kid is going to school to be a doctor — when are you going to do something with your life? or When I was your age I was already married – when are you going to settle down?  Regardless of the comparison, the implication is we are not good enough because we aren’t…well…somebody else.  The comparisons frequently come with a confusing and contradictory I love you the way you are…now please change the way you are type of message.

We learn early on to compare ourselves to others and in doing so frequently find we are falling short.  We begin to feel less than and dissatisfied, constantly pressuring ourselves to keep doing until we are good enough, then never believing we are good enough.  How then can we avoid the trap of perpetual potential?  Start by examining motives – yours and those of the people you feel are pressuring you.

You can determine your own motives by asking if the expectation you have put on yourself is truly self-driven and self-realized, or if you are simply trying to please somebody else.  If the purpose is rooted in ‘self’, then ask yourself is this something I actually wish for myself, or is it based on my own comparison of myself to somebody else?  Keep in mind, it is one thing to respect a particular quality in another person and seek to build that quality within ourselves.  However, doing so can become unhealthy when we lose sight of the area of improvement and instead begin a fruitless cycle of attempting to be more like somebody else.

Examining another person’s motives can be tricky, partially because they may not even be aware of them, or may be unwilling to admit their reasons for them.  One question worth answering is: is this something they wanted to achieve themselves?  People will often project their own unrealized hopes and dreams onto those around them in an effort to vicariously enjoy the experience they themselves missed out on.  Also, ask yourself if the other person’s expectation matches your own self-improvement goal.

Sometimes it won’t.  When that happens, you may try explaining why that particular goal doesn’t fit into your current plans.  But, let’s face it, some people cannot take “no” for an answer, especially if they think they are “helping you” into being a better whatever.  In those cases — particularly where the person keeps pressuring and pressing those depression and low self-worth buttons in your brain – you may want to consider ending the relationship.  In cases where you are stuck with the person, you might do your best to avoid the subject or quickly change it should they bring the topic up.

The bottom line is, when we try to live up to someone else’s idea of our potential, we will most likely find ourselves feeling inadequate and unfulfilled.  Identify your own idea of potential, set your own goals, and then go for them.  If somebody else’s expectations match yours, hooray!  When they don’t align, try not to sacrifice your own peace of mind by worrying about whether or not you will ever fulfill – in the words of Billy Joel – “…someone else’s dream of who you are.”

 

 

From Rumination to Resilience

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Photo by LBoatwright

Some people in this world are amazingly emotionally resilient.  They appear to bounce back from failures, criticisms, and rejections with very few psychological scars.  At the other end of the human spectrum are those who seem to absorb every hurtful word and experience, frequently ruminating over the worst moments of their lives like a bad news reel.  I have always envied the resilient ones, often finding myself at the receiving end of their well-meaning “just snap out of it” advice, and just as often wondering why I couldn’t just snap out of it.

Rumination – like resilience – lives in the brain, and most people are born predisposed to one or the other.  For some, the negative-thinking centers of the brain are stuck in “on” mode, sometimes from early childhood.  This can be caused by a combination of an overactive basal ganglia – which control’s the brain’s “idling speed” and dysfunction of the limbic system – which controls mood.  In other words, some brains get stuck in negativity and then rev up the engine on self-destructive thinking.  These people are at high risk for anxiety, stress, isolating, and other depressive disorders.

Why Do We Ruminate?

Negative thoughts are unannounced, intrusive guests.  They seem to pop up out of nowhere – little flashbacks – bits and pieces of events we wish we could forget.  All too frequently, rather than dismiss these memories as the annoying little ANT’s they are (Automatic Negative Thoughts), we dwell on them.  In some cases, we lie to ourselves, believing we are mentally revisiting the event in order to learn from it and avoid a similar disaster in the future.  In truth, we are wishing we could go back and change the past.  These flashbacks are loaded with “if onlys” – if only I had said this, if only I had walked away from it, if only I hadn’t done that.  We dwell on them out of a need to self-punish.  While it is true there are consequences for any action, self-punishment typically extends far beyond any actual consequences.  We do it because at our core something tells us we deserve whatever happened, we deserve to be unhappy, or we are undeserving of second chances or brighter days.

How Can Ruminators Become Resilient?

The key to conquering rumination lies in learning to practice emotional health, and practicing deliberate diversion.  Pay close attention to your thoughts and recognize those which are attached to negative feelings and thinking patterns.  Keep in mind there is a difference between self-disciplining and self-punishing.  Be certain your brain isn’t tricking you by disguising self-punishment as discipline.  Discipline corrects, and in order to become resilient, we must correct negative thinking patterns.  Make a list of things you can do for two minutes: listen to an uplifting song, prepare a cup of tea, take a quick walk around the outside of the house, etc.  When you find yourself dwelling on past hurts, say “no!” to yourself and implement one of your two-minute diversion tactics.

More about Emotional Health

This TED Talk about Emotional First Aid by psychologist Guy Winch is one of my favorites.  In it, he explains why we should place equal importance on our physical health and emotional health.  Just two minutes is all it takes to start overcoming this pain – two minutes to begin healing both self-inflicted and others-inflicted emotional wounds.  I hope you’ll take the time to watch it, and that you find something helpful in it: https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene

For more on ANTs, I recommend Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.

Sometimes, Okay Really is Okay

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I recently had one of those “the whole universe hates me” mornings.  I was getting ready for work, and my dental partial snapped in half.  Do you remember Witch Hazel from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons?  That partial is the only thing which keeps me from looking like her when I walk out the front door each day.  I admit to having an almost desperate dependence on it, and when it broke, all the panic buttons in my brain went off.  Thankfully, the most important section of the partial – which, incidentally, contains one of my front teeth – was intact and I was able to go to work, sort of smile at people, and enjoy a liquid diet for the day.  Still, a lot of self-talk was required to pull myself out of panic mode, and I purposed to identify the root cause of my anxiety response.

I know there are women in this world who would have responded with laughter.  They would have walked into work, flashed a big toothless grin and said, “Witch Hazel’s in the house today!”  I pondered the difference between myself and such women, and I realized; it’s an abundance of joy vs. an abundance of shame.  You may already be familiar with the concept: guilt says I made a mistake, shame says I am a mistake.  Shame is the thing which makes us believe it is somehow wrong to accept our faults, even if they’re not, well, our fault.

I remember a rhyme which was drilled into my head during childhood:

Good, Better, Best

Never let it rest

Until your Good is Better and

Your Better is Best

I hate that rhyme.  On the surface, it may seem harmless enough and many of us have been on the receiving end of similar messaging by well-meaning people.  Ever been told if you try your hardest, you can’t fail or you can always do better?  These may seem like words of encouragement, but they carry a damning implication: If you are not the best, then you are not good enough.  Very often, this is the message received and stored in the depressive brain, and it can generate a multitude of anxieties.

There is nothing wrong with trying to better ourselves.  However, when we “never let it rest” we put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves, and risk losing the ability to accept a compliment.  The depressive brain has a glitch in its filter and filing system.  It will take an incoming signal like “you look great today” and deliver it as “I must not look great every day.  I NEED to look great EVERY day”.  We hear a, “wow, she’s lost weight” comment about somebody else and although we may nod in agreement on the outside, inside our brain is misfiling that message into an “I must look fat, I better lose weight, too” directive.  We run exhausting mind marathons, secretly competing against others as we try to have the better job, better house, better relationship, better figure, etc.  In other words, we never let it rest until we are the best.  The trouble with this is there will always be somebody who is better than us at something.  We will die trying to out-do others and ourselves in our perpetual quest for perfection.

So, where do shame and joy fit in?  Shame leads us to believe okay is never okay.  The person who has found joy has learned — sometimes, okay is okay.  Joy is the life-preserver of self-esteem.  Shame is the ultimate joy-stealer, constantly revealing to us the tiniest flaws in even the loveliest of things, and particularly in ourselves.  For instance, we see a flower and our first response is what a pretty flower.   Within moments, the joy-stealer snatches that thought and replaces it with something like there’s a petal missing.  What begins as occasional pessimism can quickly evolve into a chronic condition of dissatisfaction and self-loathing.  We become unable to appreciate the beauty within ourselves because we are so focused on our own missing petals.

Overcoming this mental misdirection can open the door to joy, but requires a willingness to be very self-aware in order to chase the joy-stealer from our brains.  Try making a point to remember your “up” thoughts, such as what a pretty flower.  When the “down” thought comes, such as there’s a petal missing, counter it immediately by combining both thoughts into one accepting thought.  The internal conversation might go something like this:

What a pretty flower.  There’s a petal missing.  What a pretty, flower – even with a missing petal.

Make a point of celebrating even your smallest victories.  For instance, instead of focusing on the week you didn’t exercise, think about the times you did exercise and know you can do it again.  Write them down in a journal somewhere.  Then, when negativity aims its guns at you, you can reclaim your joy by reminding yourself of your achievements.  There may always be areas where we can use some improvement, but there are also times when “giving it a rest” is the very best thing we can do for our spirit.

Sublimation

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Photo by Ruth Caron

Defense mechanisms are behaviors we instinctively turn to when our self-image needs preserving or senses danger.  Have you ever known somebody to have a bad day at work then take it out on you?  They are demonstrating displacement.  How about the somewhat cliché “I can stop any time I want to” of the compulsive gambler or alcoholic?  That’s an example of denial.  Those are pretty overt defense mechanisms – fairly easy to spot — but sublimation is a sneaky devil, often blinding us to important matters.

We’ve probably all been told at one time or other to channel our grief, anxiety, anger, you name it, into “something productive”.  Great things can happen when we do.  For instance, somebody who was abused as a child may grow up to become a school teacher or social worker in order to help and defend other children.  A person who has lost a loved one may start a local support group for people who are grieving.  These are all examples of sublimation.  These are wonderfully productive ways to cope, right?  They are…unless they actually cause us to avoid coping.

Denial loves to wrap itself in the cloak of sublimation.  The key to knowing lies in our motives, and determining our true motives often requires a great willingness to be brutally honest with ourselves.  To expand on the previous examples, suppose a mom catches her son torturing a small animal and finds it is something he has done more than once.  She is shocked and disturbed because she knows this is atypical behavior for a child and possibly an indication he is missing some important traits such as compassion, tenderness, and respect for life.  She speaks to him calmly about his behavior, explaining why animal life matters, but when his behavior doesn’t change, she becomes even more distressed.  Not wanting to believe her young child is heartless, she decides to lead by example.  She begins volunteering at the animal shelter and hopes he will learn respect for animals by watching her.  When he doesn’t, she finds it difficult to be around him and increases the time she spends at the shelter.  Do you see what’s happened?  She is, in essence, trying to make amends for his behavior as well as for any perceived parenting flaws on her part, but in doing so she may be overlooking the root cause of his acting out.  What if he is being bullied at school?  Or abused by another family member?  This may seem like an extreme example, but you can probably substitute this boy and his mom with two people you know and come up with a similar “ostrich head in the sand” scenario.

The reason sublimation is such a popular defense mechanism (certainly my favorite!) is because it really can lead us to do good things.  However, sublimation lies to us, telling us we are coping exceptionally well with a problem when in fact, we are actually avoiding it.  If a man has an abusive boss, he may make a conscious effort not to discuss work at home believing he is protecting his partner from his work stress.  Day after day his partner asks, “What’s wrong?” and he replies, “Nothing.”  Then one day his partner leaves to find a relationship where the other person will be more present.  The man is shocked because he truly believed he was showing love by not burdening his partner with his problems.

How then to harness the productivity of sublimation without blinding ourselves to issues which need our attention?  Check your motives.  Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to play The “Why?” Game with yourself.  Ever encounter a young child (or remember being one?) who asks “why?” a gazillion times a day?  Do that.  Keep asking yourself “why?” until you uncover your true motive.

For the mom in our scenario, her “Why? Game” might look something like this:

  • Why do I volunteer at the shelter so much? Because I care about animals – I always have.
  • I never volunteered before, though. Why then is it so important to volunteer now? Because my son doesn’t care about animals. I feel guilty and saddened by his treatment of them.

That’s a pretty abbreviated version, but the key is to keep asking “why?” until you reach the following types of statements:

  • I feel / don’t feel…
  • I want / don’t want…
  • I can’t / won’t…

Examine these statements very closely.  If you find your motive is a variation of avoidance, it doesn’t mean you are wrong for doing the productive things sublimation has motivated you to do.  Rather, you can now use those as healthy coping mechanisms while you take the necessary steps to address the issue at the root of them.

Sense and Inability

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Photo by J. Thomas

The past six months have been a bit of a roller-coaster.  I completed my Master’s Degree, then got downsized from my job of 11 years.  I found a new job, but had to temporarily leave my family behind in another state in order to begin work.  Fortunately, every down has had its up, but it has truly been emotionally draining and I have found it difficult to relax and set my mind to doing anything – even the things I love to do – which is why this blog has been somewhat neglected over the past few months.  Why is it during those times we most need to be kind to ourselves, we seem least able to do so?

The depressive or anxious brain has many less-than-useful talents.  One is an ability to sense inability in nearly any situation.  When the unexpected bad happens, our lives become a bit like the broken horse on a merry-go-round – we feel stuck while life continues to spin on around us.  We start to forget we have choices because we are so focused on our problems we can’t see the various paths ahead for us to choose from.  When this happens, we allow our troubles to drive us forward rather than our strength and ideas.  Worry can quickly become a habit if we allow it to take over too much territory in the brain.

Another not-so-useful skill is the brain’s ability to take the energy we need for dealing with the issue at hand and diverting it into a hurtful self-assault.  Instead of attacking our problems, we attack ourselves with thoughts like, “I should’ve known this would happen”, “I deserve this”, “I’m such an idiot” and more.  This negative self-talk can be debilitating.  It simultaneously fuels our depression while halting our effectiveness.

In order to silence the naysayer of the brain, we need to be able to recognize negative self-talk as soon as it begins, then be ready with our counter-attack.  This is where some thought-stopping or thought-delaying techniques can come in handy.  Thought-stopping is useful when you are trying to stop a particular train of thought or eliminate a harmful thinking pattern.  Thought-delaying is helpful when you are trying to rest, relax, or focus but your thoughts won’t let you.

Thought-Stopping

Suppose you have recently gone through a painful breakup and find yourself thinking about your “ex” morning, noon, and night – or perhaps you are trying to give up a bad habit or addiction.  First, select a personal happy place such as a quiet beach, flowery meadow, or peaceful woods — whatever image calms you or makes you smile.  The next time unwanted obsessive or recurring thoughts arise, imagine flipping a switch in your head.  Imagine you are turning off the power to the unwanted thoughts and turn on thoughts of your happy place.  Sometimes it is helpful to even say “no” to yourself when you want to stop the intrusive thoughts.   This thought-stopping method empowers you by interrupting the unwanted train of thought and replacing it with something positive.

Thought-Delaying

If you’ve ever rested your head on the pillow at night, only to have your mind catapult itself into a hundred different things to worry about, try using a thought-delaying technique.  Start by keeping a pen or pencil and some paper near the bed.  At the top of the page, write “For Tomorrow” and as each worry comes, write it down and say to the thought “I’ll deal with you tomorrow”.  This little exercise prioritizes your thoughts (“rest now, worry later”) while providing reassurance you won’t forget about these things because you have written them down.  Some of our problems are absolutely legitimate and real, but sometimes – particularly in times of stress – minor issues feel and appear worse than they really are.  Thought-delaying may take some practice, but after trying it a few times you are likely to find when the new day begins, some of the previous night’s worries are far less overwhelming.

 

Looking Forward to Looking Back

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Brazos Bend State Park, TX (LB)

Song lyrics, memes, and more often tell us, “Don’t look back.”  It seems like sound advice.  In a practical sense, we know we should watch where we are going in order to avoid an accident.  Metaphorically, if we dwell too much on what is past, we risk missing out on great things in the present and future.

The pain of a loss, disappointment, or failure can be so great we often choose anger or avoidance as a way of minimizing the grief we feel.  It makes sense – anger is an emotion over which most of us feel we have some control, whereas grief can launch a full-fledged assault on all of our senses, leaving us feeling emotionally and energetically empty.  Avoidance is a sort of “saving face” inner voice which tells us, “I didn’t really care about that as much as thought I did, so it doesn’t really hurt as much as I think it does.”  To be fair, anger and avoidance can be effective coping mechanisms for the short-term.  However, the issues they appear to heal today can reappear as open wounds tomorrow.

Grief is a time of nevers.  “I’ll never fall in love again.”  “I’ll never forgive that person.”  “I’ll never get another pet.”  Ever heard something similar?  Ever said something similar?  The problem with never statements is they trap a piece of our psyche in a particular place and time.  Our brains are basically big file cabinets.  We file painful memories deep in our subconscious, and research has shown our brain sometimes files for us, stashing away traumatic events in an effort to protect us.  However, painful memories have a way of springing to the forefront – sometimes in our dreams, and sometimes because of a trigger such as a smell or sound.  When you prepare for the possibility of the past appearing in the present, you minimize the anxiety and depression which might otherwise accompany these troubling and intrusive thoughts.

In my job, I meet people every day who have been the victims of trauma, who have been in prison, and/or who are trying to overcome addictions to drugs/alcohol/sex/gambling/food — you name it.  Several have a special item or memento they keep close at hand which serves a dual purpose.  First, it grounds them in the present to remind them of where they are right now in their recovery.  Second, it reminds them of how far they’ve come, and how much worse things could have been had they not taken a step towards positive change.  It is something they can touch — a coin, a family heirloom, a necklace — which helps them regain focus when life seems out of control.

Keeping a memento does not necessarily mean we are living in the past.  It can mean we have prepared ourselves for those times when our present feels too much like the past.  Likewise, looking back doesn’t mean we are going back, but rather serves as an acknowledgement we have made progress, no matter how small.

Only looking forward can be daunting, particularly if you have a big goal.  For instance, if you are trying to write a novel or lose a hundred pounds or run your first marathon, the road ahead can seem frightfully long and arduous.  Take a moment to look back – look at the first word on the page, the first pound lost, the first mile you ran without stopping.  Then remember it wasn’t very long ago those small milestones were hurdles in front of you.  In moments of quiet reflection, it is sometimes helpful to look back – not so we can live with regrets or dwell on the past – but to enable ourselves to keep pressing forward.

 

 

Anxie-tea

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We all know life is good at throwing us curve balls.  Some of life’s difficulties — such as the death of an elderly relative or a child going off to college — although unpleasant, are not entirely unexpected.  The real curve balls are those sudden shocks to the system – finding out you have cancer, losing your job, a breakup – that are like suddenly being hit in the face with a steaming cow pie.

Some people expect trouble all the time, living with a constant burden of fear and worry.  Just watching the news for a few minutes should be enough to convince anyone these worries are not completely unfounded or unreasonable.  Bad things happen regardless of whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

Getting caught by surprise can send a shock wave through our coping systems, overloading us with worry and regret.   The result is often a fear of trying new things.  New relationships, careers, adventures – all are avoided because of an inner voice which echoes, “You remember how badly things ended last time, don’t you?

To say you can learn to expect the unexpected would be untrue.  Someday, bad news is apt to hit you like a bolt of lightning, and it will totally suck.  But living with the expectation of trouble also sucks; it sucks the joy out of life.  So how can we weather life’s storms today without losing hope for tomorrow?  The key is in preparation, not expectation.

People in the Gulf Coast often keep a ‘hurricane kit’ on-hand.  Those in the north often have extra supplies on hand for surviving blizzards.  For weathering those soul-crushing storms of the psyche, there is much comfort to be found in small, seemingly mundane tasks.  As an avid fan of British mystery shows, I often wondered why nearly every crisis was met with somebody saying, “I’ll put the kettle on.”  Tea was made and cups poured, but frequently untouched.  After a particularly trying day, I decided to test this peculiarity out for myself and I discovered something: the act of drinking tea is less important than the act of making it.

There’s nothing complicated about making a cup of tea, but something magical happens while we do it.  The part of our brain which handles repetition and sequence is engaged, granting us a temporary reprieve from the anxiety centers of the brain.  Granted, stopping to make tea doesn’t resolve the major issue at hand, but it does allow us a moment to catch our breath.

Try imagining the brain as a file cabinet, with the front files in disarray and those in back in perfect order.  So often, an event takes us by surprise and we feel completely powerless.  This is the front of the file cabinet, but very close behind is order – those things we CAN control in a time where everything feels quite out of control.  It may seem odd to claim there is power in making tea or coffee, or doing laundry, or any number of ordinary household tasks, but indeed there is.

When a crisis comes, allow yourself to stick with some small habit, even if it means encountering some disapproval from the people around you.  If you normally go for a walk every day, try sticking with it even if you have to limit your time.  If you write or journal each day, go ahead and write, even if the topic is how you don’t feel much like writing.  Feeling anxious?  Make a cup of tea or coffee.  Make several if it helps you feel better; nobody says you have to actually drink them — sometimes just holding the warm cup can be soothing.  The point is to focus – if only for a few minutes – on the back of the file cabinet.  The problem of the day may still need to be addressed, but you will be better able to deal with it because you’ve found yourself some breathing room.

 

Perception and Conditioning

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Photo by David Boatwright

It may seem there is no rhyme or reason to what precipitates a panic attack.  Some days, anxiety appears to creep up out of nowhere, often at the most inopportune times (not that there is any good time for a panic attack).  There are natural physiological reactions in the brain which contribute to negativity, depression, and anxiety.  However, there are some learned responses which also contribute, and unlearning them can be helpful in restoring your happiness.

Anticipation is typically associated with a positive event.  For instance, we look forward to spending the holidays with our family, or an upcoming wedding or graduation, with anticipation.  There are two components to anticipation: perception and conditioning.  Our perceptions begin to develop in early childhood and conditioning reinforces these ideas throughout our lifetime.  If an early perception is negative and nothing ever happens to alter that perception, as adults we may experience anxiety when presented with similar ideas or events.

Going to the dentist is a fairly common source of anxiety for many adults.  However, the person who had regular cleanings as a child is less likely to feel anxious than somebody who only saw the dentist when they had a toothache.  Likewise, the child who was told, “You’re being very brave” is going to have a different experience than the one who was told, “Quit being such a baby.”  As adults, we try to rationalize with ourselves — we know we’ll be fine, we know the dentist is a trained professional, and yet there is still a “this is awful” feeling in the pit of our stomach.  This is the perception aspect of anticipation.

Consider a young child who spills a drink and is told, “You’re so clumsy!  Look at the mess you’ve made!”  Perhaps the story is then repeated, “We were having a good time until he spilled his drink.”  The perception has now been created for the child, and reinforcement – or conditioning – has begun.

People who spill their drinks are clumsy and messy; therefore I am clumsy and messy.

I ruined everyone’s day by spilling my drink.

This is how a common event such as a spilling a drink becomes over-important.  Life is messy and spills happen, to children and adults alike.  There are people who, even as children, can spot the blown-out-of-proportion-ness of some adult reactions and grow up unaffected.  But the depressive brain is predisposed to absorbing negativity and feeding it back to us throughout our lives.  Even long after toxic relationships have ended, our brains replay the tapes over and over again.  This is conditioning; the reinforcement and repetition of self-defeating thoughts which are fed to us by others and ourselves.  As adolescents and adults, these messages become a source of anxiety.  We may skip out on social occasions because we think, “I’ll just end up embarrassing myself and ruining everybody’s day.”  In other words, we have learned bad things not only happen to us, but because of us.

Have you ever had one of those days where you felt you couldn’t do anything right?  Maybe it started with a bad hair day or you burned breakfast.  Then you got reprimanded at work or school over some mistake.  Some people have the gift of isolating these incidents, but for others, the brain pairs each incident with an earlier perception, bundling them all into one reverberating theme: I am a loser.  It is therefore crucial to remember two very important truths:

Your brain will lie to you.

You can retrain your brain.

Learn to isolate incidents.  It can be easy to look at life like a big bowl of spaghetti, with people and events intertwined.  Everyone and everything becomes tainted by a few negative comments or events.  Try thinking WAFFLES.  Keep a notebook handy and track what happens throughout the course of the day – both the good and the bad.  Instead of looking at the day as one collective bummer, consider it as a series of incidents, some good and some bad, but each independent of the others in its own little waffle square.

Counter-punch those negatives.  For each bad thing, identify a good thing that happened.  On a particularly challenging day, your good thing may be to simply acknowledge at least it didn’t get worse or at least the day is nearly over.  That is okay!  You are still forcing your brain to spark up a positive reaction.

Identify and eliminate ‘always/never’ thinking.  As you chronicle your day, pay close attention to both internal and external messaging.  Do you have a parent who still claims you always do this or you never do that?  Do you say those things to yourself?  Write them down.  Then, at the end of the day when you can relax, rewrite each statement without the definitive.  Beware the definitive in disguise!  “I’m such a screw-up” has exactly the same meaning and effect as “I always screw things up.”  Capture these thoughts and reconstruct them.  For instance, “I’m lousy at my job” can be rewritten as “I messed up on that project, but now I understand my mistake and can do better next time.”

Taking control of your thoughts will strengthen those positive-thinking areas of the brain and reduce activity in the areas which feed into your depression and anxiety.  In time, you will learn to filter out the negative messaging around you, and live a happier and healthier life.

Sad for a Season

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Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

Many of us love a rainy day.  It’s a great reason to snuggle in and enjoy a good book or movie while sipping our favorite warm beverage.  However, there is something about multiple consecutive grey days which leaves many people with a major case of the “blahs”.  For some, this results in a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.  For others, it contributes to an overall ‘bah humbug’ feeling throughout the wintry holiday season.

The symptoms of SAD are very similar to those of depression, such as:

  • Chronic tiredness or malaise
  • Sadness and irritability
  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed

The big difference between those people dealing with SAD and those with clinical depression is that SAD symptoms typically disappear in the spring whereas chronic depression persists in spite of the changes in the seasons.  Fortunately, there are a few simple things we can try to alleviate both short and long-term winter blues and weather blahs.

Boost Your Vitamin D

The exact link between Vitamin D deficiency and depression is still not fully understood, but multiple studies have shown a common correlation between the two.  While increasing Vitamin D is not a cure for depression, it can be useful in alleviating some of the symptoms, so you may want to start by asking your doctor to check your Vitamin D levels.  If they are low, he or she may recommend you try some of the following methods to increase your levels.

  • Vitamin D exists naturally in tuna, salmon, and eggs and it often added to dairy products. Try adding more of these types of foods into your diet.
  • Most multivitamins meet dietary guidelines for calcium, potassium, and Vitamin D. Read the labels and find one which includes 100% Daily Value (DV) of Vitamin D.
  • Sunlight is a natural source of Vitamin D, but can be scarce during the winter months. If your moods are susceptible to the lower light levels of winter or other stormy seasons, you can purchase a special therapy / energy lamp.  These lamps are specially designed to emit safe levels of intense lighting.  When used regularly as instructed, this artificial lighting is known to help relieve depressive symptoms and boost Vitamin D levels.

Exercise

I know, I know…who wants to exercise when just getting out of bed seems nearly impossible?  However, just raising your heart rate for a few minutes can boost energy levels and help chase away the blues.  If the weather outside is frightful, try a quick indoor fitness fix, such as jogging in place.  Make it fun by binge-watching your favorite show and exercising during the commercial breaks.

Take Your Meds As Directed

This seems simple enough, but people with depression often skip doses when they feel like their depressive symptoms have improved.  On the flip side, some people will skip their medication if they think it may trigger a manic episode and thus provide them with a burst of energy and elation, albeit potentially harmful.  This is not the time to experiment.  If you feel your meds aren’t helping, or if you are experiencing unwanted side effects, speak to your doctor about trying something different.  In the meantime, take your antidepressants as prescribed for the best possible results.

Write It Down

If the grey skies are making you feel blue, try journaling.  Writing your feelings down is a great way to transfer internal sadness to something external, like a notebook.  Challenge yourself to list as may descriptive words as possible to convey how you are feeling about the weather, the holidays, current circumstances…whatever!

The holidays can be both joyous and stressful, and sometimes inclement weather seems to cast its shadow over everything.  Take care of yourself to ensure you enjoy the season as much as you possibly can.  Whether you are experiencing a meteorological storm, or a metaphorical one, spring WILL come.

Sometimes, a Not-so-Thanksgiving

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Photo by Maria (unsplash.com)

Have you ever witnessed the epic failure of good intentions?  I once attended Thanksgiving dinner at a small church.  Just prior to the meal, the pastor suggested we each share our favorite Thanksgiving memory.  Seems harmless enough, right?  In fact, it is somewhat of a tradition for friends, family, and colleagues across the nation to share holiday memories and those things for which they are thankful.  However, in a perfect example of why it is important to know your audience, this idea was received about as well as a half-deflated football.

And so it began, one story after another about abuse, abandonment, loneliness, and grief.  A few people even walked out.  One could easily defend this pastor and say he couldn’t possibly have anticipated such a negative response, but I found myself wondering, how did he NOT anticipate it?  He’d served this church for years, and knew most of these people and their family histories very well.  Why then didn’t he select a less risky conversational topic, or skip it altogether?  My theory is, holiday happiness made him forget his audience.

Perhaps the magic of the season lies in its ability to help some forget the pain of holidays past, and helps others look ahead to new years and fresh starts.  I believe it is this holiday forgetfulness which led to the strange reaction this pastor encountered.  Some of us get caught up in in the festivities, becoming blind to those around us who are completely miserable.  Others of us are so caught up in current circumstances, we become blind to the joys around us.  The constant barrage of happy this and merry that can seem cruel if you’ve just experienced a great loss.  Pair that with the guilt of not feeling the holiday cheer which seems so overwhelmingly obligatory, and it’s no wonder some people find themselves simply hoping the season passes quickly.

If you are currently a holiday reveler, good for you!  Please, just be kind to those around you who are going through a rough patch.  You don’t have to let them bring you down, but you might just check to make sure they are coping.  Try to avoid pressing people to participate when they aren’t quite up to it, and perhaps offer an alternative, such as a small get-together instead of a big holiday party.

If you are finding the holidays particularly difficult this year, here are a few survival tips.

  1. Know your limits. If you don’t feel like you can endure an extended family gathering, find out what time the meal will be served and plan your entrance and exit accordingly.
  2. If you dread sitting home alone – don’t. Many restaurants and businesses are open.  Take yourself out to dinner or a movie.
  3. Talk to somebody. If a friend is also struggling, suggest a mutual morale-building plan.  It may be something as simple as sending a “How’re you doing?” text message every hour or two, but those little messages can be a big help if you are feeling alone.

If you’ve had some good holidays past, try writing down some of those happy memories.  If, like my church friends, your past Thanksgivings left you not-so-thankful, think about what you’d like the holidays to be.  Then try one or two small things to perk yourself up, such as lighting some candles or baking yourself a treat.  Some people choose this time of the year to volunteer at the local shelters or food banks in order to help others who are also down on their luck.  Helping others is a great way to lift yourself – and someone else — out of a valley.

Try different things until the holidays shape themselves into something less dreadful.  By doing so, you are not only empowering yourself by taking control over events during a time when things may seem very much out of your control.  But, you are also creating a new future, one in which each holiday season becomes better than the one before it, and perhaps even — dare I say it – cheerful.