Fog in Your Throat?

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Photo by Rory Björkman on Unsplash

There are many behavioral symptoms of depression such as isolating, neglecting one’s personal hygiene, undereating or overeating, and more.  These symptoms are fairly easy to conceal and frequently go unnoticed by others.  One of the noticeable symptoms (and a costly one) is negative speech.  Our depressive behaviors can become habits if we aren’t careful.

Negative speech can set off a cycle of rejection and isolation.  Friends or family members may try to coax us out of our depression by pressing us to talk about our feelings, but are completely unprepared for our response.  These snap out of it people are usually well-meaning, but have no idea of the depths to which depression takes our thinking or how difficult the climb back up can be.  They simply don’t get it, and we then end up on the receiving end of comments like, “Don’t be such a downer” or “I can’t be around you when you are like this” or “Why don’t you just stop feeling sorry for yourself?”

They make it sound so simple — why don’t we stop?  As painful as these remarks may seem at the time, there is actually a clue to escaping negativity in them.  At the root of our negative speech problem is depression hovering around us like a fog, clouding both our anticipation of the future and our interpretation of the past.  People who love us say, “Count your blessings.  Look at what you’ve accomplished!”  The brain fog lies to us and whispers, “You’ve never accomplished anything and never will.”  And we believe it.

When we believe the lie, our ability to expect good things diminishes.  The happy times of our past are distorted as we inventory each and every little flaw throughout our life’s history.  The fog filters our thoughts, and the words we say reflect our foggy brain filter.  The people who care about us don’t understand our responses, and leave us to ourselves until we are “better.”  We end up feeling isolated when we desperately need connection.

Battling depression requires energy at a time when we have none.  This is why it is important to prepare for the next valley when you are on the current hilltop.  In other words, when you are feeling good, channel that momentum to push you through the next rough patch.  Begin by acknowledging your accomplishments – no matter how insignificant.

Dr. Seuss said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  The same can be said for accomplishments.  If you’ve been in a fog for a long time, admitting you actually DO have some accomplishments may feel a little weird, but do it anyway.  Write down everything, from “I got out of bed this morning” to “I got that promotion.”  If you find you are censoring yourself or are in a valley right now, ask for help from somebody who knows you.  BUT – and this is important: Don’t censor THEM, either.  Just write everything down in a journal or notebook and keep it handy.  Two things will happen if you do.

First, simply writing down three accomplishments each day will lift the fog.  Our thoughts generate chemical reactions in our brain, and these reactions generate physical sensations.  Some of us have brains with low activity in the positive-feeling areas, and high activity in the negative-feeling areas.  Writing down three accomplishments each day forces positive chemical reactions.  In other words, you are exercising the positive-feeling area of the brain, making it stronger and more active.

Second, if you encounter another bout of depression, you can refer back to your list of accomplishments.  It’s a reminder of what you CAN DO and have done – PROOF that you are capable of doing things, even when your brain is shrouded in fog.  You are also setting off those little positive chemical reactions in the brain every time you read your list.  Update it daily.  FILL A NOTEBOOK with accomplishments, big and small.  Use it to chase away the fog so you can see your life and yourself in a positive light.

 

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.

 

 

Are you eating your words?

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Photo by Maria Molinero

People with eating disorders get a bad rap.  Behavioral addictions are somewhat of a mystery to society and are very often viewed only as character flaws.  This results in a sort of collective ignorance and judgmentalism which further damages those who are the victims of it.

Like other addictions, eating disorders are rooted in shame.  Unlike other addictions, people with eating disorders MUST continue use of the abused substance – food – in order to survive, thus adding a layer of complexity to the recovery process.  Discovering and understanding some of the reasons behind emotionally-driven eating patterns can be a powerful first step.

If you are constantly fighting with food, consider this; you may be eating your words or somebody else’s.  Addictive behaviors begin with an unmet need and are frequently paired with a sense of having been victimized.  This victimization can be physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, marginalization, and discrimination — something which resulted in a sense of powerlessness.  Abusive words, whether your own turned against yourself, or those of somebody else are often at the heart of comfort-eating.  However, many with weight-loss issues and eating disorders can tell you: Comfort eating is rarely truly comforting.

Overcoming an eating disorder is so much more than simply developing healthy eating habits.  It is conquering emotional pain in order to begin building a new, positive self-image.  I once saw a talk show where a young lady had been told by her boyfriend he was going to leave her if she didn’t lose weight, citing health concerns.  She literally worked her tail off, losing over 150 pounds.  He then said he couldn’t bear to look at her because of the loose skin.  In another case, a man lost weight after excessive criticism from his wife.  As he become healthier and gained confidence, other women began to compliment the wife on her attractive husband.  Was she proud of him?  Unfortunately, no – she felt jealous and became even more critical.  What really happened here?

For anybody who has struggled with weight issues, these stories are not surprising.  Not only is your own identity closely linked to your body image, but others often build their self-worth through attachment to another person – perhaps even to you.  The boyfriend and wife in these anecdotes had boosted their own self-image by being critical of the overweight girlfriend and husband.  In essence, their threats were a bluff — they didn’t really want their partners to lose weight – there was far too much to be gained from feeling superior.  If you’ve ever suffered a relapse of poor eating habits, you may have encountered the twisted glee of somebody who said, “I knew you’d give up.  You’ll always be fat.  Losing weight is too much work” or something similar.  Learn to ignore them.

There are multiple, complicated facets to eating disorders and the psychology of weight loss, which is why we often start a weight-loss plan only to fail, start another, and on and on.  If this is happening to you, it may be whatever course of action you’ve chosen is only addressing one piece of the puzzle.  For instance, losing weight might help you feel and look better, but it won’t make an abusive relationship less so, or resolve memories of childhood neglect or abuse.  Try using a holistic approach to recovery, one which includes addressing those triggers which push you towards food.

If you are setting out on a new weight-loss journey, it may be both surprising and painful to find there are people in your life who are less-than-supportive.  Do it in spite of them.  There may be echoes of critical voices past in your brain, and perhaps even your own self-criticism.  Do it in spite of yourself.  Get yourself a binder for your new adventure.  Include articles and pictures which motivate you, healthy recipes you’ve tried and enjoyed, and write down any negative self-talk you catch yourself doing.  You might also write down negative input you get from others.  Write it down then write your counter-attack.  Resolve firmly to make these changes for YOU— not to please others — and pledge to yourself to never, ever give up.

If you fall of the wagon, jot down the thoughts or events which precipitated the step back, then forgive yourself.  Tomorrow is a new day.  Expect resistance and find local or online groups where you can find and give support.  You can do this.  You can do it even if nobody cheers you on.  Start by taking captive those thoughts which make you want to eat, and replace those eating words with fighting words – words which motivate you to stay in the fight not only for your health, but for your happiness.