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.

 

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.

 

2012: A “pace” oddity…

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Bridge, 2012 (LB)

Walking has been my exercise of choice for a few years now.  Not that I have anything against other exercise genres, but when somebody says “downward dog” I look around for a puppy’s belly to scratch.  Awhile back, I noticed I had some weird walking habits.  One, I was always counting things such as my footsteps or cracks in the sidewalk.  Two, I was almost always watching my feet.

One spring, I decided to begin hiking at some of the local state parks and quickly realized I had been missing out on much of the beauty around me because I was constantly looking down at my feet.  I tried adapting my behavior – walk a few steps, look around, walk a few more steps, etc.  (This may be where the counting habit came from.)  It was taking the fun out of hiking, so I purposed to identify the root of my weird walking ways and resolve them.

What I learned was my foot-watching was a symptom of my depression, or rather an extension of it.  Somehow my brain had landed on a literal interpretation of “things are looking down” and decided to personify that in my being by perpetually tilting my head forward.  I also learned I was not alone.  Look around sometime; you are likely to see there are a lot of people watching their feet.

Further research into my “pace” oddity revealed perfectionism in disguise.  What do you think of when you hear “perfectionist”?  Do you picture an A-type go-getter or perhaps a towel-straightening Sleeping with the Enemy kind of person?  If so, you may be surprised to learn perfectionism is actually insecurity incognito.  You can tell the difference between achievement and perfectionism by one factor: realism.

Achievers set goals with realistic timelines and expectations.  To them, there is no such thing as failure.  Every bump in the road is an opportunity for growth, thus making them even more capable of successfully reaching their next goal.  On the other hand, perfectionism is loaded with “what ifs” – nearly all of which can be interpreted the same way… What if I fail

Another important distinction between achievement and perfectionism is achievers tend to be more satisfied with life whereas perfectionists frequently suffer from anxiety and depression.  Fear of failure or falling can cause us to look down, watching every step, and depression can convince us we have no reason to look up.  I’d like to recommend two things which have helped me: a camera, and setting small goals.

Something about having a camera at the ready helps us see beauty where we otherwise might miss it.  Today’s blog photo may look like some old steel girders, but for some reason one particular day, they just struck me as awesome and I snapped a photo.  The content of the photo is not nearly as important as the fact I was looking up and looking ahead.  Learning to shift my focus when I walk has brightened my outlook (it has also helped me to count less).

Why not give it a try?  Set a small goal such as taking two pictures the next time you are out and about.  When you do, consider not only your achievement, but the physiological benefits of it.  Natural sunlight and natural wonders are good medicine for depression.  Looking around for new things to photograph not only redirects focus from the negative messaging centers of the brain, it sends a new kind of message – a positive one which says, “Things are looking up”.

 

 

 

 

On Becoming an Aardvark

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Photo by David Higgins (unsplash.com)

Do negative thoughts and images seem to pop into your head at random?  In spite of our best efforts to construct and maintain a positive outlook, some brains seem determined to keep their human hosts totally bummed out.  These thoughts can be very troubling and often worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety, but understanding the physiology behind them can help us minimize their influence over our moods and behaviors.

People with depression tend to have an overactive deep limbic system.  The deep limbic system is the area of the brain associated with feelings and memories.  It is also the part of the brain which pairs our words and thoughts with emotions.  For people with an overactive limbic system, most words and thoughts become auto-paired with negative feelings.

By conducting exhaustive studies of numerous brain scans, Dr. Daniel G. Amen found the deep limbic system shows low activity — or cool spots — when the brain is processing happy thoughts.  Negative thought patterns produce hot spots, which in turn produce what he calls ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts.  Here are a couple of tips for channeling your inner aardvark, eliminating ANTs, and cooling your brain’s jets.

ANT Elimination Tip #1: Remember ANTs will lie to you.

The depressive brain is predisposed to filtering out or distorting healthy, uplifting thoughts.  When you notice your first reaction to something is pessimistic, or when an unpleasant image intrudes on an otherwise normal situation, take a minute to write it down so you can evaluate it further.  Not everything we think is true, and thinking something does NOT have to mean believing it.

ANT Elimination Tip #2: ANTs tend to be extremists.

You can usually tell an ANT by its absolute.  Do any of these sound familiar?

  • FINITE: “You are always late” or “You never pay attention to me”
  • PREDICTION: “You’ll only embarrass yourself”
  • LABEL: “You’re such a loser”

Always and never statements are the fuel of defeatist thinking, causing us to believe the very worst of ourselves and others.  Rather than finding encouragement in the idea that we all have room for improvement, we become convinced we and others cannot or will not ever change.  We predict the future, often adapting our behavior according to these mythical expectations.  We may cancel dates, avoid friends and family members, or call in sick to work the day of a big meeting all because an ANT convinced us something bad would happen.  We then validate our predictions with labels.  “I’m better off skipping that presentation today.  Besides, I’m such a poor speaker nobody would want to listen to me anyway.”

 Can you see how easily a cycle of negative thinking can develop?  I urge you to challenge these thoughts.  Keep track of them on paper throughout the day.  Later, restate each one while avoiding finite and predictive phrases, and without using hurtful and accusatory labels.  Try doing your restatements in the evening, so you can kill some of those ANTs which try to keep you awake at night.  And consider checking out Dr. Amen’s book, Change Your Brain Change Your Life if you’d like to learn more about identifying and conquering ANTs.

 

Uprooting the Seeds of Shame

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Huntsville State Park, TX (LB)

At the heart of nearly every addiction is shame in one form or another: childhood shame, sexual shame, body shame – all of which are worsened when partnered with the shame of addiction.  Keep in mind addictions aren’t limited to drugs and alcohol.  There are behavioral addictions such as eating disorders, gambling, sex, love, and approval addiction.  The list is practically endless.

One factor which turns behavior into addiction is compulsion.  Perhaps the Apostle Paul explained this best when he said,

“I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do, I do not do…but what I hate, I do.”

Knowing something is bad for you for whatever reason but being unable to stop yourself from doing it is the hallmark of an addictive behavior.  So, how is addiction related to shame?  Well, shame is the seedling from which addiction grows.  To overcome it, you need to discern it from its close relatives: guilt and embarrassment.

Embarrassment is temporary, and usually morphs into amusement at some point.  These are the “we’ll laugh about this someday” events — those which, in time — we willingly and openly share with others.  The best explanation of the difference between guilt and shame may be the following from John Bradshaw:

Guilt says, “I’ve made a mistake.”

Shame says, “I AM a mistake.”

Like embarrassment, guilt is temporary.  It usually spurs us to action such as modifying behavior or apologizing to someone.  Shame, however, immobilizes us.  The seeds of shame are planted during childhood, and the natural and even healthy reactions of embarrassment and guilt become distorted into self-loathing and condemnation.

Depression is a fine compost to shame seeds, convincing us we are bad, we deserve bad, and anyone who gets close to us will somehow also incur bad.  There are plenty of people with depression and/or anxiety disorders who are not addicts, but it is extremely rare to find an addict who does not also suffer from depression.  Sadly, it is very frequently the case that the person has learned to self-blame for the abuse or neglect encountered during childhood.

There IS a path to wellness, but I am going to say what some of you may not want to hear: You might need help with this one.  Shame becomes so deeply ingrained in our psyche, any attempt at freeing ourselves can feel strange and frightening.  Overcoming shame not only requires forgiveness, but also means sorting through a lot of emotional baggage in order to finally separate fact from fiction.  For instance, childhood abuse may be fact, but recognizing and accepting it was something done TO you and not BECAUSE of you can be a big hurdle.  It might help to speak with a counselor or somebody you trust.

What if you currently trust no one?  Well, that can make the journey more difficult, but not impossible.  Start by forgiving those who wronged you.  This doesn’t mean you have to let them into your life, or that you even have to tell them you’ve forgiven them.  This is about YOU removing those emotional chains which keep you in bondage.

Most importantly, start forgiving yourself.  You might want to get a journal or notebook for this.  Be mindful of when you are saying or doing hurtful things to yourself, and list them on one page.  On the opposite page, write good things about yourself.  Having trouble thinking of something good?  Then simply try writing, “I forgive myself for thinking I deserve to be unhappy.”  It may seem silly at first, but those three words I forgive myself have power…the power to heal.

 

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Election depression, anyone?

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Adams Beach, FL (DB)

This election is getting to me.  I’ve have always enjoyed keeping up with both local and world events — until recently.  These days, if I tune in to talk radio, watch news on TV, or read a few stories online, I typically end up feeling sad, angry, or both.  What is it about this election season that is triggering depression in so many of us?

The media have learned to cater to humanity’s baser instincts by using a “shock and aww” approach to reporting.  News programs begin with shock: scandals, murders, natural disasters – then in the last moments of the show there is playful banter between the news anchors or a cute animal video.  It is an extremely effective hook into our morbid curiosity followed by a comforting pat on the head which subtly coaxes us to tune in the next day.  But what effect does it have on those people who are preconditioned to absorb negativity?

Consider what has been on the Internet lately.  Social media feeds are full of headlines designed to tap into our fears by trumpeting countless horrors which await us depending on who gets elected.  Members of both parties carelessly sling mud at each other, oblivious to how many innocent bystanders get splattered by their mess.  This election has been reduced to two gorillas flinging poo at each other, and it stinks… but it’s great press.  There are several ways this sensationalist-style of media bombardment taps into the human psyche, and can easily be converted into fuel for the depressive brain.

The brain’s filter does not sort input by facts or events, but rather by the emotions attached to them.  Seemingly harmless things like smells, songs, and sayings can trigger overwhelming and even unexpected emotional responses to current experiences.  In many cases, years of filtering and living life have buried some original events deep in the recesses of the brain.  In fact, we may no longer have conscious recall of them, but instead experience very real and NOW feelings related to an often distant, long ago event.

However, for some people the memories triggered by a media overload are quite vivid and are every bit as distressing today as they were years ago.  We are surrounded by data input – news ribbons on Internet browsers, social media, television, radio, magazine covers, newspaper headlines, athletes and celebrities functioning as political mouthpieces.  It’s enough to not only make a person want to bury their head in the sand, but to hide all the shovels!

So, how can we avoid a media sensory mind blitz and Election Depression?  The solution sounds simple enough: Tune it out.  This may seem easier said than done, since social media is the only thing preventing some of us from a near total withdrawal from humanity.  When we are feeling low, maintaining that connection to the outside world is important — even a virtual one.  Equally important is the information absorbed from that connection.  This doesn’t mean permanently unfriending or “un-liking” people or things which interest you, but rather temporarily removing some things from your view – particularly if you are currently going through a rough patch.  Change your home page to something which makes you feel good or at the very least won’t make you feel worse.

The results of this election will not stem the tide of media madness one way or the other.  Like a ferocious dog that has discovered free meat, news outlets will lead with the most debaucherous and spirit-crushing headlines as long as there is money in doing so.  Find ways to counteract the daily dirt with something soul-cleansing and uplifting.  Living with depression can be difficult enough.  Keep it from getting worse by making small, simple changes which shield you from the onslaught of negative messaging.

 

 

 

The Art of Feeling Worth-full

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New Orleans, LA (LB)

“Worthless” is a strange concept.  Quite literally, it means to be worth less than something.  Why then, when applied to ourselves, does it mean worth absolutely nothing?

Two things begin to happen as soon as we are old enough to interpret the actions of others.  First, our sense of self-worth begins to develop.  Second, our brain’s filter begins taking shape.  Many people face various difficulties throughout childhood, yet still develop a strong and healthy sense of self.  However, there are others born predisposed to negativity.  For them, a pessimistic interpretation of early childhood experiences helps create a filter which later colors the experiences of adolescence and adulthood in a gloomy hue.

Much of the frustration experienced by people with depression is caused by confusion about their own emotions.  For instance, a child who is harmed by an adult may know something bad happened, but may not yet have the vocabulary to express it or the understanding needed to completely process it.  Time marches on and the event is filed away deep in the brain.  Now, consider this child as an adult; certain events trigger strong emotional responses, but because the original event was never fully processed and is now buried deep in the subconscious, the connection between past event and current emotional trigger may be absent.  What is present is a sense of badness and a personal connection to it, thus reinforcing the association between self and bad.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn to control of our thoughts and retrain our filters to process the future in a more positive light.  The key is to stop allowing the actions of others to influence your own feelings about yourself.  This means finding other ways to reaffirm your value, and then using these as a counter-punch to those put-downs you hear inside your head.  Try doing something creative, or doing something for someone else.

There are countless ways to express creativity, and many don’t require any special training or talent.  If you aren’t sure where to start, try something you enjoyed (or wanted to enjoy) as a child.  Build a model, color, do a puzzle – the point is to produce something you feel good about.  If it doesn’t turn out quite as planned, it is okay.  This isn’t a test – you get as many do-overs as you like!  Keep trying different things until you find what you enjoy.

Performing a little act of kindness for somebody else can be as simple as holding a door open for somebody.  If you don’t have the energy to deal with people right now, there are lots of animals who need kindness (and will return the favor).  Saying something encouraging to somebody, checking on an elderly neighbor, scratching the ear of a furry friend – these may seem insignificant, but as we do them, we stimulate the happiness center of our brain and begin to feel less worthless and more worth-full.

We live in a society which bombards us with trash-talk and hate speech around the clock.  When those external messages pair up with our internal negative, it reinforces feelings of low self-worth.  I would be lying if I said this would be easy to overcome, but for most of us, our self-image has been a lifetime in the making.  Commit to spending a little time each week on something which makes you feel good, no matter how small it seems.  That little spark of good will become firmly planted in your brain, and the more you fuel it, the better your outlook will be – not only about life, but also about yourself.

 

Overcoming Anxiety through Observation

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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny

My daily commute is pretty stressful: six lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, angry drivers, and a “Debris Challenge” as I circumnavigate random objects which appear on the freeway.  I was recently going nowhere fast (in spite of the 65 mph sign), when I noticed a new IHOP sign: not a new IHOP – a new IHOP sign.

The tiny analyst in my brain began doing the math.  I pass two IHOPs in my daily commute, so essentially four:  two on my journey in, and the same two on the way back.  If one estimates 260 workdays each year, that is over a thousand times each year that I pass these IHOPs.  And yet, it was only on this day I noticed not only a new logo, but it was smiling at me.  Something about that smiley face made me feel a little less aggravated about the endless sea of taillights ahead of me.  How had I failed to see it so many times before?

Although I am a fan of the cakes of pan, today’s post is not meant to peddle pancakes or advertise for IHOP.  Rather, that smiley face made the misery of a traffic jam less miserable; and it got me wondering what else I have been missing.  For instance, how many times have I walked from car to front door without noticing my jasmine was in bloom?

We can easily become so focused on simply trying to make it through the day that we become unable see those things which could make the day better.  Granted, everyone is susceptible to stress, but in people with depression it becomes absorbed and refined into chronic anxiety.  Still, something as seemingly insignificant as a smiley face on a sign can make a difference.  We can retrain our brains to absorb more positives and filter out more negatives, but this means we have to look for positives to input.

Seeing life sunny-side-up doesn’t come naturally for the depressive brain.  In fact, an overactive deep limbic system means the brain is predisposed to noticing the dark cloud behind every silver lining.  So, how can we begin to — as Johnny Mercer wrote — “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”?  Start by playing an observation game.

Ten Things…then Ten More Things

Pick a place you go frequently – it can be a coffee shop, work, the park, whatever – just someplace familiar to you.  When you reach your destination, write down ten things you saw on the way there.  Then, set your list aside until the next time you go back to that place.  When you arrive, write down ten things you saw on the way there, but without duplicating any of the items from the previous list.  This game is also helpful in staving off a panic attack.  Suppose you are in the bedroom when anxiety hits.  Go into the living room and write down ten things you see.  Now, go back to the bedroom and write ten more things you saw in the living room.

Focusing on what you saw earlier in the day or in the previous room allows you to shift activity out of the negativity and panic areas of the brain.  It enables you to direct your thoughts towards a specific outcome: ten things.  In other words, you are shifting your thoughts from the Problems area to the Problem Solving area.

Have fun with this!  You can try variations such as looking for ten blue things, or looking for ten animal references in signs you pass on the way to work.  The key is in observing more so you can begin to “eliminate the negative and latch onto the affirmative“.  Thank you, Johnny Mercer.