Weathering the Dead Zone of Depression

There is a dead zone in a depressed person’s life where nothing seems to happen.

Except for the pain of the absence of everything.

Such anguish is so overwhelming that every other concern is squashed in its wake.  Our capacity for willful actions seems to be gone; we can’t “figure it out.”

We are stuck.  And it sucks.

I have learned a lot about this “zone” over the years, its patterns, and how to handle it.  It’s really like learning to surf a giant, dark wave.  To handle these waves, you need to prepare yourself before the next big ones roll in.

When I’m entering a dead zone, I use positive affirmations I’ve created to “talk back” to my depression. I don’t let the toxic voice of depression drown me out.  It’s important to empower yourself in whatever ways you can during these times because depression will lead you to falsely conclude that

The Bald-Faced Lies Depression Tells Us: Part 1

Whatever the cause, clinical depression sufferers are often shackled to a prison of ruminative, negative thoughts about the world and themselves.

They are full of self-loathing, feelings of worthlessness, and a sense of failure.  Confidence in their ability to build and maintain successful relationships is eroded.  Their sense of competency about their work can plummet as they struggle to get things done, be productive and earn a living. Some may even hate themselves when lost in this destructive process.

If that weren’t tough enough, are brains actually work against in this negative spiral. Psychologist Margaret Wehrenberg writes:

“Brain function plays a role in rumination in several ways, but one significant aspect

Me, Mom, Dad, and Depression: A Family Affair

lukasik_parents_cropped“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in the moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Like all parents, my Mom and Dad were flawed people – as I am. Yet, they were something more than that.

I’ve struggled to understand them much of my adult life; maybe more so now that they’re both gone. Here’s a picture of them from 1946 cleaning up the reception hall after a two-day celebration.

The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary.” Maybe it isn’t till midlife that we really work hard to interpret the stories of our past. I believe there’s a strong urge in all of us to make a comprehensible story of one’s life at this juncture. And our parents are a large part of that tale.

Depression and Hope in the Legal Profession

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I am a lawyer, like many of you.

I also struggle with depression, like too many of you as well.

A new study by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that twenty-eight percent of over 12,825 practicing lawyers polled reported a problem with depression.  This is over three times the rate found in the general population. When put in perspective, of the 1.2 million attorneys in this country, over 336,000 reported symptoms of clinical depression.

Levels of stress, anxiety, and problem drinking were also significant, with 23%, 19%, and 20.6% experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and hazardous drinking, respectively.

“This is a mainstream problem in the legal profession,” said

Out of the Blue of Depression

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August.

It seems like the sweet sun’s been high in a blue sky for months.

It’s steamy outside. But that’s just fine with me.  My feet aren’t cold, dark clouds don’t threaten snow, and everyone’s outside watering yards and going for walks at night.

Author Natalie Babbitt captures some of  summer’s magic when she writes:

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noon’s, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

I’ve been upbeat and productive these past few months.  I wake with the light thrown through cracks in my bedroom curtains. I charge up on coffee, create a killer to-do-list, and fly out the door with a sort of crazy, off-kilter optimism.  Looking out at the sun-baked, south of France Monet-like landscape, all is good.

I am out of the blue of depression. And haven’t been in that god forsaken place since a murky week-long stretch last spring.  I am sure the stinky weather had something to do with it.  Months of accumulated winter darkness had tipped me into a dark well. Happily, it didn’t last too long.

And for this, I am grateful.

One of the things I do to stay healthy is to take time to reaffirm the goodness in my life when things are on-kilter and going well. It’s like building up a reservoir of fresh water that I can tap into when my streams run dry. I do this by taking the time to be grateful for the good people and things in my life. It warms my soul. And may even put a smile on my face.

Yes, it can be very hard to feel grateful when depressed. When in a bog of waist deep misery, it’s not only unlikely that we’ll give thanks, it might be impossible. We just can’t conjure up the goodness at such times. Everything feels like a mess.  We’re fragmented, lonely, and depressed.  There isn’t much to hope for. We sort of trudge through our days existing, but not really living.

The devil of depression seems to squeeze out all the goodness out of life. We’re left high and dry. When this happens, we need loved ones and a therapist to help us reap the goodness both past and present.  We can’t do it alone.  But when we’re feeling well, man is it a great practice.

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Here’s a neat and timely tome on this theme from humorist and NPR’s Prairie Home Companion creator Garrison Keillor:

“To know and to serve God, of course, is why we’re here, a clear truth, that, like the nose on your face, is near at hand and easily discernible but can make you dizzy if you try to focus on it hard. But a little faith will see you through. What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word. What is the last word, then? Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids — all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through. Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”

The goodness of others is grace. It’s the universe’s way of reminding us not to fret too much, that things will work out, that our important jobs are, well, just a part of life, and that uplifting fortune cookie messages sometimes do come true.  If I could, I would stick this quote by author Anne Lamott on one of those skinny wrappers:

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it greets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Think of the kind people you’ve had in your life from your past and today; the everyday saints who were dropped into your life for no other reason than to remind you that life can be good, that you are special and that life is worth living.

These people always leave us feeling better than when they found us.

Take the time today to reflect and take in the goodness in your life.  Depression may be part of your life.  But it isn’t the whole enchilada.

There is always the other side of the coin.

And it’s sweet when we think about it.

By Daniel T. Lukasik

Further Reading:

The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Make us Healthier by Ocean Robbins in the Huffington Post.

How Gratitude Combats Depression by Dr. Deb Serani in Psychology Today.

9 Ways to Promote Gratitude in Your Life by Therese Borchard at Everyday Health.

 

What’s Up? Gratitude and Depression

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When first squashed by clinical depression years ago, some told me to think of all the things I had to be thankful for – as if this would cure my “blues.”

But I didn’t have the blues. I didn’t just feel “sad.”  I had an illness.  I had entered a long, dark tunnel.  I didn’t see a glimmer of light at the end of it.  I wandered in it for years before things got better.  At some point, I saw an end, of sorts, in sight.  I exited that tunnel and felt the warming sun of life reinvigorating my body. I knew I was going to be okay.

It was only after having exiting the tunnel that I was capable of even thinking about gratitude.  But now it’s an important part of my “Depression Toolkit”: things I do to keep what sufferer Winston Churchill called “the black dog” at bay.

Listen to the podcast of my interview with Rabbi Mark Gellman

North of 50 – Depression at Midlife

IMG_6849When first diagnosed with depression fifteen years ago at the age of 40, I thought I would recuperate and, more or less, go back to my busy life as a lawyer and husband with a young family. It didn’t work out that way. I soon found out it was going to be a long haul. And I’m still truckin’.

What’s changed in my experience of depression over the past decade and a half? A lot.

I know much, much more about the illness; it’s contours, triggers, and wily ways. I know what will help when I’m in the thick of it, more often than not. I also accept there will be times when there’s little I can do to make a dent in depression’s cold armor.

My depression doesn’t last as long as it used to. Nor is it typically as deep. In the early days, it seemed like it went on forever. I couldn’t remember a time before it when I’d been happy. And couldn’t envision a future of being anything other than depressed. I felt I was barely living. Nothing gave me pleasure. Even eating good food, one of my favorite things. Everything tasted like ashes in my mouth. Death felt preferable, at times.

I didn’t feel much compassion for my depressed, younger self. I’d slap myself in the head and say, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I had my own inner medieval-like inquisitor ready to burn my soul at the stake for some unknown sins depression’s twisted thinking had convinced me I’d committed.

The verdict: my depression was my fault.

I don’t believe that anymore. I now understand it’s a bunch of hooey cooked up by my depressed head. After all, depression’s a terrible liar. There’s a cruel irony to all of this. We need our minds to recover – but sometimes it’s this very organ that’s turned against us. Depression isn’t who we really are, but we can feel that way. As Parker Palmer once wrote about his experiences with this affliction, “I wasn’t walking in the darkness, I had become darkness.”

I have the upper hand on depression now. It isn’t the giant that once pummeled me. It isn’t as scary. Because I know know that depression will, yes, always be a part of my life, but it isn’t my life.

I am more than that.

And I have a good and full life that I’m determined to live.

 

The Trauma of Stress in the U.S. and its Connection to Depression

The NFL football draft just happened. I followed it because I’m a lover of the game.

I played as a kid. I now watch the games on TV with my other brother, Wally over pizza, hot chicken wings and lots of libations.  It’s almost a religious experience, full of pageantry, mystery and a sense of belonging that we feel as fans.

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But as I grow older, my passion is tempered by news of the devastating toll playing such a violent game has on players.

I read a news piece a few days ago about former NFL player Brian Schaefering who played pro ball for five years.  He started a Gofundme page to raise $3000 to buy a service dog to assist him with stability issues resulting from the traumatic brain injury he sustained playing football.  Wow.

Jerome Bettis, a retired running back from the Pittsburgh Steelers, said that each collision he suffered during a game “was like being in a car accident.” What a tremendous cost to pay, I thought.

For many of us, daily life is so demanding and stressful, that, like a football player, it’s like being in a series of car accidents. The word “stress” doesn’t even seem to do justice the corrosive experience of so much stress– “trauma” is more like it.

The trauma isn’t the type inflicted by bone jarring hits during a football game, but it’s no less real – and can be disastrous for our physical and mental health.

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In his book, The Everyday Trauma of Life, psychiatrist Mark Epstein writes in a recent New York Times article,

“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.”

Such trauma not only impacts our psychological/emotional and spiritual selves, but our physical brains.

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In a brilliant article in the Wall Street Journal, Stress Starts Up The Machinery of Major Depression, Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., points out that there are many factors that increase our risk of major depression including genes, childhood trauma, and endocrine and immunological abnormalities.

But stress is a frequent trigger.

Sapolsky writes, “The stress angle concerns ‘anhedonia,’ psychiatric jargon for ‘the inability to feel pleasure.’ Anhedonia is at the core of the classic definition of major depression as ‘malignant sadness’”.

As a person who has a genetic history of depression in his family and childhood trauma, I was drawn into Sapolsky’s article. What was the connection between stress and the malignant sadness I’ve experienced off and on since being diagnosed with depression twelve years ago?

Who would have thought that rat brain research would help me understand the link?

Sapolsky gives us a little background about our brain structure by letting us know that our abilities to anticipate, pursue and feel pleasure revolve around a neurotransmitter called dopamine in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Then he turns to the rats for further illumination:

“Put a novel object – say, a ball – in a mouse’s cage. When the mouse encounters the ball and explores it, the arousing mystery, puzzle and challenge cause the release of a molecule in the nucleus accumbens called CRF, which boost dopamine release. If an unexpected novel object was a cat, that mouse’s brain would work vey differently. But getting the optimal amount of challenge, what we’d call ‘stimulation,’ feels good.”

We humans need just enough challenge and stress to make life interesting.

“CRF mediates this reaction: Block the molecule’s actions with a drug, and you eliminate the dopamine surge and the exploration,” writes Sapolsky. “But exposing a mouse to major, sustained stress for a few days changes everything. CRF no longer enhances dopamine release, and the mouse avoids the novel object. Moreover, the CRF is now aversive: Spritz it into the nucleus accumbens, and the mouse now avoids the place in the cage where that happened. The researchers showed that this is due to the effects of stress hormones called glucocorticoids. A switch has been flipped; stimuli that would normally evoke motivated exploration and a sense of reward now evoke the opposite. Strikingly, those few days of stress caused that anhedonic state to last in those mice for at least three months.”

Sapolsky concludes:

“But meanwhile, these findings have an important implication. Life throws lousy things at us; at times, we all get depressed, with a small letter “d.” And most people—as the clichés say—get back in the saddle; prove that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. What then to make of people who are incapacitated by major depression in the clinical sense? Unfortunately, for many, an easy explanation is that the illness is a problem of insufficient gumption: ‘Come on, pull yourself together.’ There is a vague moral taint.”

The trauma of everyday stress is an important player in major depression. When combined with genetic history and childhood neglect or trauma, it can tip the applecart and result in what Andrew Solomon calls “The Noonday Demon”.   The takeaway is that the better we get at managing the “trauma of everyday life”, the better chance we have at preventing depression.

My worry is that the society we’ve created and the hectic lives we lead make the management of stress very difficult, indeed.

 

 

 

When Working Out Doesn’t Always, Well, Work Out

I had a tough spell of moderate depression that started two weeks ago and just ended recently.

I had little energy. I was glued to my seat.  Before this, I had been exercising religiously three times per week.  I noticed that exercise had a wonderful cumulative effect on my mood that carried over from day-to-day as long as I kept at it.  I actually looked forward to going to the gym.

But then, something happened.  I got a horrible head cold. I couldn’t work out.  As I laid on the couch, I felt myself sinking.  I was cranky. More followed.

image0I got a call a few weeks ago from folks that wanted to write an article about my parents and I.  They had found me by reading a blog I had written, Our Parents, Our Depression.”  They interviewed me then asked if I would rummage through some old pictures of my parents.  I dug around in some boxes. I found an old black and white of my parents. Probably when they were in their early fifties.  It brought me down.  They had depression also. Though I didn’t know that as a child. And they probably didn’t think of it that way.  But they clearly had all the symptoms.

This whole thing brought up a lot of sadness. Some of it because of the unhappy lives they led – much of it punctured by episodes of depression, drinking, and violence.  I feel connected to them still years after their deaths. I thought about how powerful the link, genetic, emotional and psychological, is between where we come from and where we find ourselves now.  Given this history, I sometimes feel like my depression is insurmountable.  Why even try? I think. It’s just going to come back away.

So, back to working out.  I just couldn’t get going.  Just thinking of the 10-minute drive from Starbucks made me weary. I drank more coffee to get a boost, but it had no effect.

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I started feeling a bit better yesterday. I still didn’t want to go to the gym but had enough energy to push through my resistance.  I got to the gym parking lot. My legs felt heavy as walked to my workout.  I got through 20 minutes on the elliptical and pumped weights.  I felt great the rest of the day and today the depression is gone.  I feel back to my old self.  While exercise and movement aren’t a panacea, it is one powerful tool to coping with this onerous illness.

This experience taught me something: exercise isn’t just something that healthy for someone like me who has depression.  It’s essential.  It has powerful effects on the brain that are difficult to achieve with therapy and/or medication. In fact, for mild to moderate levels of depression, studies show that exercise is just as effective as the meds.  As it turns out, exercise actually boosts the positive effects of antidepressants.

So build up a regular workout regimen.  There will be times that you’ll fall off the wagon. You’ll find that working out just doesn’t isn’t working out when you’re blue.

But get back on the wagon. And get your heart and spirit pumping again.

Check out the excellent book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain for a wonderful explanation of what goes on in the brain during a depression and how exercise counteracts it.

Copyright, 2016 by Daniel T. Lukasik

Lawyer Depression: What is it, What Causes it, and What You Can Do About it

Are you a lawyer suffering from depression?  Do you know a colleague that struggles with it?

If so, you’re not alone.

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A new landmark study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs published this February reveals that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys currently qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of clinical depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. Forty-six percent (46%) reported concerns with depression at some point in their legal careers.

When put in perspective, that means that of the 1.2 million lawyers in the U.S., 336,000 lawyers have struggled with some form of depression this past year. A staggering number when one considers the rate of depression in the general population is ten-percent.

WHAT IS DEPRESSION?

Depression can be mild, moderate or severe in intensity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms include:

Whether or not you’re clinically depressed can only be determined by a mental health professional. To be so deemed, you must have at least five of the above symptoms for at least two weeks.

But many people never get to the point of receiving such an evaluation or treatment because they or others see their symptoms as a “slump,” “sadness,” or even burnout. Perhaps a vacation will cure the blues, some say. Others take the tough love approach and tell the depressed lawyer to “snap out of it.”  But none of this works.

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That’s because depression isn’t sadness. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., author of the best-selling book, Undoing Depression, writes:

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality – the ability to experience a full range of emotions, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief. Depression is not an emotion itself; it’s the loss of feelings; a big heavy blanket that insulates you from the world yet hurts at the same time. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.

WHAT CAUSES DEPRESSION?

Depression has many causes:  A genetic history of depression in one’s family, hormone imbalances, and biological differences, among others. Certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem, a pessimistic outlook, chronic stress at work or home, childhood trauma, drug or alcohol abuse and other risk factors increase the likelihood of developing or triggering depression.

Why do lawyers experience depression at higher rates?

According to Patrick Krill, J.D., LLM., director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Legal Professionals Program, just why lawyers have such sky-high rates of melancholy isn’t always easy to see:

(The) rampant and multidimensional stress of the profession is certainly a factor. And not surprisingly, there are also some personality traits common among lawyers – self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness – that aren’t always consistent with healthy coping skills and the type of emotional elasticity necessary to endure the unrelenting pressures and unexpected disappointments that a career in the law can bring.

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According to Martin Seligman, Ph.D., it has to do with negative thinking:

One factor is a pessimistic outlook defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style. These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events as stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.”) The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable while the optimist sees them as local, temporary and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors.

But there is one glaring exception: Pessimists do better at law. Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudent. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, then law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

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Tyger Latham, Ph.D., a psychologist in Washington, D.C., who treats many lawyers with depression, writes:

. . . I’ve come to recognize some common characteristics amongst those in the profession.  Most, from my experience, tend to be “Type A’s” (i.e., highly ambitious and over-achieving individuals). They also have a tendency toward perfectionism, not just in their professional pursuits but in nearly every aspect of their lives.  While this characteristic is not unique to the legal profession – nor is it necessarily a bad thing – when rigidly applied, it can be problematic. The propensity of many law students and attorneys to be perfectionistic can sometimes impede their ability to be flexible and accommodating, qualities that are important in so many non-legal domains.

WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT?

1. Join a Depression Support Group

You can (a) join or (b) start a support group in your community. These groups provide a place for the depressed to share their struggles and gain the encouragement and support they need to recover and remain well.

(a) Join a Group

A depression support group is not “group therapy”. The group is run by those who attend the meetings. To see if there’s a lawyer group in your community, go to the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ website to find such information. To see if there’s such a group in your city that isn’t lawyer specific, go to the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance’s website at www.dbsa.org.

(b) Start a depression support group for lawyers in your legal community.

If there’s not one in your hometown or the ones’ you’ve attended aren’t a good fit, think about starting one yourself or with another friend or two.

Read my previous post, “18 Tips on How To Start a Depression Support Group“.

2. Get Educated

There are plenty of great websites to educate you about what depression is and the variety of ways it can be treated.  A great resource can be found at the University of Michigan’s Depression Center website at www.depressioncenter.org.

Also, read my previous post, “Dan’s Top 10 Depression Books“.

3. Work with a Lawyer Life Coach

If you would wish to work one-on-one with a life coach, I offer such services at  www.yourdepressioncoach.comMy practice is unique in that I am a fellow lawyer who has struggled with depression over the years while practicing law. I believe I can help you if you answer “yes” to any of the following questions:

  • You need someone to listen with a sense of compassion.  I am that person. I will care.  I will be in your corner.
  • You need a sense of structure at a time when life may seem pointless and meaningless. I can be an anchor for you, a safe port in a storm, a place to go and share your deepest struggles and concerns about home and work.
  • You need someone to educate you about what depression and anxiety are and their symptoms and causes.
  • You need guidance as you weave through the matrix of treatment options to find a plan that works for you.
  • In addition to treating with a psychologist and/or psychiatrist, you find that you get more encouragement, insight, and support to help you keep moving forward.
  • You suffer from anxiety and depression.  If so, you’re far from alone.  Studies show that as much as 60% of all people with depression also suffer from an anxiety disorder.

I will work with you on whatever specific problem most pressing to you.  Here are some areas where depression and anxiety may be causing real pain and trouble in your life:

You need help getting things done at work.  You’re falling behind and because of you’re the depression and/or anxiety. I can help by providing insight, support, and exercises to help you deal with this all too common and critical issue.

You want to leave your job.  You’ve been coping with work-related depression and/or anxiety for some time and decided “enough is enough”. You want to make plans to transition to another job or career. I can help you develop your game plan to do so and hold you accountable for following through and take the necessary steps to make this a reality.

You’re a “Depression Veteran”. You might be further down the road in your recovery from depression and/or anxiety but still need help and encouragement. Or you’ve been struggling with off-and-on depression and/or anxiety for years. I will work with you to develop a program to make sure you do things that will help you recover and stay well. I will hold you accountable for actually following through with your program.  I can help to motivate you to stick with a healthy game plan.

You are just plain unhappy.  Many people, while not clinically depressed, are very unhappy with their lives.  They have too much stress.  Aren’t happy in their careers. Or don’t have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. The support and structure I provide for depression sufferers are easily transferable to getting to the heart of what’s causing your unhappiness.  I will work with you to build a different set of skills and make different life choices to lead a happier and healthier life.

You need help explaining your depression to others.  For loved ones and business associates that have never been through depression, it’s difficult for them to really understand your pain because they really don’t have a point of reference for psychic pain someone undergoes with clinical depression.  They mistake it for “the blues” or everyday sadness, which it clearly is not.  I can work with you to develop a language and actions that could help others understand.  If you wish, I would also be happy to talk with others as your work to educate them about what depression is and ways that might be able to help and support you.

If you relate to any of these issues and think coaching might be a good fit for you, I offer a free twenty-minute consultation.  You can contact me at www.yourdepressioncoach.com to schedule a meeting. I coach clients around the country via Skype and over the phone.

Copyright, 2016 by Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.

 

 

 

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