10 Tips for Dealing with Depression During the Holidays

While most of us are so busy with doing that, we have little time for being, the days surrounding major holidays can feel especially overwhelming. Most of us seem to lose touch with our connection to the natural world until we experience a life-changing event that locks that moment down into the month or the season. “The Holiday Season,” with capital letters, is one of those markers that is meant to provide a space for reflection, wonder, and deep joy. Advertisers capitalize on our sentiment through advertisers using images of families or neighbors coming together to cheer up individuals who are portrayed as alone and lonely, if not downright abandoned.

Unfortunately, many lonely people do not have a cheering group of neighbors, friends, or families eager to surprise them with holiday lights, tins of cookies, or invitations to join them for a holiday meal. Loneliness and hopelessness can increase while images of altruistic concern and heartwarming moments seem to be the bar against which all holiday experiences should be measured.

Once the first day of winter arrives, the shortened days and decreased exposure to sunlight generate unexpected feelings of depression for many along with lethargy that comes from the resultant vitamin D production in the body. If you have experienced loss, heartache, or depression, the change in season can send you spiraling deep into a very dark place. Putting on a brave face for others can be especially difficult when the world is blasting us with images of group hugs and the memory of your final hug with someone you love is all that you can think about.

No matter what the cause of your holiday lows might be, here are ten tips that might help you cope during this season:

Don’t completely isolate yourself from other people. Social connection has great healing power – attend a faith-based service, even if you are not committed to a particular religion, just to experience the positive feelings of being surrounded by others.

Allow yourself space to acknowledge any losses, despair, or hurt you are feeling, but do not let yourself use the loss as an excuse to escape through alcohol or other addictive substances.

If a particular ritual is just too painful to try and continue this year, accept that there are limits to what you are capable of doing and forgive yourself for that.

Don’t allow yourself to use any holiday-related time off from work as an excuse to hide from the world – stick to as regular a schedule as you can.

Don’t binge eat or binge drink – while these may offer a sense of temporary escape, they are not healthy coping methods.

If you’re recovering from a broken relationship, it’s especially important not to dwell on the past, an imagined future, or thoughts of revenge. Make sure that your ex’s contact information is wiped from your phone to help you avoid any temptation to make any desperate attempts at reaching out.

If you’re recovering from grief at the loss of a loved one, create a special new ritual that honors the person who is no longer there. Light a special candle and offer a silent or spoken tribute to this person. Add a special decoration to your collection and display it in this person’s honor. Choose a special recipe that was always a favorite and prepare it each year – saying a special prayer in their honor before consuming it.

Reflect on what has brought the most joy to you during this season in past, happier years. Force yourself to engage in this aspect of the holiday with as much energy and commitment that you can muster. If it was the lights of the season, throw your heart into decorating your home with the lights that always brought a smile! If it was the cookies, bake your heart out – even if you aren’t the most talented chef, enjoy doing something that your loved one would have enjoyed seeing happen. If it was the carols and songs of the season, let the CDs, Sirius, or Pandora serenade the silence with the songs this person loved.

Remind yourself that at this time of year, the shortest day falls on the last day of autumn. Winter may bring the coldest weather, the deepest hibernation of animal life, the barren trees may stand out starkly against the winter sky, but remind yourself that once the first day of winter has arrived, the days are once again growing in length and the nights are beginning to shorten. This is a magic time when we can feel the change in the natural world on a very deep level. The feelings of depression or deep grief you feel may ebb and flow like a tide, but remind yourself that there is a natural rhythm in life and it truly is always darkest before the dawn.

Honor your feelings, but don’t allow yourself to get so wrapped up in despair or hopelessness that you retreat fully from the world around you. When we let ourselves get sucked into a place of abject despair and darkness, we are sacrificing the potential for joy that others might bring you – or that you, yourself, could bring others.

If your holiday season is a time of depression, grief, or hurt, know that you are not alone. Others also are suffering as the world blares entreaties to be “merry and bright,” but sadness and heartache are filling your heart. Keep active over this period, show up in life, and remind yourself that each day that you do, it’s one less day you’ve given depression the power to take from your life.

By Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., LPC, LMHC, NCC. Susan is professor and chair of the Counseling, Adult and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University. She is a licensed counselor whose focus includes working with individuals and families facing transitions. Her academic research explores development over the lifespan with a strong focus on women’s relationships and women’s developmental transitions. She is currently president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

 

 

Emotion Rules When There is Depression

Stuck in a negative network, changing thoughts or actions is just plain hard.

Pexels

“I cannot do what you suggest – I know it won’t work.”

That was Jon’s mantra as he sat in my office and said that he can never be happy. The one thing he wants – a wife and family – will never happen because fate has determined he is not going to achieve that goal. Yet most opportunities he gets to meet someone new, he believes will not work.

Why is he resisting meeting new people when someday one might be interested in him? His inability to move from one idea to another to create a change in thinking or in attitude is typical for depression. And, as in Jon’s case, it seems like it’s intentional. Or at least that’s what family and friends see when they tell their depressed loved ones to “Just do it!” It is easy to judge from the outside, but it is hard to see on the inside of a person with depression.

That stuckness is a feature of underlying neurobiology. All of us think in networks: when we start to think about a topic, we enter a network of related concepts that allows thinking to be efficient and helpful. Ideas are linked and things we need to know are easier to access when we enter a network of similar ideas, experiences, or emotions. That is why when people are trying to develop a creative solution to a problem, they brainstorm. That is, they utter or write every idea that pops into their minds about solving a problem – no matter how ridiculous it sounds on the surface – and do not assess the idea until they have a long list of options. Brainstorming is valuable because it helps us remove ourselves from the already framed network and helps create a new one.

That same efficient brain that networks and categorizes also causes a problem when depression hits. Entering a negative network that connects similar thoughts, experiences and emotions result in a depressed person linking negative networks. It promotes the discouraged outlook that is typical of depression. And, unfortunately, in depression, the ability to move to another more positive network is impaired. The weakened activity of the neurotransmitters causes “stuckness” in the pathway in the brain that allows shifting of thought and emotion.

That pathway includes a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that should allow for rapid shifting between emotion and thinking and should aid in developing creative problem-solving. But when people suffer depression, this pathway of the brain is impaired. It may be overactive – spinning in place without creating movement. Or it may be sluggish and unable pass along cognitive decisions like, “I will try something new,” to the emotional part of the brain that generates the discouraged, “I never have good results.”

Emotion rules when there is depression. The negative “It won’t work for me,” style of thinking seems to have more power than the optimistic, “Just give it a try,” method of thinking.

Sitting with Jon, I want to say, “Just do what I am suggesting!” I want him to borrow my ability to generate a new idea, but some things have to change before he can try something new. He cannot respond to “just do it” while his negative networking is making him believe that his case is different. His notions about how to act are the ones in the network of what he has typically done, which is a very negative network.

How can he get out of this?

He needs a MAP.

When you use a map – even your navigator – you have to know where you are starting and where you are going. Jon needs to know he is currently stuck and that another way just might be possible. But where is he going? He needs to believe in a reasonable solution. In our conversations, Jon is beginning to believe that his depressed thinking is a problem.

Medication might help him be less negative – it can correct the neurotransmitter problems that cause the sluggish or overactive pathway to prevent new ideas. (Supplements and nutrition and sunlight can also help!) Next, he needs to redefine his goal. If marriage to exactly the right person is the only thing that will make him happy, then I cannot help him. He needs a matchmaker and a lot of money for that. If he wants to redefine what a happy life looks like to him, therapy can guide him. But once he can see the need for help to navigate his goal of a happy life, he needs to find a map. This map will need to take him toward feeling better and developing a more flexible, creative way of thinking. If he can get out of the negative network he will be more able to generate new actions and take charge of his discouraged mood.
MAP – Move, Ask, Play

M – (You may want to consider medication as the first M and then go to this one)

Jon needs to move. Literally, move his body. The stuck brain finds it easier to shift gears when the physical body is moving. Walking, swimming, bike riding can all be good. Try movement without earbuds pumping music. The creative brain will take over and just might jump the tracks of negativity while you move. And vigorous exercise has a way of pumping up energy that lightens depression.

A – Ask for input. When we brainstorm it works better if we have more than one person adding ideas. We spur each other into different networks. Jon might benefit if he shares his challenge of being stuck with a friend or three. And it will be good for him to ask people what gives them happiness or satisfaction. He might hear that there are many ways to be content.

P – Play around with different options. Jon does not have to commit to an idea of what is fun or pleasurable or satisfying. He would benefit from playing with the children in his life whose joy is infectious. Play sports or games. Playing stimulates different networks and may result in some changes in his mood or thoughts that may help him be less depressed.

There is a saying that life is a journey, not a destination. I do not know Jon’s ultimate destination, nor does he. The outcome of this MAP will help him find a better, more creative, and less depressed way of living his life.

By Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D. Margaret is the author of 5 books published by W.W. Norton, includingThe 10 Best Ever Anxiety ManagementTechniques, The 10 Best Ever Depression Management Techniques and her most recent 10 Best Anxiety Busters, an ideal book for the general public. She earned her M.A. studying psychodrama and bioenergetics, and had years of experience as a certified drug and alcoholism counselor, before earning her Psy.D. She now specializes in treating anxiety and depression and has a private practice in Naperville, IL. She is a frequent contributor of articles to The Psychotherapy Networker magazine, has contributed a chapter to Clinical Pearls of Wisdom (Ed. M. Kerman), and has produced CD for breathing, muscle relaxation and imagery for anxiety management.

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today magazine.

 

Don’t Let Burnout Get the Best of You

Burnout often results from extended periods enduring the emotional stress precipitated by unaccomplished expectations or failure to fulfill unreasonable demands. The symptoms can include intensified emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, lowered self-worth, changes in eating and exercising habits, social withdrawal, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

There are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain connectivity associated with the stress buildup that leads to burnout. In the high-stress state subjects’ neuroimaging scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain (Prefrontal cortex/PFC) and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that controls involuntary behaviors and emotional responses.

Prolonged stress correlates with structural increases in the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain and corresponding decreases connections in prefrontal cortex conscious and reflective control centers.

The explanation of these changes is attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity defined by the phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated.

When stress is frequent, the more frequent activation of the neural pathways to the lower, stress-reactive brain results in their strengthening from enhanced wiring (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons). These pathways can become so strong that they become your brain’s fast route to its lower, reactive control centers. The stressful, burned out state when the lower, reactive brain is in charge overcomes the calm, reflective, and productive higher neural processing in the (PFC) – the preferred brain locale for control of behavior and emotional self-management.

As your efforts to achieve unreasonable goals are thwarted or increasing demands recur, and the lower brain dominates more frequently, you lose touch with your reflective brain. With less management coming from your reflective PFC, it becomes harder and harder to logically see these challenges in realistic perspective or to solve problems creatively.

Disappointments take on more emotional power and without your higher brain’s perspective, they are interpreted as personal failures. Your self-doubt and stress further activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. The spiral down to burnout accelerates as these circuits become the automatic go-to networks. Your brain achieves less success in problem-solving and emotional control and ultimately reacts by withholding efforts to escape the burnout state.

Reset Your Brain’s Default Neural Network from Retreat to IGNITE!

The good news is you can apply what we’ve learned from neuroscience about your brain’s survival mode to take actions to retrieve voluntary control of your choices and emotional wellbeing.

You can activate the same neuroplasticity, that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state, to construct a new, stronger positive default response. With increasing successful experiences in achieving goals, you can reset the circuits to redirect your brain to access its highest cognitive resources. You can build up newly improved circuitry switching your responses from retreat to IGNITE for mindful awareness and creative problem-solving!

Since an effort-failure pattern sets up the brain’s survival response to withhold effort, you’ll need to strengthen your brain’s recognition that effort toward your goals can result in success. Your weapon of mass reconstruction can come from your brain’s very powerful drive for its own intrinsic neurochemical reward— dopamine and the deeply satisfying and motivating pleasure it brings. When the brain releases dopamine in rewarding bursts, you experience a deep intrinsic satisfaction along with increased motivation, curiosity, perseverance, and memory. Dopamine is particularly released when your brain recognizes that you’ve achieved a challenge (from the “I get it” of figuring out a joke to the satisfaction of completing a marathon).

To get the dopamine-pleasure response from challenges achieved, you’ll need to plan for your brain to experience frequent recognition (feedback awareness) of incremental progress. The choices of what you set as a goal should be guided by their desirability and the goal’s suitability to be broken down into clear segments. You want to set goals, the progress of which, you can chart or easily recognize with each stepwise challenge and success. The pleasure burst of dopamine’s intrinsic motivation accompanying your brain’s recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep you motivated to persevere.

Goal Buy-In for Your Brain’s Neural REWIRING

Buy-in and relevance are important in choosing your rewiring goal. Since your goal is to rewire your brain’s expectations that your goal efforts do yield progress, despite increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do, but won’t really look forward to, such as dieting, climbing stadium stairs, or flossing after every meal.

The idea of planning and achieving goals as a burnout intervention is probably not new to you. These are likely to be activities you’ve considered but didn’t do for the obvious reason. They take time. when it comes to adding another activity to your schedule, past experiences have left you with the expectation that there is not enough time.

These first goals that can provide ongoing awareness of your progress are often tangible (visible, such as planting a garden or making pottery on a wheel, or auditory such as playing an instrument, or physical such as learning tai chi), but your goal can also be spending more time on something you already do, but want to do more frequently or successfully, such as journaling, practicing yoga, or sketching.

You’ll Find Your Own Goal for Buy-In, but Here are Some Examples of Planning 

Physical goals: Notice I didn’t say exercise. That’s not as motivating as “training” for a physical goal you want to achieve, even though they often overlap. If you want to run a 10K, and you enjoy running, the goal for an achievable challenge could first be building up to the distance starting with your baseline distance you comfortably run now. Then, plot out the increments that you’ll consider progressive successes, such as adding 100M each day or a week (with increments based on what you consider both challenging and achievable). Once you reach 10K goal, speed can become the next goal again plotted out in segments of incremental progress before you start.

Hobbies: From woodworking to shooting wooden arrows, hobbies really are opportunities for brain rewiring. Again, plan your stepwise achievable challenge increments. If you select darts, start with a home dartboard—low initial investment and throw from a close, but challenging distance at first. As you get better in accuracy move back further. Record your results with the notations of the distance of each improvement you set as an achievable challenge. If you get so good that you are no longer challenged by the dartboard, try that archery!

Mindfulness and meditation are certainly positive interventions for burnout and will be topics of a subsequent blog.

Your Rewired Brain’s Default Changes from Defeat to Ignite

With your understanding of what happened in your brain to create the hopeless frustration of burnout, you’ll hopefully have more positive expectations to help you put in the effort to try (or retry) suggested interventions. Your own natural dopamine-reward system will then be at work deconstructing the resistance network built by your burnout as you reset your circuits of motivation.

The repeated experiences of dopamine-reward you’ll experience as you monitor your goal progress will literally change your brain’s circuitry. Repeated effort-reward experiences promote the neuroplasticity creating neural networks that expect positive outcomes in your new default network. This is because your brain will build stronger connections into the memory pattern. The expectation in achieving this challenge will bring pleasure. As with other less used networks, the previous lower brain stress-activated go-to response network you developed in burn-out, that caused you to react negatively to stressors, will be pruned away from disuse.

You’ll be rewired with optimism and renew positive expectations about your self-efficacy. With your higher, reflective brain back in control, as you access your perseverance, innovation, and creative problem-solving when you need them.

Just be sure to take the time to break down big challenges into opportunities to recognize incremental progress as you achieve each small step en route to your goals. With that positive recharge, your well-deserved dopamine reward will sustain your brain’s motivated perseverance on to the next step of the path to your goals.

By Judy Willis, M.D., M.E

Dr. Willis is a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher, specializing in brain research regarding learning and the brain. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa as the first woman graduate from Williams College, Willis attended UCLA School of Medicine where she was awarded her medical degree. She remained at UCLA and completed a medical residency and neurology residency, including chief residency. She practiced neurology for 15 years before returning to university to obtain her teaching credential and master’s of education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She then taught in elementary and middle school for 10 years and currently is on the adjunct faculty of the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Santa Barbara.

This article first appeared in Psychology Today magazine

Seasonal Affective Disorder: What You Need to Know

We set our clocks back an hour in early November, resulting in shorter days, and darker skies before most of us leave work each afternoon.

It is important to understand the effect that light has on us. If you find yourself falling into the doldrums at this time of year as the number of daylight hours dwindle, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes called seasonal depression, may be to blame. Most SAD sufferers experience symptoms during the winter months, causing researchers to conclude that inadequate sunlight may play a role. But you don’t have to spend the winter months feeling depressed and unmotivated. Here’s what you need to know about SAD and how to alleviate it.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Most researchers believe decreased access to sunlight plays a role in seasonal affective disorder. Light affects our circadian rhythms, and UV rays can also change how the body processes vital minerals and other nutrients. For example, inadequate sunlight exposure is linked to low Vitamin D, which, in turn, has been linked to depression and other physical and mental health woes. So, the effects of darkness on the body—not just darkness itself—might be partially to blame.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, bolstered the connection between SAD and inadequate sunlight. It found that weather and climate—including rain and pollution levels—don’t appear to alter mood. But access to sunlight is a major predictor of mental health. In the study, people who lived in regions with shorter, darker days were more likely to experience poor mental health.

While light almost certainly plays a role, not all cases of SAD occur during the short, dark days of winter. A small fraction of cases occur on a seasonal basis during the spring or summer, which suggests that no single factor can fully explain SAD. Other potential risk factors include:

  • Seasonal lifestyle changes. If you only work during a portion of the year, have less to do during a specific time period, or face annual stress, you may experience seasonal depression.
  • Seasonal associations with previous trauma and grief. Our minds form strong connections between the sights and sounds of seasonal shifts and memories of the past. You may find yourself growing depressed each year around the time you suffered a trauma or loss.
  • Cultural norms and traditions. The high of the holiday season followed by the low of the new year can spur depression in some people.
  • Certain health issues are more likely to manifest at specific times of the year. For example, if you have severe allergies, you may get depressed in the spring, while chronic bronchitis can make the winter months depressing.

Each of these factors alone is unlikely to trigger depression, but in conjunction with other risk factors—including a family history of any form of mental illness—they can lead to SAD.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Cyclical depression that occurs around the same time each year or that relents when the season changes, is the hallmark of SAD. If symptoms are not cyclical, you might be diagnosed with another disorder, such as major depressive disorder or dysthymia.

People with SAD often experience depressive symptoms which are less severe than those associated with major depressive disorders. Though suicidal thoughts can and do occur—particularly if SAD is left untreated—these thoughts are less common. Some common symptoms include:

  1. Low energy, feelings of grogginess, or excessive sleep. People with summer SAD may experience insomnia.
  2. Changes in appetite. People with SAD are vulnerable to weight gain. SAD sometimes causes carbohydrate cravings, because carbs offer a temporary energy boost.
  3. Irritability and anger.
  4. Changes in your relationships with others: People with SAD often feel lonely and rejected.
  5. Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
  6. Feelings of guilt.
  7. Dread or uncertainty about the future.
  8. Loss of motivation.
  9. Feelings of sadness.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

People with winter SAD often respond well to light therapy, which involves sitting under a UV lamp for a short period of time each day. If you have access to daylight and can spend time outdoors, you might also find your symptoms improving if you receive 20-40 minutes of daily direct sun each day.

Treatment for major depression can also prove effective at treating SAD. Those treatment options include:

  • Psychotherapy to help you talk through your feelings, identify problematic thought patterns, and more effectively cope with your depression. If causes relationship problems, therapy may also help improve your relationships. Your therapist can also talk to you about lifestyle changes—diet, exercise, activities—that may complement your treatment and help to alleviate your depression.
  • Antidepressants: Depression alters chemicals in your brain. Sometimes lifestyle remedies are inadequate to get things back on track. Antidepressants can be effective and often need only to be taken for a short period.

Is It Possible to Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Research on the prevention of SAD is mixed. However, there is some evidence that light therapy can help prevent SAD in people with a previous history of the condition. If you’re worried that you might develop SAD this winter, talk to your doctor about preventative strategies. Also, maintain a healthy lifestyle—overeating during the holidays, excessive spending, and low motivation can all make SAD worse.

If you experience SAD, you don’t have to suffer through months of misery. SAD is one of the most treatable forms of depression, and with the right care, you can feel better in weeks, or even days.

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today magazine

Joel L. Young, M.D., is the Medical Director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine outside of Detroit and teaches Psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine. Trained at the University of Michigan, Dr. Young is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and holds added qualifications in geriatric and forensic psychiatry. In addition, he is a diplomate of the American Board of Adolescent Psychiatry.

Dr. Young and his clinic have been primary investigators in a number of clinical trials involving antidepressant, AD/HD, and bipolar medications. He has authored three books and more than 70 textbooks and articles. His most recent book, When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart: Coping with Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, and the Problems That Tear Families Apart, was published by Lyons Press in December 2013.

 

References

 

Good is Not Enough: You Need More Than Getting Rid of Your Depression Symptoms

If you asked any one of us, we would say that top on our list of what we want is to feel better.  But what is “better”?  To most, it means that the symptoms of depression have gone away.  However, just the absence of symptoms is not enough to feel well.  Being well is not only freedom from the episodes of a mood disorder or depression symptoms.  It’s an ongoing process that includes participating in the world around you, being in control of your life, having a sense of personal growth and relationships that matter.  It means that you have a sense of competence and mastery in the things you do in your life and that you feel good about who you are.  How do you get there?

There is an interesting professional article by C.D. Ryff from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014) that discusses psychological well-being.  In the past psychologists thought of well-being as happiness, satisfaction with life, and a positive affect (similar to mood).  Thinking about well-being in deeper terms, Ryff describes the essential features of well-being which I will summarize for you here.

What are the components of well-being?  First is having a purpose in life, where you feel your life has meaning, purpose, and direction.  You might find this as a working or volunteer person, student, parent, or whatever it is that guides you.  It’s something that’s easy to forget when we are depressed, so you do have to work on it.  Next is whether you are living a life based on your own personal convictions, beliefs, opinions, and principles.  You are free to make decisions for yourself (that is called autonomy).  For example, if you are an adult, do you feel controlled by another person?   The third feature of well-being is making use of your personal talents and potential, called personal growth.  This could be in your work, school, volunteering, or family life.  Another feature is how well you are managing your life situations, the ups, and downs of daily life called mastering your environment.  We all have fluctuations: the key is how we learn to deal with them.

The fifth feature of well-being is in having positive relationships, with deep ties to others.  It could be with friends or family members, just as long as you have close personal connections.  That is very important to maintaining your mental health balance and definitely helps with depression, a time when isolation can occur.  The last is self-acceptance, which means having knowledge and acceptance of who you are, including your own personal limitations.  Nobody’s perfect – we all have our strengths and weaknesses and do better when we learn to accept and work with them.

This list must seem daunting!  How in the world can I be well if I have to achieve all of these things that are difficult for anyone to do, let alone someone with a mood disorder?  Good question!   It’s not the kind of thing that happens overnight; it takes a lot of time and effort on your part.  And you don’t have to master them all, certainly not all at once.  Begin by having a conversation with your therapist about this and try to identify one or two areas in your life from this list that you want to work on.  Then put those two areas into a clearly stated goal.  Having a goal set in this way helps you to achieve the kind of life you want.  Understand what you have going for you that will help you, such as your strengths, and what you might have to change about yourself and your world to reach this goal.  Try to identify how you personally impact the situation and potentially get in the way of reaching your goal.  Is it negative thoughts you may have?  Are there barriers that exist to achieve your goal?  Find a way to work around them.  Make a list of the first 3-5 steps to reach your goal.  Stay focused on the goal and not how difficult it is.  Care for yourself as you work to achieve it.

For example, your goal might be a purpose in life and personal growth as a musician. You might state it as “I want to improve my skills as a musician and get more professional gigs.  That will make me feel good about myself, bring people pleasure, and earn some money to support myself.”  You might then identify that you are not always consistent with practice time, and feel shy about going out and promoting your musical performance.  Neighbors might complain about hearing you practice. Thinking about it, you may identify one or two negative thoughts you have about your skills (I’m not very good” or “Nobody will hire me”) that are behind these behaviors.  Use CBT to challenge those negative thoughts and behaviors and replace them with more realistic thoughts.  Then think of your strengths, of past successes you have had in this area, and use these to boost your confidence.

Next make a to-do list of what steps you might take to make this happen, and who can help support you in this. That might include: set aside a specific practice time and place each day; take a music lesson(s); make a CD of your performance and bring it around to a few places where you want to perform; put a small sample of your music on social media to attract audience members , such as YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter; make attractive posters to promote your skills and performance dates; put the posters on social media and hang them up in a few select areas around your town announcing your performances and availability.  It’s a lot to do when depressed; have a friend help you.  Do these one-at-a-time, so you don’t get overwhelmed. It is possible and realistic for those of us who have depression to expect wellness.

By Susan J. Noonan, MD, MPH.

Susan is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Tufts University School of Medicine, and the Harvard School of Public Health. She is a long-term patient and the author of two books on managing depressionManaging Your Depression; What You Can Do To Feel Better, and When Someone You Know Has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do, with a companion website and blog. She is also a mental health Certified Peer Specialist, counseling fellow persons with mental illness. In these ways, she bridges that space between recipient and provider of healthcare services. This blog was previously posted, in modified form, on website www.susannoonanmd.com.

 

The Role of Anger in Depression

Sigmund Freud used to refer to depression as anger turned inward. While many people may regard this as an overly simplistic approach to the most common mental health disorder in the world, there is no doubt that anger plays a significant role in depression. As one study from 2016 found, when it comes to emotional disorders in general, the presence of anger has “negative consequences, including greater symptom severity and worse treatment response.” Researchers concluded that “based on this evidence, anger appears to be an important and understudied emotion in the development, maintenance, and treatment of emotional disorders.” When it comes specifically to depression, science seems to be further supporting Freud’s theory, showing more and more how anger contributes to symptoms. A UK study from 2013 suggested that going inward and turning our anger on ourselves contributes to the severity of depression.

Having worked with depressed clients for more than 30 years, these findings were not surprising to me. Many of the people I’ve worked with who struggle with depression also share the common struggle of turning their anger on themselves. As much as I try to help my clients express their anger rather than take it on and turn it inward, I witness first-hand how hard it often is for people to interrupt this process. It’s a challenge for them to recognize the nasty way they treat themselves; they are significantly more critical of themselves that they are of others.

People who suffer from depression often have intense “critical inner voices” that perpetuate feelings of unworthiness and shame. When they listen to this inner critic, they not only feel more depressed, but they also find it much more difficult to stand up to their depression. This includes acting against their critical inner voices, taking positive actions that could help them feel better about themselves (like engaging in activities they enjoy), and being more social.

Getting angry at these “voices” can be liberating, but that means getting in touch with our core feelings of anger rather than aiming it at ourselves. Dr. Les Greenberg, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, describes an important difference between adaptive anger and nonadaptive anger. Anger is an adaptive response when it motivates you to assertive action to end a violation. For example, when we may feel angry at the cruel way we treat ourselves today, we’re in touch with our adaptive anger, and we feel like we’re on our own side. Letting ourselves feel and express adaptive anger can help us feel less burdened, freer, and more in touch with our real self.

Maladaptive anger, on the other hand, affects us negatively. For one thing, it can contribute to feeling victimized, sulky, or stuck in a feeling of being wronged. Examples of maladaptive anger turned inward can include feeling overly critical toward ourselves, hating ourselves, or seeing ourselves as powerless, pathetic, or helpless. The generally dysfunctional responses that result from maladaptive anger are based on emotional schema from traumatic experiences in our past. Often, our critical inner voice is at the root of maladaptive anger, driving us to remain in a state of frustration and suffering.

We can almost feel the difference between maladaptive anger dragging us down and deeper into a state of anxiety or depression and adaptive anger relieving us of a heavy burden, lightening us emotionally, and contributing to our taking constructive actions. While it can feel scary to face these deeper, core emotions, we must access adaptive emotions to transform our maladaptive emotions. This can be a vital process in helping us deal with depression.

One study by Dr. Greenberg showed that Emotionally Focused Therapy can transform maladaptive emotion through the process of expressing it and eliciting the response of an adaptive emotion, i.e. adaptive anger. This approach was especially effective in improving depressive symptoms, interpersonal distress, and self-esteem. As Dr. Greenberg described it, the process “aims within an affectively attuned empathic relationship to access and transform habitual maladaptive emotional schematic memories [articulated as critical inner voices] that are seen as the source of the depression.” Transforming these maladaptive emotions may, therefore, be one of the keys to fighting depression.

Our approach to transforming anger turned inward, which has some similarities to Greenberg’s approach, is to have the person verbalize their critical inner voices as though someone else was telling them these angry thoughts. We also encourage the person to express the feeling behind the thoughts. Often, when people do this, they express a lot of rage toward self. By saying the thoughts in the second person (as “you” statements), they begin to get some separation from their harsh, critical attitudes, and often have insights about where these thoughts come from. It sets the stage for them “answering back” to these attacks and taking their own side. The goal is also to help the person develop more self-compassion and a kinder, more realistic point of view toward themselves.

As we externalize our negative thoughts and the accompanying anger, we can better stand up to our inner critic and take a compassionate stance toward ourselves, treating ourselves as we would treat a friend. This doesn’t mean denying our struggles and setbacks, but it does mean embracing the practice of self-compassion. Self-compassion, as defined by researcher Kristin Neff, involves three key elements: self-kindness, mindfulness, and awareness of common humanity. Research has shown that the practice of self-compassion can significantly reduce a depressed mood. As one study pointed out, maladaptive or irrational beliefs underlie the development of depression, however, when high levels of self-compassion helped to counteract these negative thoughts, there was no longer a significant relationship between irrational beliefs and depression. This same study showed that it is “especially the self-kindness component of self-compassion that moderated the irrational belief-depression relationship.” Thus, the primary aim for someone struggling with resolving their emotions around depression is to treat themselves and regard their feelings the way they would a friend. It’s not about feeling sorry for ourselves, but about feeling strong and worthy and less afraid to make mistakes.

Ultimately, accepting that anger plays a role in our depression should be an empowering tool in our fight to feel better. When people express anger outwards in a healthy adaptive manner, they feel less depressed. Accessing and expressing this anger isn’t a matter of acting out, being explosive, or feeling bitter toward our surroundings. In fact, it means exactly the opposite. It’s an act of standing up for ourselves and accepting that we are not who our “voices” are telling us we are. It’s a process of facing up to the things that hurt us but also facing off against the inner enemy we all possess that drives us deeper into our suffering. The more we can take our own side and resist our tendency to turn our anger on ourselves, the more compassionate and alive we can feel in facing any challenge, including depression.

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association. She studies suicide and violence as well as couples and family relations. Firestone is the co-author (with Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett) of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion, and Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships. Firestone speaks frequently at conferences including the APA, the International Association of Forensic Psychology, International Association of Suicide Prevention, the Department of Defense and many others. She has also appeared in more than 300 radio, TV, and print interviews including the BBC, CBC, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, Psychology Today, Men’s Health and O Magazine.

 

 

Rewire Your Burned-out Brain

Burnout often results from extended periods enduring the emotional stress precipitated by unaccomplished expectations or failure to fulfill unreasonable demands. The symptoms can include intensified emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, lowered self-worth, changes in eating and exercising habits, social withdrawal, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

If You’re Burned Out, Your Brain Has Rewired to Survival Mode

There are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain connectivity associated with the stress buildup that leads to burnout. In the high-stress state subjects’ neuroimaging scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain (Prefrontal cortex/PFC) and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that controls involuntary behaviors and emotional responses. Prolonged stress correlates with structural increases in the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain and corresponding decreases connections in prefrontal cortex conscious and reflective control centers.

The explanation of these changes is attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity defined by the phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated.

When stress is frequent, the more frequent activation of the neural pathways to the lower, stress-reactive brain results in their strengthening from enhanced wiring (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons). These pathways can become so strong that they become your brain’s fast route to its lower, reactive control centers. The stressful, burned out state when the lower, reactive brain is in charge overcomes the calm, reflective, and productive higher neural processing in the (PFC) – the preferred brain locale for control of behavior and emotional self-management.

As your efforts to achieve unreasonable goals are thwarted or increasing demands recur, and the lower brain dominates more frequently, you lose touch with your reflective brain. With less management coming from your reflective PFC, it becomes harder and harder to logically see these challenges in realistic perspective or to solve problems creatively.

Disappointments take on more emotional power and without your higher brain’s perspective, they are interpreted as personal failures. Your self-doubt and stress further activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. The spiral down to burnout accelerates as these circuits become the automatic go-to networks. Your brain achieves less success in problem-solving and emotional control and ultimately reacts by withholding efforts to escape the burnout state.

Reset Your Brain’s Default Neural Network from Retreat to IGNITE!

The good news is you can apply what we’ve learned from neuroscience about your brain’s survival mode to take actions to retrieve voluntary control of your choices and emotional wellbeing.

You can activate the same neuroplasticity, that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state, to construct a new, stronger positive default response. With increasing successful experiences in achieving goals, you can reset the circuits to redirect your brain to access its highest cognitive resources. You can build up newly improved circuitry switching your responses from retreat to IGNITE for mindful awareness and creative problem-solving!

Since an effort-failure pattern sets up the brain’s survival response to withhold effort, you’ll need to strengthen your brain’s recognition that effort toward your goals can result in success. Your weapon of mass reconstruction can come from your brain’s very powerful drive for its own intrinsic neurochemical reward— dopamine and the deeply satisfying and motivating pleasure it brings. When the brain releases dopamine in rewarding bursts, you experience a deep intrinsic satisfaction along with increased motivation, curiosity, perseverance, and memory. Dopamine is particularly released when your brain recognizes that you’ve achieved a challenge (from the “I get it” of figuring out a joke to the satisfaction of completing a marathon).

To get the dopamine-pleasure response from challenges achieved, you’ll need to plan for your brain to experience frequent recognition (feedback awareness) of incremental progress. The choices of what you set as a goal should be guided by their desirability and the goal’s suitability to be broken down into clear segments. You want to set goals, the progress of which, you can chart or easily recognize with each stepwise challenge and success. The pleasure burst of dopamine’s intrinsic motivation accompanying your brain’s recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep you motivated to persevere.

Goal Buy-In for Your Brain’s Neural REWIRING

Buy-in and relevance are important in choosing your rewiring goal. Since your goal is to rewire your brain’s expectations that your goal efforts do yield progress, despite increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do, but won’t really look forward to, such as dieting, climbing stadium stairs, or flossing after every meal.

The idea of planning and achieving goals as a burnout intervention is probably not new to you. These are likely to be activities you’ve considered but didn’t do for the obvious reason. They take time. when it comes to adding another activity to your schedule, past experiences have left you with the expectation that there is not enough time.

These first goals that can provide ongoing awareness of your progress are often tangible (visible, such as planting a garden or making pottery on a wheel, or auditory such as playing an instrument, or physical such as learning tai chi), but your goal can also be spending more time at something you already do, but want to do more frequently or successfully, such as journaling, practicing yoga, or sketching.

You’ll Find Your Own Goal for Buy-In, but Here are Some Examples of Planning 

Physical goals: Notice I didn’t say exercise. That’s not as motivating as “training” for a physical goal you want to achieve, even though they often overlap. If you want to run a 10K, and you enjoy running, the goal for an achievable challenge could first be building up to the distance starting with your baseline distance you comfortably run now. Then, plot out the increments that you’ll consider progressive successes, such as adding 100M each day or a week (with increments based on what you consider both challenging and achievable). Once you reach 10K goal, speed can become the next goal again plotted out in segments of incremental progress before you start.

Hobbies: From woodworking to shooting wooden arrows, hobbies really are opportunities for brain rewiring. Again, plan your stepwise achievable challenge increments. If you select darts, start with a home dartboard—low initial investment and throw from a close, but challenging distance at first. As you get better in accuracy move back further. Record your results with the notations of the distance of each improvement you set as an achievable challenge. If you get so good that you are no longer challenged by the dartboard, try that archery!

Mindfulness and meditation are certainly positive interventions for burnout and will be topics of a subsequent blog.

Your Rewired Brain’s Default Changes from Defeat to Ignite

With your understanding of what happened in your brain to create the hopeless frustration of burnout, you’ll hopefully have more positive expectations to help you put in the effort to try (or retry) suggested interventions. Your own natural dopamine-reward system will then be at work deconstructing the resistance network built by your burnout as you reset your circuits of motivation.

The repeated experiences of dopamine-reward you’ll experience as you monitor your goal progress will literally change your brain’s circuitry. Repeated effort-reward experiences promote the neuroplasticity creating neural networks that expect positive outcomes in your new default network. This is because your brain will build stronger connections into the memory pattern. The expectation in achieving this challenge will bring pleasure. As with other less used networks, the previous lower brain stress-activated go-to response network you developed in burn-out, that caused you to react negatively to stressors, will be pruned away from disuse.

You’ll be rewired with optimism and renew positive expectations about your self-efficacy. With your higher, reflective brain back in control, as you access your perseverance, innovation, and creative problem-solving when you need them.

Just be sure to take the time to break down big challenges into opportunities to recognize incremental progress as you achieve each small step en route to your goals. With that positive recharge, your well-deserved dopamine reward will sustain your brain’s motivated perseverance on to the next step of the path to your goals.

Dr. Judy Willis is a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher, specializing in brain research regarding learning and the brain. With a unique background as both a neurologist and classroom teacher, she writes extensively for professional educational and parenting journals and has written six books about applying the mind, brain, and education research to classroom teaching and parenting strategies. The Association of Educational Publishers honored Dr. Willis as a finalist for the Distinguished Achievement Award for her educational writing. Check out her website.

 

 

Depression and Loss of Energy: A Waiting Game

Reversing the downward spiral of depression takes less energy than you think.

Depression and loss of energy — it is the beginning of a waiting game that does not end well.

Sometimes depression is born from loss of achievement, loss of goals, and loss of positive feelings about oneself. When low energy plays a role, a person who is not blessed with high drive and physical energy can see a spiral into depression start quickly. But even people with more energy lose it while bearing the weight of the losses. And, without a lot of energy, people begin to wait for things to get better around them rather than take action to make a change.

The Downward Spiral

Spiraling — the word makes it seem like a gentle way to go down, but when it comes to depression, going down is hard to stop, and once at the bottom, reversing the spiral takes intention and support. I hear about this often from my younger depressed clients — those adults who started out of high school or college ready to be successful but who found the world did not fulfill the vision they had.

Jeremy (not his real name) was one such young man. He never had to work too hard to get a passable grade point and was popular enough to have a solid romantic relationship. He was ready happy with his life. But, as commonly happens, the college romance did not last, which made him feel down in the dumps. Then the company he worked for, facing hard times, cut his hours. He now did not earn enough to live on but he expected the company, not himself, to change and he took no action. He waited for work to increase his hours, but in the meantime, he felt like a failure, and the waiting sapped him. His self-esteem, already suffering from being single again, took another hit as he saw his money dwindle to nothing. He started to isolate himself from friends without funds for fun and without a date to go along. Waiting was his enemy. Without meaningful activity beyond limited work hours, that isolation increased his depressed mood.

Waiting also intensified the mental and physical fatigue, so he slept later in the morning since he did not have to get to work early. He began to think he had a lot of time every day to work on his situation, so he did not start on possible job hunting and, as the day melted away, it was too easy to let himself decide that tomorrow was a good day to start fresh. But that waiting also increased his fear that nothing could change and his mood became very depressed. That depression and his situation robbed him of the very things he needed to reverse the spiral: meaningful work (purpose, as well as money), positive interactions with others, pride in his achievements, sense of competency, and a feeling of being loved.

This spiral is one I have seen repeatedly in young adults who have not met with easy success out of high school or college. They often did not have to work at jobs during those years to obtain phones or cars or clothes or do costly activities, such as attend concerts or sporting events. One young man I worked with as he finished high school, Casen (again, a pseudonym), felt literally terrified of applying for a part time job so that he could begin developing job skills and a resume and have some spare cash. Without classroom demands, he moved into waiting mode: waiting to apply to community college, waiting for a job that might fall into his lap. (The job that a friend would provide not that Casen would go search for since the friend said he could get his boss to hire Casen). Waiting did not bring him the job or the college acceptance letter, and he felt even more scared and more depressed. And he judged himself rather mercilessly: believing he would never succeed. That negative mindset robbed him of even more energy, and the more time he spent watching shows on his laptop, the less energy he had to reverse the downward spiral to depression.

What can be done about this? It is typical that an outside force will help. If you are reading this you might be saying to yourself phrases like, “Yeah — the outside force of getting evicted or starving! That would work!” If so, you would be correctly identifying motivators! At times, though, a person in a downward spiral ends up living with family or friends who are being helpful to them in averting disaster, but the pattern of waiting on something outside themselves does not change until motivation can pick up.

Reversing the Downward Spiral

How is it possible to reverse the spiral? Raising energy is a primary initial goal — with or without motivation. To start the spiral on an upward trend, simply:

Stop telling yourself negative things: you only reinforce the belief they are true. Interfere with negativity, saying, “Stop! I choose to believe I will solve this!”

Stop isolating. Get in contact with people, any interaction with others will help you also get outside of your own negative thoughts or mood.

Stop talking about your own life for a short while. When you only ruminate on your troubles, they seem larger. Ask someone else about his or her life. Hearing about another’s life, you can look at your reactions. I love the saying that troubles shared are cut in half and joys shared are doubled.

Then start the upward spiral with attention to developing a sense of purpose. Don’t assume this is a deep spiritual quest. In fact, it can be initially as simple as scheduling your day and meeting some regular commitments. An important brain change toward a less depressed mood occurs results from intentional activity. You get a blip of glutamate, an activating neurochemical, and one of dopamine, the feel-good neurochemical, and the combination is energizing. The bigger the step you take, the more you get. And any action will supply enough energy to do a little more.

My Tips

If you are underemployed — set a daily schedule that begins with a reasonable wake-up time.

Have a pattern to the day what news show you listen to or watch when you have your coffee when you feed a pet or meet a friend for tea.

Leave the house — you might have to start with leaving your room and interacting with others in your home- but forcing yourself toward less isolation is important.

At work, be sure to talk to your colleagues and ask them how they are; It improves the chance of a positive social exchange that can increase your self-esteem a bit and moves the spiral upward a fraction.

Set small goals — like walking the dog an extra 5 minutes — and notice you achieved them. There’s a bit more glutamate and dopamine!

Do something physical. When you move your depressed body you gain energy rather than lose it, so even a few minutes of tidying up can raise enough energy to do a bit more.

The above ideas tend to work best when you are working with another person who supports you, such as a therapist, a 12-Step sponsor, or a good friend who knows your goals and will help you keep track of them.

As you stop the waiting game — that passive waiting for life to change without you doing something to change it — the spiral reverses. You will be surprised that you will slowly feel your energy rise so you will be more able to take the next steps toward success.

 

By Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D.

This article first appeared in Psychology Today website.

Dr. Wehrenberg is the author of 5 books published by W.W. Norton, including The 10 Best Ever Anxiety Management Techniques, The 10 Best Ever Depression Management Techniques and her most recent 10 Best Anxiety Busters, an ideal book for the general public. She earned her M.A. studying psychodrama and bioenergetics, and had years of experience as a certified drug and alcoholism counselor, before earning her Psy.D. She now specializes in treating anxiety and depression and has a private practice in Naperville, IL. She is a frequent contributor of articles to The Psychotherapy Networker magazine, has contributed a chapter to Clinical Pearls of Wisdom (Ed. M. Kerman), and has produced CD for breathing, muscle relaxation and imagery for anxiety management. Check out her website at www.margaretwehrenberg.com.

 

 

My Struggle With Bipolar Depression and Dream to Go to Law School

I’ve struggled to write this blog, just like I’ve struggled to do most things for what amounts to a very long time now-so long that it feels like a lifetime and what came before only fragments of a not well remembered dream.  In actual temporal time, it’s only a few years of melancholy and moderately severe major depression. But in the life of the mind, there is an unbridgeable chasm between the person I am now, who I once was, and who I want to become.  I am so lost in my isolation that my only refuge is in turning inward; a strategy which offers no solace at all-only shame and regret.

I feel so isolated. I suppose that is one of the hallmarks of mental illness – detachment – that it seems impossible to relate to anyone.  Furthermore, I’m not an attorney, just someone who has lived the hells and wonderful peaks of manic depression.  My exposure to the law is through my father, my uncles, my cousins, and Dan Lukasik.  I hope to go to law school one day, but I need to retake the LSAT first.  So why write a blog?  What good could it possibly do?  Hopefully, some of the sentiments I describe will resonate with you.  But hope is fickle; a thinly stitched veneer stretched tautly over an ever-widening mire of unfulfilled promise.  When I look back at what I hoped for, most of it has faded into the mists of time with barely even the trace of memory or, worse yet, has been completely buried beneath the scars of regret.

In the face of my futility, my stupidity, my selfishness, my demons, hope that I can one day return the love and support that has been given me has allowed me to trudge on, kept me from giving up.  Even if it flies in the face of all rational thinking, experience, and who you believe you are the sole advice I would deign to give is to no never give up hope that you can bring yourself to a better place and can make yourself into the person you wish to become.  Though there be no reason to believe, allow belief to inspire you all the same.

“I can only stand apart and sympathize/ For we are always what our situations hand us/ It’s either sadness or euphoria.”

The above is a stanza from Billy Joel’s song “Summer, Highland Falls” that has always resonated with me.  The song itself captures the sense of helplessness, at times even ironic apathy, I have felt towards a disease (or mental illness or whatever I should call it) that has allowed me to leap through the heights of “euphoria”, and to spiral down into the depths of suicidal depression, seemingly completely independent of any of the external aspects of my life.

I once told a friend that in the past three months I had had at least 45 “perfect days” (i.e., days that I could not imagine being any happier in), but that 45 was a conservative estimate and it was probably more.  I’ve also spent weeks on end consumed by vivid images of ways in which I could gruesomely kill myself.  And both of these emotions, which at the time feel so pervasive and all encompassing, occurred while living on the same college campus and surrounded by many of the same people.  So it’s hard not to “stand apart and sympathize” with the fact that regardless of daily accomplishments or minor setbacks, or even in the face of significant change, it doesn’t matter what you do.  That because of who you are, in a very intimate and fundamental sense, you are going to experience “either sadness or euphoria,” and you have little say in how intensely you are going to experience that emotion, or for how long (so let’s hope its euphoria, and it lasts forever).

This complete lack of control has always weighed on me as a moral failure because I’ve recognized what I consider the best version of myself-productive, engaged, intelligent, charming and yet, due to an inherent weakness, have been unable to maintain that persona consistently.

Instead I, and I would like to emphasize the contradiction and confusion surrounding a feeling at once of helplessness and simultaneously of complete responsibility for being who I am, have eventually always succumbed to periodic bouts of anxiety, negativity, and self-doubt.  These periods have always been characterized by an intense sense of isolation in which almost palpable barriers are restricting me from coming into touch with the people and events surrounding me while at the same time engaging/suppressing the most endearing aspects of who I would hope to be as a person.

There are two types of sadness which result from this frustration and alienation.

Painful Sadness

There is a horrible, painful sadness.  For me, this type of sadness is expressed through intense suicidal ideation-constant mental images meant to shock the senses into an acknowledgment of how base you are.  Brutal beatings, stabbings, gouging’s, hangings.  It consumes you until the idea is all there is and it takes every ounce of energy you have to beat it back.  And it breaks your heart to see someone you love not to be able to say that this is how you feel, and it’s not their fault, but you are worlds away and mired in a sadness/loathing that is impossible to understand for those who have not yet experienced it.  And they love you, so they are trying to understand, but, how could they?  And this breaks your heart even more.

Cleansing Sadness

And there is also a beautiful, cleansing sadness.  For me, this beautiful sadness feels more real than anything in the world.  When I have been at the height of mania-during the happiest times of my life, I have still felt intimately in tune with songs that deal with regret-juxtaposing the inadequacy of the self with the intrinsic sublimity of some other-which you have failed.

There is a powerlessness to this beautiful sadness, an inevitability.  It is real because it exists at the core of our most vulnerable selves, and therefore its expression comes out at a time when we are “most alive” and most in tune with our emotional intuition-when we are most ready to admit to and grasp on to that which we truly hope for and believe in.  This sadness is not manifested in horrifying suicidal ideations but rather in the awe-inspiring idea that we are not worthy of the wonderful phenomena we call life.  That we are ashamed of our ugliness amidst so much beauty and yet, in spite of our baseness, we have the opportunity to exist within as well as work towards some greater good.

Mania

In many senses, for me, the mania of bipolar has been synonymous with stripping away the debilitating fear and anxiety which were so constricting for so long, and a constant struggle has been not to glorify it.  My Mom is taking a wonderful self-help course entitled “Fearless Living” and those two words, again from my experience, imbibe what it means to be manic or hypo manic; imbued with amazing amounts of self-confidence and gratitude, it’s unbelievably easy to live a carefree, upbeat, happy-go-lucky lifestyle, all the while being extraordinarily productive.  Thus thinking in the binary can be dangerous-there is a natural tendency to see every aspect of the mania as better than every aspect of the depression.

However, beyond the fact that I have never been able to sustain mania, there is also a depth of feeling engendered by the sincere melancholy of depression that I have never encountered in the euphoric whirlwinds of mania.  And I think the small silver lining to what is a dark cloud is the depth of meaning such great sorrow can expose you to-in a way an almost redemptive suffering.  At the very least, though depression has taught me to hate myself many times over, it has also taught me to love life.  The sad beauty of such a self-effacing distinction, to hate your being while loving your existence, is something to be thankful for and, hopefully in time, something to build off of for the future.

I would like to close this blog with what have for me been some solid building blocks for sheltering myself from, coping with, and eventually recovering from depression.

Exercise

When there seems to be nowhere to turn and the prospect of getting through the day seems unbearable, working out and (especially) yoga exercises are blocks of time where you don’t have to interact with other people, can be totally in your head, and when you’re done you feel a little better physically, even if not mentally.  Really any small thing that you can do consistently and through which you can mark progress-I’m getting stronger, better endurance, or greater flexibility-is a wonderful way to establish extrinsic markers of success-I’m better at this than I was a few weeks ago, which, in turn, can catalyze good feelings about yourself as a person.

Think of something you’ve always wanted to do or be good at, and then identify manageable steps that you can take on a consistent basis that gradually takes you towards your goal.  Don’t say I need to be as good as someone else or make an arbitrary benchmark-rather say I want to get in better shape relative to how I am right now, so I’m going to run or go to yoga more often.  Or I’ve always wanted to know how to tie my flies, shuffle a deck of cards, play an instrument, or speak a foreign language, so I’m going to work on this task a few minutes each day as opposed to watching TV or surfing the web.

Taking little steps like these that are working towards longer goals, even if you are not aware of any specific professional or extrinsic benefits to achieving those goals, can be inherently rewarding in and of themselves.  If you’re better at an activity, any activity, then you were a few weeks ago, that can be one small thing that you feel good about, even as the rest of your world remains shrouded in darkness.  It can help motivate you to get through the day, can serve as a spring towards other “productive” behavior, and eventually be something you can hang your hat on.  However, it’s important not to beat yourself up after a day in which you failed to take your positive “step”-rather have a little self compassion and say tomorrow is a new day, and it’s not the end of the world, indeed its completely ok, that I wasn’t able to do anything “productive” today.

Finally, reading and writing can be extremely cathartic.  Reading great literature can give you an emotional connection to characters, ideas, and feelings during a time when you felt completely isolated and estranged from the outside world.  Fiction and non-fiction distract you from the constant stream of negative and self-critical thinking that can paralyze you.  And, in a way similar to the steps discussed above, finishing a book you’ve always wanted to read or one on a subject that you’ve wanted to know more about, can generate a (no matter how small) sense of accomplishment that, no matter how insidiously it attempts to, the depression cannot take away.

On the other hand, for me, writing is more of a risk.  I can be very critical of myself as a writer-a case in point is this blog which has been taxing at times-and sometimes end up feeling worse after sitting down to write.  At other times, writing has been akin to therapy in that it has helped me to sincerely articulate-in the best way I know how the complex matrix of emotions enmeshed within me.  Even if journaling or poetry don’t make sense to a single other person, the fact that they make sense to you can temporarily relieve part of the burden imposed by self-guilt and personal shame.  It can be an outlet for your anguish, space where you can be authentically yourself.  Sometimes, you can be so overwhelmed by your depressive thinking that you need some way to release that thinking-writing can be an effective way to do this.

In any case, don’t immediately sit down and assume that because of your depth of feeling you’re going to write the next great American novel.  Rather start with a paragraph or a poem.  It might end up being useless junk that you never look at again, and that’s ok, because part of what depression is, is a needless anguish and self-doubt that is inhibiting you in your quest to live a full life and should be discarded as soon as possible.  But amidst the uselessness you may stumble upon small snippets of truth-a rhyming couplet here, a few sentences there-that satisfactorily express for you one of the tragic and meaningful aspects of your condition (or symbolically the human condition more generally).  These small snippets are worth holding onto as they reflect the deeper truths embedded within a malaise that so often brings us to our knees and which, on sublimely rare occasions, reveals insights that one (I believe) can only obtain through suffering.

Anonymous

Further reading:

Bipolar Disorder Overview

Writing Your Way Out of Depression

The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide: What You and Your Family Need to Know

Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga

The Bipolar II Disorder Workbook: Managing Recurring Depression, Hypomania, and Anxiety

Is Bipolar II Easier to Live With Than Bipolar I

 

SHUTDOWN: WHY PEOPLE WITH DEPRESSION FEEL SO NEGATIVE

Depression is a state of shutdown in which an individual’s psychological system shifts toward negative feeling states and diminishes the positive feeling states. The hallmark features of a depressive episode is a high negative mood state (characterized primarily in terms of depressed/demoralized/defeated/despairing feelings and secondarily in terms of anxiety, irritability/defensive hostility, and guilt/shame) and a diminished positive mood state (loss of interest, pleasure, energy, desire, and excitement).

Why do people get depressed? The primary reason people enter depressive shutdowns because they cannot obtain the necessary psychological nourishment needed to energize their behavioral investment system. Think of it as being akin to a state of starvation, only instead of physiological nutrition, the individual is lacking psychological nutrition. What is psychological nutrition? The fundamental principle that underlies psychological organization is that of behavioral investment. The psychological system is organized to direct mental energy and action toward investments that offer a return on those expenditures. When one is a getting a good return on one’s investments, then one feels fulfilled, energized and engaged. However, when one is not getting a good return, one begins to feel frustrated, anxious, irritable, or disappointed. If one cannot find an effective pathway for getting one’s needs met, one begins to enter into a state of psychological shutdown called depression.

So what are the core psychological needs that people have that need to be nourished? There are many different possible classification systems of needs (and motives and goals that people seek fulfillment around, see, e.g., here). I offer five categories here that overlap loosely with Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs.

Safety and Security Needs. First and foremost, the psychological investment system is concerned with basic safety and survival. If one’s physical safety is chronically threatened, if one is in constant pain, if one is chronically hungry, and so forth, the attention of the system will largely be focused here.

The Base Pleasures. Good sex, tasty food, relaxing on a warm summer day on the beach after working hard. The “hedonic” pleasures serve as a fundamental reward and signal positive investments (at least in the short term). Good investment systems are generally characterized by meaningful effort and hard work toward a productive goal, followed by short periods of relaxing and enjoying the base pleasures.

Relational Needs. Our core psychosocial need is to be known and valued by important others. Most notably, this includes being known and valued by members of our family of origin, friends/peers, romantic partners, and community. Needs for relational value are reflective of one’s degree of social influence. And folks go about achieving social influence and relational value in different ways. For example, see here for power and achievement needs relative to belonging and intimacy needs.

Developmental Growth Needs. We can think about an individual’s psychological system as being akin to an investor’s portfolio. An investor has resources that have the potential for growth and loss. An investor with a diverse portfolio whose investments are growing in a way that is exceeding expectation is flourishing. The same is true for an individual. Each individual will have “personal projects” that are engagements they are involved in that afford opportunities for growth (hobbies, interests, creative and playful endeavors, meaningful work projects, etc.). If an individual is chronically stuck and not growing or is largely cutoff from their growth pathways, or is frequently failing to meet expectations, or is deeply investing in pathways based on extrinsic reasons that are not consistent with their underlying emotional/motivational needs (or intuitive sense of potential), then the investment system is vulnerable.

Existential/Transcendental/Virtuous Needs. Adult humans are meaning-making creatures that need to have a narrative for how their lives and personal projects make sense. As Victor Frankl notes in his timeless classic Man’s Search for Meaning, if they cannot place their suffering, personal projects, virtues and relationships in the context of a larger narrative that provides meaning, then they will be vulnerable to developing a nihilistic attitude, which is the belief that their lives or actions really don’t matter, because really nothing matters. A nihilistic narrative can undercut the emotional value that folks get from engaging in such projects, leading to existential crises or depressions.

Why do people have trouble getting their psychological needs met? Sometimes the answer is obvious. For example, consider the city of Aleppo in Syria. The people of that city have been completely brutalized and many folks there undoubtedly feel depressed. (As an interesting aside, it is worth noting that the field of psychiatry/clinical psychology is divided as to whether such individuals should be considered “clinically depressed”). In other obvious cases, folks get depressed because of chronic pain or illness, or death of a loved one or because they get addicted so substances that ruin their lives or because they are abused or isolated.

Other times the issue is much more complicated. Consider that there are many people that live in nice houses and seem to be surrounded by caring people and are achieving in their lives, yet they also get depressed. Indeed, despite the fact that we have more and more technology and more and more resources and control over our environment, we seem to be struggling more than ever with feelings of depression and anxiety. What is going on in these cases?

The short answer is that I think the modern, fast-paced society is placing many new, unusual stressors on our emotional system. And I don’t think people have been well-educated about how to appropriately process negative feelings. People have been given much more freedom to acknowledge negative feelings than in past generations (read this story to see what I mean), but there has not been good education on how to learn and grow from such feelings (see here or here). What I see in my clinic is that individuals try to avoid negative feelings, and wish everything would just be fine. They often try to act publicly like everything is fine, but they have no idea how to maturely process and learn from their negative feelings. Instead, they enter into an intra-psychic battle with their negative feelings, often working to banish them, or criticize themselves out of their feelings or try to “stay positive”. This creates a powerful “split” in their psychological systems. Namely, their feeling system is sending one signal, their internal narrator is in conflict with that signal, and they are trying to publicly present a totally different image than their inner conflict. All of this sets the stage for a “neurotic breakdown”.

In addition, I see many parents who value their kids, but who do not know how to guide their children in processing negative feelings. Instead, too many have been caught up in “self-esteem nation” and act in an overprotective way, essentially communicating both that their kids are fragile and that others are responsible for keeping you happy. Another group teaches their kids to repress and minimize their feelings. I am not blaming parents here. The modern world is complicated and psychologists and psychiatrists have generally not done a great job being clear about the nature of emotions and relational needs.

At the societal level, we need to recognize both the dramatic changes the information technological revolution has brought to our world and how many of the institutions that provided guidance for the good life are breaking down. Religious systems have lost much of their authority. The political system has broken down into a polarized way. I think our educational system is broken in the way it assesses performance and fails to teach character values. Science often seems to characterize the world as an amoral, meaningless physical system. In other words, in terms of our existential/transcendental understanding, there seems little that supports the deep-seated need that many people have for true meaning making. So, we live in a fast-paced, high-stress world in which we are overloaded with choice, we regularly observe massive amounts of inequity in power and resources, we give lip service to negative feelings but often characterize them as disease states and provide very little real education about human emotions and needs, and institutions that provided deep meaning making systems have lost their authority.

The bottom line is that depression arises, in most cases, when people do not receive the necessary psychological nourishment from their investments. This arises because of brutal environments and injury from traumas, diminished capacities to meet growth expectations, intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict with important others. Unable to find a path forward folks shutdown and, unfortunately, getting depressed in modern society likely creates more problems than it solves. So folks get trapped in neurotic depressive cycles.

There is clearly no easy fix, as depression is a massive health problem. But I do believe there is much that can be done. We need (and can achieve) a much better shared understanding of human psychological needs and nourishment. We also need a clear recognition from institutions like the World Health Organization that depression emerges as a function of psychological malnourishment, rather than being brain disease stemming from neurological malfunctions.

My ultimate vision is for the development of a holistic meaning-making system that harmonizes the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in a way that affords an understanding of our human natures such that we can have a more effective guide toward fulfillment during these rapidly changing times.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., author of A New Unified Theory of Psychology, directs the Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University. He is a licensed clinical psychologist with expertise in depressionsuicide, and the personality disorders. He has developed a new meta-theoretical system for psychology articulated in many professional journals and is now applying that system to researching well-being, personality, and social motivation, and he and his students are working on the development of a general system of psychotherapy. Henriques received his M.A. in Clinical/Community Psychology from UNC-Charlotte and his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Vermont. He also completed several years of post-doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania under Aaron T. Beck exploring the effectiveness of various cognitive psychotherapy interventions for suicide and psychosis. Henriques teaches courses in personality theory, personality assessment, social psychology and integrative adult psychotherapy.

 

Built by Staple Creative