The Creativity Cure for Depression: An Interview with Dr. Carrie Barron

Today’s guest is Dr. Carrie Barron, a board-certified psychiatrist/psychoanalyst on the clinical faculty of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons who also has a private practice in New York City.  She has published in peer-reviewed journals, won several academic awards, and presented original works related to creativity and self-expression at national meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Along with her husband, Alton Barron, M.D., a hand and shoulder surgeon, she co-authored the book, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands.

Dan:

Why is depression such a problem in our culture?

Carrie:

I think the level of stress has gone up enormously because we have so much to do and we’re on twenty-four hours a day. So I think because of technology, which offers us so many great things, but gives us much to do. I think that’s part of it. I also think, especially for children, we’re in a striving, ambitious, be productive all the time mentality – for children and adults. We need to play, we need to hangout, we need to have spontaneous time. I think spontaneous thought does a lot for alleviating depression and anxiety.

Dan:

We have so many different words in our culture for unpleasant experiences. We might say things like, “I’m sad,” “I’m burnt-out,” “I’m stressed-out,” or “I’m depressed.”  But what is the difference in your mind, as a clinician, between sadness, say, and depression?

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Carrie:

Sadness is a normal emotion. We don’t have to treat everything and be afraid of sadness. We don’t have to pathologize everything. There is a range. I mean, life can be very hard and it’s appropriate not only to have it, but let yourself have it. Sometimes it is actually moving towards the authentic feeling, rather than running away from it, that actually makes it go away. You first have to experience it, and then when you understand it, and you’re in it, it runs its course. Now, this is separate from a true major depression where you can’t get up in the morning. That’s another story. But sadness is a normal part of life.

Dan:

In your clinical practice, how often would you say depression has played a role in why people have come to see you?

Carrie:

I think it plays a role often. The categories that we have in the DSM-5, I think they’re useful so that clinicians can communicate with others. But nobody is fully described by a category or diagnosis. There’s a lot of overlap. When people are depressed, they’re also often anxious and also stressed, and sometimes it’s more one than the other. But depression does come up a lot for people and it’s very painful. I think not being able to get up in the morning, not feeling like doing anything, not being able to enjoy the sunny day or the view of the water, or whatever else people are getting into, it makes you feel very separate and alone when you are depressed and other people around you are not.  So it has, kind of, a trickle-down effect, too.

Dan:

Why did you write the book, The Creativity Cure? I found it such an interesting book, a fascinating read. You wrote it with your husband who is a surgeon. Can you tell our audience why you wrote it?

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Carrie:

There are two things.  I talk about this now, I didn’t talk about this in the book, when I was a kid, I had some problems. I was depressed. I was anxious. We weren’t taking meds at that time. There was some chaos in my world.  I really had to find a way to survive. When I look back on it now, all those things that I recommend in my book are things I was doing, or trying to do, like using my hands. I would cook a lot. I would take long walks.  Then, later in my practice, maybe ten years ago, patients were saying, “You know, I went home and I fixed my sink and I became euphoric! I felt great!” I started to realize that meaningful hand use has a lot to do with happiness. And yet, because so much of what we do now is accomplished with a click on a device, we’re deprived of the process. And process, being deeply immersed in making, or making music, brings with it the possibility for euphoria, and satisfaction, and feeling good about living. So creativity is really about a way to have an optimal life. How you define creativity is another matter.

Dan:

What’s going on in the body, in particular, the brain when someone is struggling with depression? And how does creative action interact with that?

Carrie:

I think a lot of studies have been done, and serotonin and neurotransmitters, there’s a depleted state, and that we need to boost it up with medication or activities that do the same. Vigorous exercise can create the same biological state that antidepressants can. I want to qualify this and say that one must see their physician and make an informed decision, but certainly exercise can help a lot. Also, meaningful hand use has been shown to boost mood. Dr. Kelly Lambert wrote a book, Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power, and she was the one who talked a lot about how purposeful hand use can affect brain chemistry and make people feel happier.

Dan:

What would be some examples of using your hands? When we think of creativity, many people might think of painting, for example. They might say to themselves, “Well, I’m not a good painter,” or “I don’t play an instrument.” But creativity isn’t really limited to that. Can you expand on that?

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Carrie:

Sure. I am so glad you asked that. I think this is the crucial question. And I think you hit the nail on the head. A lot of people say, “I’m not creative.” Well, first of all, I think we’re all born creative. It’s a matter of finding what you can do. It can be applied to business. You can be amazing. You could be a genius at figuring out what the team needs to be. That’s very creative. You could be an amazing cook. You could have a tremendous talent for decorating. Gardening, the design of a garden. It doesn’t have to be on a professional level. It’s really a matter of figuring out what you can get into. You may find that if you put some time into mastering a skill that you find a certain pleasure and freedom with it. That could be something like painting, but it doesn’t have to be. Knitting, crafting, it could even be fixing things. All of that involves meaningful hand use.

There are many definitions of creativity.  My definition of it is allowing most natural self to emerge to make a positive contribution. It’s allowing you a freedom, a spontaneity in the way that you live, a feeling of safety that allows you to do that so you’ll throw out an idea, you’ll say something funny in conversation, so that you are just yourself and it works. That’s really optimal living.

Dan:

You talked earlier about when you were younger and growing up having some difficult childhood experiences and learning some creative coping skills.  Myself, when I think about this, I had a very difficult childhood as well with an alcoholic, abusive father. Over time, I didn’t have what I would now think of as depression as a young adult. It developed more at midlife when I turned forty.  It seems that there’s a lot of research that suggests that when people in their childhoods have difficult experiences, either emotional abuse, or physical abuse, or deprivation, there’s some kind of linkup with adult-onset depression. Have you found you found that in your experience?

Carrie:

Yea, I think so. I think because in certain ways when you’re in your twenties and your thirties and you’re striving, and you’re distracted and you have a strong goal, that, in and of itself, that kind of commitment to a goal or emotion can stave off certain aspects of your memory or your inner life and it might get triggered in your forties.  Maybe when you have a little bit more time to contemplate or think back. I will say that there are certainly ways, I just like to not be falsely optimistic, but be really optimistic and really encourage people to understand that there are ways to look into your particular history, your particular form of depression, and work with it to get to a much better place at any age.

Dan:

In your book, you talk specifically about not only being creatively engaged, but the use of one’s hands, a physical activity, and how that somehow connects to creativity, no matter your history, or the causes of your depression. This seems to work for just about anybody with depression or unhappiness. Would you say that’s the case?

Carrie:

I do. I think it’s mild or moderate depression. I think if you have a very severe depression, you might need some medical intervention or an intense therapy. But what I like to say is that if you develop a creative habit, it’s very useful to fall back on it when you are depressed. You may not be able to master a new habit when you’re severely depressed, but if you’re mild to moderate, and you work on your knitting, or you work on your painting, or you go into the kitchen and you are inventive about your cooking, it really can shift mood, but not if you’re in a very crippled state. In a crippled state, you need to get to, sort of, a better place, and then use the creativity after that.

Dan:

You’re living in New York City, but you’re soon to be on the move. Tell us a little bit about that.

Carrie:

I’m very excited because I am going to be moving to Austin, Texas soon.  I’m going to be involved in, and working with the great people to try to develop a creativity/wellness program together. I’m not sure exactly, I haven’t submitted a proposal to them about human flourishing and aspects of human flourishing, but from my research, I outline 10 principles that are based on scientific research, but also on ancient philosophies that really help people with optimal living. Most of those are, actually, linked to creativity and linked to better health. So I’m really excited to get to work with people there.

Dan:

You actually have a website. Where can our podcast listeners and readers find you?

Carrie:

At carriebarronmd.com and we have a pretty active Facebook page has a wide following. People make lots of comments and have lots of pretty interesting things to say on that.  So that might be a place to look. And I do have an active Psychology Today blog. I try to keep it lighter for Facebook, kind of short for my website. On Psychology Today, I try to deal with deeper, more complicated issues, but try to be useful.

Dan:

Carrie, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today on this very important topic of depression and what we can do about it with creativity.  And we look forward to following your future work.  I hope everybody follows Carrie on her website and reads her blogs. This is Dan Lukasik from Lawyers with Depression. Join us next week for another interesting interview.

Coming to Terms With Depression

In her new memoir, This Close to Happy, Daphne Merkin writes about how she’s made her way through life, not despite, but with depression. She tells NPR’s Scott Simon that sometimes she just has to push herself through bad days. “At really bad times, I will admit I don’t get up,” she says. “I sort of languish, or sleep. But mostly I try and combat it by assertions of will. Which is not the same as saying, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ though … there’s a point at which these assertions of will don’t help. But otherwise, I think there’s a way of negotiating depression, like, talking to it. Saying, ‘you can do this, you’ll be OK, try going outside, try sitting at your desk.’ You know, kind of coaxing oneself.” Listen to the interview here.

Depression and Faith: An Interview with Rabbi Mark Gellman

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Today’s guest on our show is Rabbi Mark Gellman.

Rabbi Gellman is the Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Beth Torah in Melville, New York where he has served since 1981.  He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Northwestern University in 1981 where he also completed doctoral work in the History and Literature of Religions specializing in Buddhism and Judaism. He is the recipient of many honorary degrees.

Rabbi Gellman writes a weekly column, “The Spiritual State,” for Newsweek magazine and the syndicated column,“The God Squad,” read by readers around the world.

Welcome to our show Rabbi Gellman.

Dan: 

Rabbi, during your time that you’ve been a Rabbi, and I understand that’s been decades now, have you counseled people with depression?

Rabbi Gellman:

Yes, I have.  Although my general orientation, and I hope it’s the orientation of most clergy, is to refer people to professional psychiatrist or psychologists who specialize in this. It’s not something that clergy should enter, in general, because they’re not trained for it.

Dan:    

Once you’ve referred those people and they are treating with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or both, do the clergy have some role in comforting the people with spiritual support with this kind of condition?

Rabbi Gellman:

Yes, I think we serve two roles.

One is what I would call “psychiatric first responders.”

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We’re the ones who first alert people to the fact that they are depressed and that they need some kind of professional treatment in order to get back to some level of functioning life. The second purpose which we serve as clergy, if we are doing our jobs well, and our calling well is to provide to the community a message of hope. The antidote to depression, of course, is hope. And in a communal sense, Rabbis can provide that hope. In fact, it is my view that the search for hope that is the primary motivator for people to affiliate with religious denominations and to seek personally their own way to God.  It is the search for hope, ultimately.

Dan:    

Many people who I speak to around the country, and myself included, I am a practicing Catholic, and so often in the throes of depression, or maybe even at the beginning, I would often ask God, “Why me?” I think that so many people, and maybe it’s true for any kind of suffering that afflicts people, ask that seminal question.  In your faith, and in your experiences, how do you respond to that?

Rabbi Gellman:

Well, I have a rather unconventional view of many things. And I have an unconventional view of that question. First of all, I don’t think it’s a common question. People say it is, but I don’t believe it. I’ve never heard it. Most people are not really consumed by the question of why this has happened to them.

There’s two reasons for that. First, they can think of a lot of reasons it’s happened to them. So, they know the reasons it’s happened to them. Second, the question, “why me,” presumes a kind of spiritual and ethical arrogance that most people are mature enough not to have.  By that, I mean the question, “Why me?” if you sort of unpack it a little, means, “I am so righteous, I am so good, I’ve done so much for the world, and for my family, and for my community, that my virtue is so enormous, that it should protect me against all evil.

Now, no one really believes that.

No one believes, in their right mind, in the list of the greatest human beings that have ever lived, Gandhi and Mother Teresa, that they should be No. 3.  I honestly don’t think people ask the question, “Why me?”

My approach has always been on two levels. One on a level of personal counseling to try to get people to find some resources to find some reasons to hope and I have some techniques that are very effective in that way.

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Second, in my teaching, to explain to people that there are two reasons why bad things happen to them.  The first is that they caused them to happen. People who have lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking really have no right to say, “Why me?” They did it to themselves. People who have neglected their physical fitness and have developed different pathologies that come from obesity or inactivity have done it to themselves.  So, much of what happens to us, that is evil, is self-produced.

The second reason why bad things happen is because of what Aristotle called, “natural evil”. That is just the way the world works. A Rabbi said a phrase, “Olam K’minhago nohgge,” which means the world goes according to its own order. It means if you’re walking along the street and a brick falls from a scaffolding and you’re underneath, it’s bad luck on you. But, that’s just the way the world works. If you happen to be in a place where a tornado hits, or a hurricane hits, it’s the way the world works and this natural order of the world is not evil.  It’s just the natural working of the laws of the world. A Tsunami is not evil. If a wave crashes over an uninhabited island it’s not evil. It’s only if people are there. Well, people choose to be there.  The point is there are things we do to ourselves and there are things that happen to us because the world is the way it is.

Dan:

With respect to “the way the world is, would that include our bodies, our brains, and our genetics? There are now studies which show that many, many people, especially with the more severe forms of depression, have a strong genetic vulnerability to depression. Or, other people grow up in neglectful homes where they are neglected or physically abused.  Those people have high rates of adult-onset depression.  Can you follow-up on this?

Rabbi Gellman:

Sure, I mean, sometimes you draw some bad cards. You draw environmental bad cards, you grow up in an abusive, deprived upbringing, and, in some cases, you draw a bad genetic card. But, I would say to both those things that there are ways that people overcome those inheritances.

For example, there are people who grow up in very, very difficult circumstances.  And for some reason, they are disciplined and hopeful, and they are able to move out into better circumstances for the rest of their life.   Other people surrender to the difficulties of their environment.  How do you distinguish between one and the other? Why is someone able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and someone else isn’t from the same deprived neighborhood? So, something else is at work here.

As far as the genetic inheritance, it may be true, it probably, certainly is true, studies in schizophrenia certainly seem to indicate it is true, that there’s a strong genetic component to depression.  However, there’s a problem with focusing on that medical fact and the problem is that it gives people an excuse to wallow in their depression, to surrender to their depression.  Hey, look, I’ve known people who are obese, who say, “Look, I can’t lose weight because I’m genetically fat.”

You know, that’s ridiculous.

You may have a genetic predilection to obesity, you my have a genetic predilection to depression, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fight it.  And if you believe that this was your inheritance, it’s just another reason to surrender. And depression requires vigilance, and it requires very strong emotional dedication to becoming well again.

Dan:

Can you give us some insights into how the Jewish faith, the Jewish religion, views depression, and, specifically, do you give examples from the Old Testament that you believe are insightful into how people can see their depression and overcome their depression?  You minister and you preach. Can you give us a little insight on that?

Rabbi Gellman:

The first is a personal understanding. I think it comes out of scripture, but not directly.

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It’s a technique that I developed which I call, “spiritual balancing.” The history of this is that my wife and I, Betty, were living in Evanston near Northwestern University. We were remodeling an old house and the fellow that was helping us do some spakling was carrying two big containers of this spakle up the stairs and I said to him, “Why don’t you just carry one bucket up? Why carry two at once?” And he said, “Well, if I carry one it throws me off and it hurts my back.  If I carry two, it keeps me in balance and I can carry twice as much.”

For some reason, it was an epiphany for me.  It was a life-changing moment, just watching this guy carry spakle up the stairs. What I realized at that moment, and developed it as a counseling technique, and have spoken to psychiatric associations about it, is this technique of spiritual balancing.

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So it works this way. Someone comes to me and they’re depressed, they’re in grief, they’re in a bad place.  So I say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do five minutes of you telling me, in as much excruciating detail as you can, why your life is miserable. Five minutes.

And then, for the next five minutes, I want you to tell me why your life is wonderful. What are the wonderful things in your life. But it has to be for the same amount of time.

I do this often with people in grief.  “Give me five minutes of how sad you are, and how broken you are that you’re loved one died and how unfair it is and how awful it is, and how it’s breaking you, and then five minutes what you loved about the person.  And what was great about the person.”

What I discovered quickly, using this technique, is that in the end, people felt much better, at the end of the counseling session. The reason they felt better was not that anything had changed, but that they had balanced the miserable, depressive thinking that they had, that had imbedded itself in their brain because of their trauma, with positive, endorphin producing, hopeful thoughts that were also in their brain, but they weren’t accessing them because they weren’t thinking about it.  They were obsessed with the loss.  That’s the purpose of the Psalms, of many different passages in the Bible which is to get you at the moment you are most depressed to thing about the goodness that is still in your life and to overcome that natural tendency to focus on your burdens by turning in a conscious way to a meditation on your blessings.

Then you will discover when you do this that there is not a single day in which you wake up where your blessings do not exceed your burdens – not one single day.

 

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