True Stories: A Wife’s Pain Over Her Husband’s Struggle With Depression During His First Year of Law School

“True Stories” is a new series of guest blogs I am running; this is the fourth in the series. Here is a heartfelt story from Katie, who writes about her husband’s struggles with depression during his first year of law school.

Three years ago, my husband became a first-year law student at a state school with an excellent reputation. After several years of waffling between pursuing medicine, law, military, and scientific research careers, he opted for law and was admitted to a number of schools, accepting his best offer. We relocated so that he could attend, moving from the sunny Southwest to the frigid winters of the Mid-Atlantic. He was excited at first, eager to begin a new chapter of his life, and enthusiastic to embark on a learning journey; he loves to read and study politics, economics, business, and law, and I felt that this endeavor would help him fulfill his potential both personally and professionally.

True Stories: An Attorney Shares His Journey Through Depression Before COVID and Now

“True Stories” is a new series of guest blogs I am running. Here’s an anonymous account by one small firm attorney who shares his story about his depression both before and after COVID-19. 

The practice of law is difficult even at the best of times.

Lawyers require a certain psychological stability. Attorneys in medium-sized and larger firms face the added pressures to bill significant hours and compete with colleagues. Advocates in smaller firms can experience social isolation and are often weighed down by administrative burdens.

As a small firm practitioner, I have found the time since Friday, March 13, 2020, when lockdowns began, particularly difficult. It was on that date that the world changed forever. I am, of course, speaking about the pandemic. There have now been approximately 3 million people who have died, and over 100 million reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide since that fateful day. I write mindful that the pandemic is improving in some jurisdictions and that it remains a dire and daily threat in others.

Uplift: How Pushing Weights Lifts My Depression

“Human beings are designed for regular physical activity. The sedentary nature of modern life probably plays a significant role in the epidemic incidence of depression today.”  Andrew Weil, M.D.

After a long winter and dreadful May of rain and cold temperatures, beautiful June is finally here. The sunlight is filtering through the green tree leaves and warm air blowing across my hair.

Summer’s a great time to start investing in your health again after winter’s hibernation.  People are out walking or working in their gardens.  This whole time of year screams “move!”  I have added weight training as part of my moving routine.  Maybe you can, too.

You Can Recover From Depression

I am 57 years old. I am a lawyer. And I struggle with depression.

I was diagnosed when I turned forty.  I didn’t know what was happening to me. But I knew something was wrong. I was crying quite a bit.  My sleep became disrupted. It became difficult to concentrate.  I felt no joy in my life.

Ultimately, my family doctor diagnosed me with major depression and provided me with the help I needed. I started going to therapy and was put on anti-depressants. This saved my life.

Since being diagnosed all those years ago, I have learned to live with depression as have many of the 20 million people who are living with this illness right now in this country.

How To Beat Workplace Depression

Every day you wake up, drive to work, sit in an office for eight hours, and drive home. For five days a week it is a lather, rinse, repeat cycle. This is a sample of an average job. Nowadays, more and more jobs are starting to extend themselves outside of the office. Cell phones and laptops make it simple to be connected to our jobs 24/7. You may find yourself answering emails at the dinner table or fielding phone calls from other time zones on the weekends. The piles of work continue to grow, but the deadlines become much closer together. You have no choice but to do what you have to do to get it all done. Or do you?

With growing workplace demands, depression amongst employees has started to become a real epidemic. Signs of depression include feelings of sadness, worthlessness, fatigue, anxiety, and lack of concentration. For a company to operate at its best, it is important for its employees to feel their best. If you are feeling depressed at work, or feel like your employees are suffering, take note of a few suggestions to ease the stress and get back to smiles and productivity.

10 Summer Depression Busters

Although my mood seems to be better with more sun, I understand why a substantial number of folks get more depressed in the summer. Extreme heat is hard to tolerate. In fact, in a study published in Science in 2013, researchers reported that as temperatures rose, the frequency of interpersonal violence increased by 4 percent, and intergroup conflicts by 14 percent.

There are four distinct types of people when it comes to weather and mood, according to a study published in Emotion in 2011.

  • Summer Lovers (better mood with warmer and sunnier weather)
  • Unaffected (weak associations between weather and mood)
  • Summer Haters (worse mood with warmer and sunnier weather)
  • Rain Haters (particularly bad mood on rainy days)

Ten percent of those diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder suffer symptoms at the brightest time of the year. The summer’s brutal heat, bright light, and long days can affect a person’s circadian rhythm and contribute to depression for the opposite reasons that winter conditions do.

If you’re a Summer Hater, or just notice that your mood is affected negatively by the heat, here are some summer depression busters that may help you better tolerate these months — maybe even enjoy them.

Running From The Pain

Clinical studies show that regular aerobic exercise is effective as antidepressants in reducing mild to moderate depression.  In fact, exercise causes the same structural changes to the brain as antidepressants do and is a treatment option that is not recommended enough and is underutilized in the United States.  Read more here.

Dan’s Tips for Weaving Together A Recovery Plan to Heal Your Depression

What will make the pain of depression stop?

Sometimes the ache is dull, other times sharp. It can last a few hours, days, or weeks.

This is ground zero for depression sufferers. What can I do to feel better?

The answer is often elusive.  Many don’t know where to get help, let alone walk the path of healing. Recovery starts and sputters for others: they feel better on a med, then it stops working. Or, they start a bold new exercise regimen, only to see it fizzle.

What to do?

There is no one-size-fits-all cure for depression. That what makes it so exasperating.  It isn’t like having a bad cold where Nyquil will do the trick for most.  Rather, depression is an illness of the body, mind, and soul that doesn’t lend itself to simple fixes.  Because we’re all humans with bodies and brains, some things will generally work for everyone; exercise comes to mind.  But because we’re also unique, we need a tailored recovery plan to get and stay better.

We need a quilt of healing.

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

Built by Staple Creative