Antidepressants can help relieve depression’s symptoms. But there’s limits to what they can provide. Read the Blog
Struggling with your depression this winter and wondering what to do about it? Read the Blog
Most folks describe depression as a weight they carry around: dumbbells lodged in their pockets that drag them down body, mind and soul into a stinking swamp.
There’s no humor in this bayou; no levity, no sense of the sweet exuberance life can bring. Instead, there’s a collapsing inward, an inertia in which we can’t imagine . . . well . . . anything good happening to us.
We have a yearning to be free of depression; a deep desire to cut our losses and spit in its eye. It has cost us enough heartache – no more, we think. We pine for a way out of it, but sometimes don’t know the way.
But if we are to recover, we need to think about a different kind of life for ourselves. One where we take the “UP” to happiness escalator instead of the “DOWN” one to depression.
Imagining a Life without Depression
Envisioning freedom is part of the journey out of the dark woods. So often, depressives imagine a future with uninterrupted bouts of depression. This sorrow is what leads so many to a state of hopelessness. We need, with the help of wise others, to begin to imagine what our life would look like without depression and walk, step by step, that way.
I used to say to my therapist when depressed, “Why am I being punished?” It was as if I had done something “bad” and was a “bad person” (though I didn’t know and couldn’t articulate whatever that was) and now the Karmic Universe was going to dish out the punishment I thought I surely deserved.
As depression author Dorothy Rowe writes,“Depression is a prison where you are both the suffering prisoner and the cruel jailer.” Start to see, just a little bit at a time, that depression is not just happening to you. It’s an inside job too. This took me years to learn. Our thoughts and style of thinking help create and sustain depression. When we feed it with negative ruminations, it grows larger – like an algae plume. Withhold this noxious nourishment — and it can, slowly, wither away or at least become more manageable.
Happiness Skills Can Help
Before even imagine the promised land of happiness, however, we may need medication to lift the more onerous physical symptoms of depression to give us enough focus and energy. No doubt, antidepressants aren’t the only way to do this. Many have accomplished the same results with exercise, nutrition and/or psychotherapy.
In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., writes:
“Even the most the most severely depressed individuals can improve by doing a simple daily happiness-increasing exercise such as taking time to recall three things that went well each day. Although the exercises are not designed to ‘cure’ depression, if you are depressed, trying one or more of these activities affords a strong chance of lightening the burden and darkness of depression and producing positive feelings.”
We can also look back further than just what went right on a particular day to increase our sense of happiness. There is a powerful connection between how we view our past and present day happiness says Rick Nubert, Ph.D. In a study of 750 people, he found that highly extraverted people are happier with their lives because they tend to hold a positive, nostalgic view of the past and are less likely to have negative thoughts and regrets than their neurotic counterparts. Howell says that while it may be difficult to change one’s personality to being an extrovert, he found that savoring happy memories or reframing past painful experiences in a positive light could be effective ways for people to increase their life satisfaction.
Other ideas offered up by Dr. Lyubomirsky include avoiding overthinking – a big problem for lawyers: “Very happy people have the capacity – even during trying times – to absorb themselves in an engaging activity, stay busy, and have fun. To practice this strategy, pick a distracting, attention-grabbing activity that has compelled you in the past and do it when you notice yourself dwelling [on the bad stuff and your problems]”. Check out her other ideas in her blog.
You deserve to be happy. You don’t have to keep riding the down escalator. While going up to the second floor, just wink and wave at your depression as it goes down into the bargain basement.
Nobody’s perfect – that’s why we have erasers. Yet nowhere on this sweet blue orb are there more people driven to perfection than attorneys.
It’s really not surprising, after all. We work with laws, rules and regulations: ancient tomes, incantations and idealizations about how our society expects folks to behave. When one acts outside the proscribed rules, one’s in violation, negligent or culpable. When this happens, people turn to a lawyer and expect him or her to get the job done – and flawlessly.
It’s easy to calm our fears with the wilted wisdom, “Well, everybody makes mistakes.” But things can and do go terribly wrong when we make mistakes – and we can and do make them. Things can go quickly awry despite our best efforts and work.
Lawyers are on edge because they feel if they’re not perfect, they’ll fall over the edge. Besides the inner stress, there is the outer pressure to keep a calm and cool façade lest our clients and colleagues lose faith in us.
I’m a perfectionist to the core. In a sense, it’s great because I take pride in my craft as a lawyer. I love the look and feel of good work well done. I can take it too far though – I can get so keyed up about churning out a masterpiece that I lose perspective; I lose sense of the possibly that the judge and his clerk might skip over seventy-five percent of my brilliant delineations of a statute’s historic origins, that the seventh draft of a motion isn’t always much better than the fourth and that there’s real value in not deliberating too much, but simply getting things done.
In a great piece in the A.B.A. Journal entitled, Three Deadly Ps: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis, Rebecca Nerison, Ph.D. maps out why too many cracks at perfection can lead to procrastination and then paralysis, a veritable seizing up of our work motor:
Procrastination is an occupational hazard for lawyers. Procrastination robs lawyers of peace of mind. It’s difficult to feel happy, healthy, and successful when you are forever putting off what needs to be done. We procrastinate when we feel anxious about a task, when we’re bored with it, or when we’re tired. In any event, procrastination is about avoidance. Avoidance allows us to temporarily escape the fear, boredom, or fatigue we anticipate as we contemplate the task. We are immediately relieved from the unpleasant feeling. We get to feel good instead of bad.
A dilatory dodge of our work just leads to more problems down the road. We need to take stock and see perfectionism for what it is: avoidance behaviors that rob us of energy and a sense of competency that comes from getting things done. My psychologist, a wizard of the human psyche, once observed that it’s critically important to observe ourselves engaging in healthy behavior. We build a sort of healthy resume of concrete things we do on a daily basis so that we can confidently say to ourselves, “I’m a person who get things done.” Just as procrastination is a vicious circle, not procrastinating is a healthy one.
We really need to let perfection go and let our humanity seep into our daily work; a humanity that while imperfect, is full of good humor, irony and outright silliness.
When we ignore this essential truth, we press down too hard on the gas pedal and our – and our secretary’s lives – are made miserable. Anne Lamott, author of the wonderful book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith wrote:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun.
What would the opposite of perfect be? Maybe just human – and that’s humbling. When we try to be perfect, we are too locked into a view of ourselves as the center of the Universe.
We’re not gods, but in reality vulnerable creatures.
I wonder if God has a sense of humor. How could he not given this goofy planet. Even Jesus knew how to party when he turned water into wine at a wedding.
We lose perspective with depression – we forget to play. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., once observed:
Most of us have to learn to take better care of ourselves. One way is by spending more time in play. The perfectionist, the depressive, the person who thinks he doesn’t deserve to feel pleasure, believes that he’d better never let his guard down, always busy, always productive. But it’s a joyless if all we care about is getting the work done. Something as simple as playing catch with the dog for a few minutes after work connects us with a part of ourselves we can lose only too easily – the child who can laugh, who can enjoy silliness, mindless physical activity. Tomfoolery is just as much a part of life as our lamentable laments. It’s uncomplicated, mischievous good fun that puts us into contact with our ageless inner child who wants to come out and play. He or she is there – if you just look inside. We need to open that door; we need to let some fresh air in.
William James once wrote “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
So kick off those Oxford and Manolo Blahnik shoes . . . and start to rumba.
We avatars of the legal system, we hired guns who ride into town and shoot up saloons, measure our success by the notches on our dusty belts: Did I win or lose? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it: Am I a winner or a loser? There is a thrill about winning and being successful, however we define it — but also a lot of stress.
Results, bottom-line bastards that they are, can spew toxic stress into our bodies like BP oil into the Gulf. Many lawyers struggle to shut off their inner dialogue that pings between their ears as they lay awake at night and their family sleeps: “Will I be successful tomorrow? Will I bill enough hours this month?” We mash ourselves up like Idaho potatoes flopping around in our beds as the minutes click away on our L.E.D. alarm clocks.
I wrote an article for Trial Magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression. Here’s a part of that article:
“How our bodies and brains deal with stress and anxiety hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. A wonderful defense mechanism, which is wired into our nervous system, is called the fight-or-flight response. When confronted with a threat – whether real or perceived – this response kicks in and floods our bodies with the powerful hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which propel us into action. This was an essential survival device for our ancestors who lived in the jungle and would have to flee beasts or fight foes trying to kill them.
Lawyers don’t face these types of real life-or-death threats. But they perceive life-or-death threats in their battles with opposing counsel while sitting in a deposition or sparring in the courtroom. Our bodies respond as if they were being chased by a hungry lion. Over time, this chronic anxiety causes the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones. Research has shown that prolonged release of cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory and the amydala (involved in how we perceive fear).”
Living in the jungle of our profession doesn’t involve warding off wooly mammoths, but it does involve a fight-or-flight from mental constructions in our heads: the fear of missing a court ordered deadline can create panic in our nervous system every bit as real as a tangling with a beast that tried to kill our ancestors.
Lawyers are perfectionists and overachievers who are never content to give things their just their best try. They believe in dumping large amounts of energy into each and every project. Such extraordinary efforts are stressful on our bodies and minds. Yet, we know all of this, don’t we? The truth is that many lawyers have already made the calculations in their heads and are willing to take the pounding for more dollars. We come back to our abodes at the end of our days exhausted, peak at our mutual funds statements and turn on the T.V. too tired to think about the implications of living this type of life.
Lawyer Steve Keeva, in his piece Take Care of Yourself, wrote:
“The dominant method of legal billing can, if you let it, subvert your ability ‘to claim a full and rich life for yourself,’ as litigator John McShane put it. Think about it. Billing by the hour is extraordinary in the way in which it so nakedly equates money with time. It thereby offers no incentive at all to stop working. The taskmaster par excellence can reduce grown professionals to slavish piece workers.”
When exploring the stress of success, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that depression happens in a context, a cultural milieu and a profession’s mores. Too often, we put everything on the individual – her depressive thinking, his genetic makeup – as if depression in a person forms and takes place in a vacuum: if it “takes a village to raise a child;” well, it takes a culture to create conditions for depression to develop.
We are social creatures that need support from our families, institutions and society. These structures help mitigate stress and prevent depression. Yet, contemporary culture has largely failed us: the breakdown in families, the betrayal of cultural and political institutions, a grimy cynicism in people, vacuous and crass entertainment unmitigated consumerism and a legal profession which endorses the value of professionalism while lawyers say that levels of incivility between lawyers is at an all time high. It’s become more of a business than a profession and calling, it’s become more mercenary in nature where lawyers forget that they are officers of the court and not just there to do the bidding of a well paying client.
Bruce Levine, Ph.D., author of the book Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, writes about renowned psychoanalyst and social critic Eric Fromm’s commentary on the connection between our cultural values and depression. Here is an excerpt from book about the dangers of a comsumerism driven culture:
“Fromm argued that the increase in depression in modern industrial societies is connected to their economic systems. Financial success in modern in modern cultural societies is associated with heightened awareness of financial self-interest, resulting in greater self-absorption, which can increase the likelihood of depression; while a lack of financial interest in such an economic system results in deprivation and misery, which increases the likelihood for depression. Thus, escaping depression in such a system means regularly taking actions based on financial self-interest while at the same time not drowning in self-absorption – no easy balancing act.
The idea that money and buying stuff and acquiring status = happiness isn’t treated for what it is – a paper thin myth. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with making money; buying things and wishing to obtain a certain level of success in our careers. It’s a healthy recognition of the limitations of our income and what it really can buy that makes all the difference and keeps us out of this downward spiral.
In the book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, author Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., concludes:
“One of the reasons for the failure of materialism to make us happier may be that even hen people finally attain their monetary goals; the achievement doesn’t translate into an increase into an increase in happiness. Also, materialism may distract people from relatively more meaningful and joyful aspects of their lives, such as nurturing their relationships with family and friends, enjoying the present, and contributing to their communities. Finally, materialistic people have been found to hold unrealistically high expectations of what material things can do for them. One father confided to me that he believed that purchasing a forty-tow-inch flat-panel TV would improve his relationship with his son. It didn’t.
“One of the chief obstacles to a sense of wholeness in life is the selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of other men. We can only get rid of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drains every experience to its last dregs. But if we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us -whatever it may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.
Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”
For Merton, that one thing was God. For some of us with depression, this may be our touchstone as well; a center around which to slow down the centrifugal force of our spinning lives. For the others, it may be our family or friends. But whatever it is, it must ground us and bring out, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “The better angels of our nature.”
To lessen the stress in your life, and the risk for developing or exacerbating your depression, try these tips from your friend Dan:
1. Fast for a few days from the radio in your car, the newspapers or fooling around on your Blackberry. Take a time out. Think of it as an experiment. Lawyers complain that they’re stressed out only to dump more information and stimulation into their craniums at every few moment they have. Lawyers already read and think enough for a living – give your nervous system a break for crying out loud.
2. Hand in hand with the above, incorporate some slice of silence into your life. It doesn’t have to be a monastic experience. I wear a runner’s watch and do a ten to fifteen minute period of silence a day. If you don’t do something like this, you know what you’re stuck with – too much noise.
3. Start asking yourself some questions. What toll on your mental and physical health is your drive to succeed exacting on your life? Make an actual list, take it out every day and read it. The purpose is to try to become more conscious of the actual cost of your career to you. People tell me they don’t have the time to do this, but then spend hours researching whether to buy a Lexus or Audi. The irony of it all.We love accumulating things and experiences in our society. Instead of adding something into your life, what can you drop out of it that would make you feel better?
4. Read something that would nurture you as a person and dump the rest of the crap. Read only one thing at a time. Maybe a book of poetry or the biography of a heroic person.
5. Reconnect with the humorous, whether highbrow or sophomoric. Plug into it and have a gut-busting hoot.
6. Remember, that life isn’t a dress rehearsal. The time you’re spending at your job is a segment of finite time that you’re given. Once it’s spent, it’s spent. No one tells you how to spend it, despite what you might have gotten yourself around to believing. Remember, you choose. My priest once said that on every gravestone there are two dates: the date we were born and the date we died. We don’t get to choose those dates. But between those dates, is a dash line: “—.” That dash is our life and what we have done with it. Resolve to be a person whose dash is driven by substance and not solely by success. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Let your life sing so that upon your death, even the undertaker will weep.”
7. The notion of “quality time” for oneself or others is largely bullshit. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. once said that to overcome depression we need to start investing in ourselves like we’re worth it: exercising, sleeping enough, etc. No matter how you slice it, there is no small amount of “quality time” in which you can achieve these basic self-care routines. The reality is you will need to take whatever amount of time it takes because YOU are worth it.
8. If you are locked in the success matrix as a lawyer, remember that it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. Realistically, your life won’t probably change tomorrow. But it can begin to change in small way that can lead you in a healthier direction.