I apologize to my readers for being away from the blog for the past year. A great deal of my energy had to be diverted to pulling myself out and staying out of the depression caused by the results of the 2016 election. Thinking about that a year later prompted to me to share some of the techniques that have helped me overcome my life-long depression (and situational relapses). These suggestions can be tried in addition to care recommended by medical professionals.
Gratitude Practice: One of the top things you can do to help yourself is begin a gratitude practice. It does not matter if you feel grateful, or if you believe your statements of gratitude. If you practice long enough, eventually you will realize that things changed somewhere down the line and now you do feel the gratitude you’ve been cultivating.
Make “Thank You” a mantra that you repeat over and over, every time you can think of it, as many times as you can. Set a phone alarm to remind you several times a day. Keep a journal where you write 5 or 10 things that you are grateful for everyday. If you can’t think of anything, cover all the basics — food, shelter, family, friends, pets, clothing, health, limbs, etc.
Doggedly keep up your Gratitude Practice until it is such a habit, you no longer need phone alarms and journals.
Stop Complaining: The corollary of the gratitude practice is to stop complaining because it mires you in the negative. Recognize and acknowledge the negative, but only so that you can formulate a plan for surmounting it. When you catch yourself complaining, make a conscious decision to stop and redirect your thinking towards solutions, gratitude, happier thoughts — anywhere away from dwelling on what’s not great.
Pro-Action: Maybe there is some specific stressor in your life that is wearing you down, that you can’t do much to fix. First, limit your exposure. For example, don’t sit and watch bad news for hours. Don’t join in when your co-workers are complaining about your crappy work environment. Second, take steps, tiny as they may be, towards changing your situation. Write your congress people, sign petitions, join a march. Apply to different jobs, work on that career advancing degree, start a savings account even if you only save $1 a month. Doing something, anything gives you a taste of self-efficacy, which feeds on itself.
Notice the Good: Good feelings, happy events, and improvements in your life have a greater impact if you notice them. Be on the look out for anything nice that happens and celebrate it. Let yourself indulge in a nice big grin. Stop and take a deep breath of sweet clean air after a rain. Feel the awe spread through your body at the beauty of a sunset. Let that loving feeling melt your insides as you look at someone precious to you. Soak up those moments, revel in them, acknowledge them with gratitude.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Learning to recognize that you are in the middle of having negative thoughts is a pretty big deal. It’s the first step to changing the way you think. There are a variety of patterns of negative thinkings, such as overgeneralization, catastrophizing, and all-or-nothing. These are patterns that take your depression by the hand and say, “let’s jump.” You can learn to see the thoughts as unwanted bad influences in your life. Replacing these negative patterns of thinking isn’t going to suddenly turn you into a jolly elf, but it will begin to rewire neural circuits in your brain.
Smile Therapy: Yes, it’s corny, annoying, and disingenuous, but do it anyway. Force yourself to smile. Try to bring the smile into your eyes. Do it as often as you can remember, every day, day after day, for months. It doesn’t matter if you feel happy, just do it. You are training your body to recognize a different way of being. And your mind is easily fooled. It will start to think you must be happier just because your body is acting happier. No, this is not a cure for medical chronic depression. It is one tactic you can throw at it though – death by a thousand smiles.
Pet Therapy: Never underestimate the comfort a warm, furry, loving pet can provide. If you don’t have a pet, arrange to spend some cuddle time with a friend’s pet. You’ll be rewarded with waves of oxytocin.
Safe Place Therapy™: Inner healing requires that you feel safe, however, you may not know how to feel safe even when you are safe. I suggest creating a place where you practice cultivating the feeling of safety. For me it’s in bed under the covers. I actively feel the soft sheets, warm blankets, snuggling puppers, overhead shelter, safe neighborhood… and remind myself that this is what Safe feels like. I am Safe. And I created this for myself. I create Safety. As you begin to embody this feeling, you’ll be increasingly able to address the parts of yourself trapped in the depressions of fear and insecurity.
Somatic Therapy: Embodied feeling is essential for recovery from depression. The illness is in your physical being — muscles, nerves, organs, digestive system, endocrine system. It’s important to learn to notice the physical sensations occurring in your body, tie them to feelings, and trace those feelings back to the traumatic experiences where they originated. From there, the trapped physical reactions can be released, which is physical healing. This should only be done in a Safe Place, or you are likely to be retraumatized. This should be assisted by someone trained to guide you gently through the process. I recommend reading the author Peter A Levine, PhD, especially In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.
None of these recommendations is likely to work magic on their own. The idea is to resolve to take on a long term brain rewiring campaign, and to stick with it until you see results. Realize that could take months or years. However, the combined attack of these tactics (perhaps along with medication and therapy) WILL make positive changes in your life. You’ll still have ups and downs, but they will begin to happen along an overall upward trajectory. A few years down the line, you will look back and be so grateful you started and stuck with it.