Category Archives: Depression

Being Gone and Coming Back

The following is a very special guest post regarding one person’s experience with depression.  It was written by the client of a colleague as a way to make sense of their time with depression.  These are their words…unedited.

For anyone who is currently in depression’s grasp, you may be able to relate to this person’s story and take hope that ‘coming back’ is possible.  For those who have never had to cope with a mental illness, this first-hand account provides amazing insight into what it is like.

I would like to thank the author of this piece for their courage in sharing their story…

I wake up, and immediately wish that I hadn’t. The overwhelming feeling of despair isn’t the first thought I have, it is just there from the day before. It’s like I never slept at all.

There is a constant darkness pushing down on me, it surrounds and invades me. It’s the most oppressive feeling I’ve ever had. I feel trapped.

I’m in a deep, narrow hole like a well. I’m standing on a small, slippery rock with thick mud up to my waist. If I slip off the rock, I will sink in the mud. The top of the hole is covered, there is very little light. I’m desperately clinging to a small strand of hope that I’ll get
out, but I have no idea how.

I am thinking and moving very slowly.

I endure living for the sake of my family. I tolerate living because I want to see them all again. I miss them horribly.

Every thought I have is sad, anxiety-provoking or both. I try to push everything out of my head, and I will do anything to avoid being alone with my thoughts.

I spend the day waiting to be able to go back to sleep. While I’m awake, I constantly crave distraction from what’s going on in my brain – TV & movies give me a distraction for 5-10 minutes at a time. I have no emotional reaction to the stories, and only vaguely
care what happens to the characters. I have a lot of trouble following a plotline and remember few details about what happened afterwards. A game on my phone will give me distraction for 10 minutes at a time.

People are not a distraction, basic interaction seems impossible and scary.
I sit alone in the basement for hours at a time watching TV, frozen in place with no interest in moving. When I hear my family upstairs, some deeply buried part of me wants to join them, but most of the time I just can’t do it.

Just getting through a day is mentally and physically exhausting. I can’t nap because that means being alone with my thoughts, and I’m terrified of not being able to sleep at night.

I desperately want to talk to my family, but also just want to be alone. I have things to say, but at the same time I have no idea what I would say if I did talk.

It can take days to figure out how to say something. When I do talk, I usually regret what I say or how I said it. I’m often irritated and harsh with my family and hate myself for it. When they talk to me, I struggle to show that I hear them and that I care, and I hate
myself for that too.

I hate the effect I am having on my family. I don’t know if I really comprehend how I affect them, I just know it’s not good.

I hate the fact that I am absent and missing a big and important chunk of my daughters’ lives. I hate being an absent husband and father.

I go to watch them in sports or performances, but I’m not really there. I desperately want to find enjoyment, but the emotional response is buried far inside and that makes me sad. I know I’m proud, but can’t really feel it, or communicate it. Afterwards I have a poor memory of what happened.

I’m proud of who my daughters have become, but don’t know how to tell them. I’m disconnected from the positive feeling of that pride, more just sad that I’m absent. I hate that I’m not the Dad I want to be, and hate myself for not being able to help them with their
challenges. I’m vaguely aware and thankful that they are being unbelievably patient with me.

I am enormously grateful for my wife’s support and patience, and that she somehow picks up the huge amount of slack I create. The gratitude doesn’t feel good, I hate myself for what I’m putting her through and I don’t know how she puts up with it. I’m aware though,
that her support makes things easier. I’m scared she’s going to leave, and really wouldn’t blame her.

At the beginning I used to be able to cry, but I can’t anymore. Although I feel intense sadness, I’m somehow disconnected from it.

I think it’s possible or even likely I will die of a heart attack or blood clot from being so immobile, which seems sad in an abstract way, but I don’t seem to really care.
I’m so lonely, but have no idea how to change that. I feel completely isolated. I don’t like myself, and can’t see why anyone would feel any differently about me.

I’m constantly fearful that someone will talk to me, but disappointed when they don’t. I fear being alone with another person, any silence is deafening. Eye contact is terrifying.

The smallest things seem impossible to do. I delay everything until it becomes absolutely necessary, even the basics like going to the bathroom. The only reason I do anything is to try to avoid disappointing my family or people at work.

I have limited interest in basic personal hygiene, and am only sometimes embarrassed by it. I just want it to happen without having to do it, showering seems like a huge, difficult effort. When I do shower, I don’t feel refreshed.

I have no interest in food, except to fill a void. I’ll eat until I feel sick trying to fill the void.
My brain isn’t functioning. It does the basics like keeping me breathing and my heart beating, and I’m somewhat surprised it can. My brain is encased in wet concrete that is hardening, any thought processes with the slightest complexity or need for problem solving seem impossible. My thoughts are very slow, like fighting my way through heavy sludge.

I’m paralyzed by uncertainty and fear; I have no confidence in my judgement, even for simple decisions.

I can hear what people are saying, but usually don’t really understand what they are telling me. I can understand simple statements, but have a hard time piecing together more than one simple concept or understanding the implications of what is being said. More
often than not, I don’t remember what people tell me, or that we had a conversation.

Somehow I desperately want to understand and figure things out, while at the same time I have absolutely no interest.

When at work, I spend most of the time staring at the computer and trying to figure out how to get out of there as soon as possible. I focus on small, simple, necessary tasks. I don’t know what else to do, or if I do know of something I could or should do, I can’t
picture the steps that are needed and can’t figure out how to start. I can’t remember the details of repeated tasks, and need to relearn them each time. I’m fearful and embarrassed that others know how little I am able to do.

I generally don’t remember what happened the day before, or even earlier in the day, everything is in a deep fog.

Irritation with commotion or noise around me is all-consuming. Any noise is too noisy. I feel like I’m made of ice and the noise will shatter the ice.

Outdoors is too bright, too cold or too hot, and always too noisy.
I can’t listen to music, it just sounds like noise and is irritating. I can hear the music, but have no emotional response other than irritation and a sadness that I can’t connect to it.

Hearing people laugh irritates me and makes me sad. People talking around me, and most of their actions, are deeply irritating.

I can’t imagine talking to people or being in social situations. I have no interest and have all-consuming anxiety they’ll see through me and quickly become disinterested or disapproving. It’s exhausting to have basic conversations. I’m embarrassed to be who I am.

I occasionally go to things like family gatherings, but only because I know it’s important to my wife and to prove to her that I am trying and care about what is important to her. I have no interest in being there other than that, and am consumed by painful anxiety. All I
can think about is how to get out of there.

I believe I am weak for not being able to lift myself out of this. I feel shame and guilt that I’m not doing enough to fix the problem.

None of these are things that I can just shake off, they are deeply rooted and they just are who I am.

I feel intense sadness, despair, fear and desperation. Not much else. If I smile, I’m faking it.

I’m terrified of the future.
…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

That was my life.  More than 5 years ago, it started with an anxiety that quickly grew to be severe and constant. Over time, life spiraled into the depressive state that I’ve tried to describe. It’s bleak, but doesn’t quite capture how horrible life was, or the intensity of the
desperation. I don’t have the words for an adequate description.

But I’m back now.

I’m back after being very far gone for a long time. The oppressive weight has lifted, and somehow, I’ve emerged from a dark and desperate state of being.

My brain is working again. I can think, I can feel, and I smile for real. I can see the humour in things, I make jokes, and unbelievably, I can laugh a real laugh.

I can talk to my family. Instead of feeling like I’m on the outside looking in, I know I’m part of the family. I’m capable of engagement, and no longer absent.

I don’t push everything away anymore, I take things in, and it feels good.

I can see things that need to be done, and I can think through the steps that need to be taken. I actually want to do things, and I don’t question my every thought and move.
Music is deeply meaningful to me again. The first time I chose to listen to music in a very long time I cried, overcome by the enormity of having access to real emotions back.

In quiet times, I can feel a sense of calm and peace.

I still have worries, concerns and irritations but they are no longer all-consuming, and are manageable. They feel normal.

I feel a bit fragile and cautious, but that is slowly getting better every week. I know I will be alright. I’m saddened by the tragedy of what I’ve missed, but it’s ok.

I have my life back.

Getting better involved prolonged periods of trial and error with pharmaceuticals and their side effects, talk therapy and naturopathic treatments – all endured with some form of seemingly impossible patience.

If you think you should be able to do it alone, you’re wrong. Anyone who implies that you should be able to just ‘get your act together’, ‘pick yourself up’, and ‘snap out of it’ doesn’t know what they are talking about.

While I was gone, with my wife’s encouragement I somehow managed to reach out for help. Help from healthcare professionals, and compassion from friends and family. Asking for help was not a sign of weakness, it was a sign of strength and courage.

Wary of the cliché, but without exaggeration, reaching out for help probably saved my life. And I can see now it is a life worth saving.

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So What?

As humans, we have a tendency to think of the worst case scenario.  A boss looks grumpy and we fantasize about losing our job.  We get a call from our child’s school and we imagine a playground accident or possible suspension.  A bad headache arrives, and we’re picking out our funeral clothes.

However, the catastrophes that we imagine, often never happen.  The boss is smiling an hour later, the teacher is calling to let us know that our child is being considered for an award, and the headache is only a headache.  We return to a sense of perspective.

Unfortunately, when we are dealing with mental health challenges, our sense of perspective can be illusive.  Everything feels like an overwhelming crisis.

A Story…

Natalie (age 40) and her wife (Jane) recently separated after being together for 15 years.  The decision to end the relationship was mutual, and they are now in the process of working with lawyers on a separation agreement.  There are no children involved, making the creation of the agreement fairly straightforward.

Natalie has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her adult life, and been able to manage her symptoms with a combination of self-care and medication.  However, even though the decision to separate was amicable, Natalie experienced an increase in her anxiety as she and Jane worked though the process of dividing possessions, deciding on how to tell their friends and family, and many of the other life ripples that come after making a big decision.

Shortly after Jane moved out of their house (pending it’s sale), Natalie started to feel as if her body was ‘revving’ all the time–she couldn’t relax or settle to anything.  As she felt more overwhelmed, her sleep patterns changed–sleepless nights spent listening to house noises and ruminating on past and future decisions.  As time passed, the ‘revving’ morphed into a general fear of the future.

It was after experiencing a panic attack (first one in 10 years) while looking at paint colours for her new apartment, that Natalie decided to talk to a therapist.

The Anxiety Path

When we pay attention, we can notice that anxiety arrives slowly.  It may feel as if we wake up one day ANXIOUS, but looking back we can follow the trail.  Even though Natalie had history with anxiety and depression, it’s return wasn’t immediately visible.  Instead, her symptoms were lost in the situational stress she was experiencing.

When working with clients experiencing anxiety one of the first things we do is start looking for triggers–becoming anxiety scientists.   Keeping track of the body sensations, thoughts and emotions that lead to feelings of anxiety.  For Natalie, she and her therapist would be exploring the thoughts that proceeded her body “revving”, or the messages that were keeping her up at night.

The Story Continues…

As Natalie worked with her therapist, it became clear that while Natalie’s increased level of anxiety was centred on two areas.  The first was situational:  her recent separation from Jane, and the resulting major life transitions.  The second was Natalie’s fear of her unknown future.  What would her life look like now that she was single?  She was happy with her decision not to have children when she thought that she and Jane would be together “till death did them part”, but now the idea of being alone for the rest of her life was terrifying!

The “So What” Game

The “So What” game is quite simple in theory, and takes some work.  It involves taking the thoughts and worries that are leading to anxiety and basically following their path to their conclusion.  As we follow where the path leads, we check to determine how reasonable the thoughts are and if necessary, what is the plan to deal with them.

Natalie’s anxiety path looked like this:

Ruminating about fears of the future…specific fear that she has made the wrong decision in agreeing to end her relationship with Jane…why she is afraid that she made a mistake…if she’s not in a relationship, she will grow old alone.

Once we have some content of the fear (it isn’t also so easy to determine), then we can decide on it’s likeliness of happening, and look at a plan.  Growing old alone is a normal fear, but in Natalie’s case is it reasonable?  There is no reason to assume that Natalie won’t re-partner at some point (if she chooses to).  However, if she doesn’t, what’s her plan?

Natalie realized that, during her relationship with Jane, she had lost contact with many of her friends and family members.  Also, their “couple” friends had originally been Jane’s friends and we now rallying around Jane.  Natalie’s feelings of isolation were contributing to her anxiety.  Her immediate plan was to reach out to old friends and check in with family members.

Natalie also decided that she needed to create a new life for herself.  Her future plan is to think about interests she would like to pursue and find communities that support those interests.

The Benefits of “So What”

Anxiety can be related to the fear of the unknown.  When we look at what is making us afraid and come up with a plan, we take some control over the situation.  We also gain a sense of perspective as we discover that perhaps our worst fears aren’t as likely as we think that are.  When we decide that we can live with the worst, we’re no longer as afraid.

Natalie Carries On…

Because Natalie had a history of anxiety and depression, her recovery included checking in with her doctor to see if her medication was still appropriate.  She also restarted her self-care practice of exercise, breathing exercises and healthy diet.

Natalie used the “So What” game every time that she encountered new fears and used the results to add to her plan.  Getting over the grief of a  lost relationship and doing the work of moving on is difficult, so she was adding self-compassion into her plan.

And now….”So What?” from the Great Miles Davis…Enjoy!

 

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Let’s Be Kind to Ourselves

Recently, I had dinner with two close friends.  As the evening progressed, we talked about how sometimes we struggle with negative voices in our head. These are not the kind of voices that tell us to do harm to ourselves or others, but the ones that undermine our confidence and leading us to feel negatively about who we are and what we do.

If we’re completely honest, I think that all of us could have the same conversation.  Sometimes this voice tells us that we’re not good enough. That it’s only a matter of time before everyone else notices how we’re faking it, and the image of ourselves that we’ve built comes crashing down.  Maybe the voice tells us that we’re too thin, or not thin enough.  If we were only a better partner or friend, or did thus and so, then our life would be perfect.  Once we learn how to (fill in your own words here), then all will be well.  We will have made it!  We believe that our life isn’t perfect, because we are ‘lesser’ than others.

Sometimes we know where ‘the voice’ came from.  We recognize the tone or words.  In some cases, it belongs to a critical parent or teacher.  In others, the voice belongs to a ‘friend’ who really wasn’t a friend.  The owner of ‘the voice’ may no longer be in our life, but their messages persist.  However, what if they lied?  What if we’re good enough the way we are?

Why are we so mean to ourselves?

We’ve talked about some of the places where our negative messages come from, but why do we continue to believe them?  On a basic level, it’s because we continue the behaviours (even negative ones) that serve us in some way.

At a recent workshop (Mindful Self-Compassion presented by Diane Frederick), Diane showed this clip of an interview with Dr. Paul Gilbert.  Dr. Gilbert is a British clinical psychologist, author, and the founder of compassion focused therapy/compassionate mind training.

Gilbert suggests that one of the reasons we don’t give ourselves the benefit of the doubt is because of society’s current fascination with ‘winners’.  Dr. Gilbert cites the increase in reality programs where, instead of focusing on the winner—in which there was usually only one or two—we negatively focus on the ‘loser’.  Because we’re human, we’re programmed to want to be part of a group.  In fact, until fairly recently in our evolution, being excluded from the group meant certain death.  No one wants to ‘be voted off the island’!

Another reason that we beat ourselves up is that we want to know where we fit in hierarchy.  As humans we compare ourselves to others.  However, not so long ago, we only compared what we did or had to our close neighbours.  Now, through the magic of social media, we can compare to everyone—even if the comparisons aren’t realistic or true.  Not only do we get the negative messages from past people in our lives, but now also from mainstream media; and our self-worth suffers in the process.

A third reason we continue to be mean to ourselves is that we think it helps us to succeed.  If we didn’t have that negative inner voice, we might give in to our baser instincts—eat whatever we want, spend every night devouring the latest Netflix series, or not giving 110% at work.  How are we to get ahead in life if we don’t keep trying to improve ourselves?  We don’t want to fail.

Why Should We Care?

Simply put, when we’re mean to ourselves, we are hurting ourselves.  We are both the perpetrator and victim.  Our mental health suffers.

Anxiety, depression, stress, rumination (negative, repeating thoughts), perfectionism, fear of failure and shame are the outcomes of a habit of ‘beating ourselves up’…and we can choose to do something different!

How Do We Stop?

Be mindful of your inner life.  We do this by checking in with ourselves throughout the day…especially if you notice physical symptoms (headache, tense muscles or stomach issues).  Our bodies are a wonderful barometer of what our mind is doing.

Argue with that inner voice.  Through mindfulness, once you become aware of how you are being mean to yourself, argue with that voice.  One Cognitive Behavioural Therapy method is to question the validity of our negative thoughts.  A good way to do this is in writing.  Write down the negative statement, then beside or underneath it, list a rebuttal.  Keep going until ‘you’ win the argument.  At the same time, rather than using an “I” statement, move the statement into the third person (i.e. using your first name).  This provides distance and makes it less personal.

Imagine that the voice is talking to your best friend or other loved one.  Would you say those things to them? You can also imagine yourself as a small child that you are taking care of.

Download and use “Ditty”.  This app lets you record a negative statement and then pick a funny way to play it back.  It’s hard to take a mean message seriously when it’s being said to the soundtrack for “the chicken dance”!

Focus on the positive. Some people love to use affirmations, others not so much.  If positive affirmations work for you, go for it.

Invite the voice in for tea.  If arguing with your inner critic doesn’t work, try looking at it with compassion.  Sometimes we spend a lot of energy fighting against something.  However, once we accept what we don’t like it loses its power.

Life is sometimes difficult and the world can be a scary place.  We need to be kind to others, and to ourselves….

And now, this beautiful song has become one of my new favourites…Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

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6 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve Your Mental Health

Thinking about improving our mental health can feel overwhelming–especially when we’re under the influence of negative emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety.  However, there are a few simple things that you can do in the moment that can help…and, if you practice these things on a regular basis, you may see an improvement in your overall well-being.  So, what are they?

1.  Stop and Breathe

As humans, we are under a lot of stress.  Our stress levels encourage us to be ‘shallow’ breathers–instead of taking deep breaths; we take short,  shallow breaths.  If we pay attention, we may notice that most of our inhales barely make it past our collar bone!    This way of breathing encourages panicky feelings as we’re not getting enough oxygen to our brains–it’s as if we’re hyperventilating.   If that’s our normal, how should we breathe?

Have you ever watched a baby breathe?  They  naturally ‘tummy’ breathe…slow, deep, relaxed breaths.  Tummy breathing helps to calm the nervous system, which puts the breaks on the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.  You can practice this type of breathing by gently placing your hands on your stomach and inhaling until you feel your tummy rise and fall.

If you are interested in practicing your breathing as a way to cope with difficult emotions, a meditation/breathing download is available on the Welcome Page of Blaikie Psychotherapy.  The exercise takes 20 minutes and includes instructions.

2.  Eat Something Healthy

Are you familiar with the ‘hang over’ from a greasy, high-fat, calorie-dense meal?  I know that I am!  If I have made a stop at my local fast-food palace as a way to cope with negative feelings, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t feel better afterwards.

Our brains and bodies are connected.  There is now a branch of science called Nutritional Psychiatry that looks at the effects of food on our mental health.  Scientists are recognizing the interplay between mental health and a healthy gut (the microbiome).  When we provide our bodies with healthy nutrients, we are encouraging brain health.  This article from the Harvard Medical School explains how eating a diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants helps to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.

So, if you’re feeling down, grab an apple instead of a doughnut!

3.  Move

We have known for a long time that exercise is a good way to improve our mood.  There’s nothing like a good stomp around the block after an argument!

The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be a big deal…just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week will provide benefits.  While 150 minutes may sound like a lot, it’s only a 20 minute walk per day.  And the 20 minutes can be spread out over the day…park the car a bit farther from where you’re going…take the stairs when possible…hit replay on your favourite tune and keep dancing.  When we’re mindful of ways to increase our amount of movement, it’s easy to find 20 minutes.

4.  Enjoy Nature

Not only can we add 20 minutes of movement into our day, we can do it outside.  While spending time in a forest or at a lake is ideal, the benefit is in getting outside.  Is there a park or other green space in your area?  What about your backyard?

A recent trend called “Forest Bathing” encourages us to benefit from the healing properties of trees.    According to a CTV News article,  the forest bathing movement is all about immersing oneself in the healing properties of trees and plants.  It involves simply walking — quietly, slowly and deliberately — in a forest, and taking in the sounds, scents, colours, forms and general vibe of nature.

The concept is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere.”  The certified forest therapy guide quoted in the article stated that “studies in Japan and Korea found forest bathers after their walks had an increased number of “natural killer cells,” immune system cells that combat disease and may even help prevent some kinds of cancer. The researchers believe natural killer cells are boosted when people breathe in organic compounds called phytoncides released by trees.”  Apparently, forest bathing helps to lower cortisol levels, thereby lowering your stress levels.

If you’re curious about nature therapy or forest bathing, you can read more about it here.

4.  Count

We’ve all heard the advice about counting to 10 before losing our temper, and for a good reason as it often works.  However, sometimes we need more than that.

When we get overwhelmed by big emotions like anxiety or anger, our limbic system (or lizard/emotional brain) is over-stimulated.  This means that the logic part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) is not in charge.  By counting, which is a ‘thinking’ activity, we put that part of our brain back in the driver’s seat, and we stop the flooding of emotions.  While counting our breaths may help, it can be more helpful to count something that is external to us.

One suggestion that I often give to clients is, when needed, look at what is around and find something to count.  In a meeting room?…count the number of pens or paperclips on the table.  In a store?…How many items are on the rack or shelf in front of you.  At home?…Count the number of books on a shelf, spots on the carpet, dust bunnies on the floor.  Outside?  Count trees or cars.  We can always find something to count.

6.  Talk to Someone

One of the signs of depression is self-imposed social isolation.  We don’t feel like interacting with other people, so we don’t.  The more we keep to ourselves, the deeper we fall into our negative thoughts and the less we want to spend time with others….and the pattern repeats.  I’m not talking about the bigger problem of a chronic lack of friends, but the turning away for others.

Social interaction is important for our mental health.  We are social creatures and need contact with others.  So make a point of talking to at least one person during your day…maybe it’s the person who makes your coffee or tea…smiling at someone who crosses your path…asking a co-worker about their plans for the weekend.  It doesn’t have to be deep, just a sharing of humanity.

This post provides 6 simple ways to improve your mental health.  However, if you are dealing with a significant mental health challenge, these may not be enough.  If you would like to get in touch to talk more about what you are experiencing, you can reach me through my contact page.

And now, since humour is also good for mental health.  Here is some classic Monty Python.  Enjoy!

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Are You In a State of Lykke?

Libraries are magical places.  Unlike looking for books on Amazon or Chapters.com where you are presented with book selections based on previous choices; wandering around a library allows you to stumble upon all sorts of interesting things that you had no idea existed.  And, if you have a library card, it’s all free!  Such was the case the other day when I stumbled upon the little gem entitled The Little Book of Lykke by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

What is Lykke?

Lykke is the Danish word for happiness.  According to Wiking’s research (based on the combined average of World Happiness Reports 2013-2017) Dane’s are the happiest people on the planet…followed by Swedes and Norwegians to round out the top three.

Wiking suggests that the reason for Denmark’s high happiness rating is due to community norms around togetherness, freedom, trust, and kindness; as well as those around money and health.  If you are interested in learning the details of Wiking’s theory, I recommend his book as an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

A Definition of Happiness

As discussed in last week’s post on balance, the definition of happiness is also individual.  What makes me happy, may be misery to my neighbour.  That being said, Wiking provides a helpful framework to look at happiness.  He suggests that happiness can be divided into three categories:  the affective dimension, the cognitive dimension and eudaimonia.

When we are operating in the affective (or hedonic) dimension we’re thinking short-term.  What was our mood today?  Sad, scared, anxious, happy?  In the cognitive dimension we take a step back and look at our live overall.  Wiking asks:

“How happy are you in general?  Think of the best possible life you could lead, and the worst possible.  Where do you feel you stand right now?”  “When trying to evaluate happiness, the important information is what your dream is and how close you feel to living that dream.”

The concept of eudaimonia takes happiness one step further.  Eudaimonia is the Ancient Greek work for happiness and is based on Aristotle‘s perception of happiness–i.e. happiness comes from living a meaningful and purposeful life.  If you’d like to read more about the ‘meaning of life’ you can check out this previous post.

Chasing Happiness

I think that it’s safe to assume that we all want to be happy.  In fact, it’s often a motivating factor in why we behave the way we do.  In some cases, we even go so far as to believe that we have a right to be happy.  In at least one country, the right to happiness is codified in their founding documents.    The United States Declaration of Independence  gives citizens the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

As with most things that we want very badly, we are seldom content to let them come to us–instead we chase them.  Advertisers know this.  Consumerism is based on the idea that we will buy things that we think will make us more popular, thinner, fitter, smarter…ultimately happier.

Not only do we chase happiness, but in today’s world of ‘fitbits’ and other ways of constant monitoring, there are ‘happiness apps’ that use results of research into brain science and happiness to give users daily exercises that will help to improve their overall state of happiness.  If you’re interested, you can check out Psychology Today’s review of the Best Happiness Apps of 2018.

Unicorns

What if happiness is like a unicorn?  In fairy tales, we learn that if we are looking for a unicorn we’ll fail if we chase them directly. Instead, we need to sit quietly and wait.  She will come to us, and not usually full-on, but  glimpsed out of the corner of our eye.

I like the idea of happiness being somewhat mystical–like unicorns.  It comes when we’re not looking for her.  We can put things in place to encourage her to visit, but we can’t force her to come…or stay forever.

If we measure happiness from the affective standard, it’s easy to look at happiness as something to grasp and get attached to. This can only lead to disappointment.  However, if we think of the long game, happiness over time, we can relax and not get so caught up in our ‘internal weather’.

Happiness and Depression

There is a time when we do need to be aware of our daily happiness–if we suspect that we may be suffering with depression.  One of the symptoms of depression is the absence of happiness or no longer finding joy in activities that used to fulfill us.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • sadness
  • tiredness
  • trouble focusing or concentrating
  • unhappiness
  • anger
  • irritability
  • frustration
  • loss of interest in pleasurable or fun activities
  • sleep issues (too much or too little)
  • no energy
  • craving unhealthy foods
  • anxiety
  • isolation.

If you have been experiencing any of the these symptoms for more than a few weeks, you may be dealing with depression, and need to seek medical support.

Happiness…individual, illusive and part of what makes life worthwhile.  May she find you!

And now what is happier than a baby goat and kittens?  Enjoy!

 

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Depression Comes in Many Types… Meet Dysthymia

When my children was between the ages of 4 to 7, dinosaurs were of huge interest.  They were fascinated by all things prehistoric.  Not only could they identify many of these creatures (T-Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus…), they could tell you all about them.  Who knew there were so many types of dinosaurs?

We can think of depression in the same way.  Just like “dinosaurs” is a major category including many types, “depression” is a major category.  Some types of depression that you may already be aware of:  major depression, bipolar depression (also known as manic depression), seasonal affective disorder (SAD), postpartum depression, psychotic depression…  Who knew there were so many types of depression?  What about dysthymia?

Dysthymia

Dysthymia (also known as Persistent Depressive Disorder or PDD) affects up to 6% of the general population with women being three times more likely to be diagnosed than men (US stats according to Health Research Funding.org ).

This ‘dinosaur’ is characterized by a mild depression that lasts at least two years.  The symptoms are less severe than major depression, but are longer lasting or chronic.  Thankfully, the more severe symptoms that mark major depression—including anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), psychomotor symptoms (particularly lethargy or agitation), and thoughts of death or suicide—are often absent in PDD.

Unlike other types of depression, dysthymia often goes under the radar because people are able to function.

Meet Agnes…

Agnes (a 30 year old woman) hasn’t felt ‘happy’ for a long time.  Even though she gets plenty of sleep (maybe too much, she wonders), she doesn’t have any energy.  At work, she has difficulty concentrating.  At home, Agnes can’t make decisions about simple things.  Unable to decide about what to have for dinner…most nights she stands in front of the fridge eating whatever comes to hand.  Healthy eating has become a thing of the past.  When Agnes thinks back over the past few years, she can describe a few weeks when the ‘fog’ lifted, but it always returns.  While Agnes is able to get through her days, she is starting to feel hopeless…that she will feel this way forever.

On the advice of a friend, Agnes recently talked to her doctor who, based on her symptoms, suggested that she may be suffering from dysthymia.

Am I at Risk?

If 6% of the population may suffer from dysthymia during their life time, am I at risk?  Let’s look at the five main risk factors:

  • A first degree relative (parents or sibling) has been diagnosed with depression,
  • You have recently experienced a traumatic or stressful life event,
  • Negative personality traits (e.g. low self-esteem, self-critical or pessimistic),
  • Personal history of other mental health disorders (e.g. antisocial, borderline, obsessive compulsive),
  • Being isolated or having a lack of social connections.

Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will develop dysthymia, but it does mean that you may want to take care of yourself.  But how?

The Power of Self-Care and Awareness

Working with clients who are learning to cope with any form of depression, one of the first things we do is talk about self-care.  When we take care of ourselves, we are healing current conditions and preventing future ones.  So what can we do?

  • Control stress:  Exercise, meditate, do an activity that you enjoy.
  • Reach out for support:  As people become more cut-off from each other, incidents of loneliness are increasing.  Think about developing your own support system.
  • Get help at the first sign of dysthymia:  Talk to your doctor or a therapist before your symptoms become chronic.
  • If you have already experienced and overcome dysthymia, consider long-term maintenance treatment to prevent a relapse.
Treatments

If you are currently suffering with dysthymia, there are two main areas of treatment:  prescription medication (SSRI’s such as Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft) and psychotherapy–specifically Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that helps to change negative ways of thinking.

Dysthymia, or any other form of depression, doesn’t have to be a life-sentence.  There are things that you can do.

And now…I wonder if this well-known character suffers from dysthymia?  Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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It’s the Middle of February…Are We Having Fun Yet?

A colleague greeted me today with the announcement, “I’m so done with winter.”  I think that many of us would agree…the recent snow, fluctuations in temperature that bring the gift of freezing rain, clearing the driveway yet again.  A local newscaster announced yesterday that there is a shortage of sidewalk de-icer!

Seasonal Affective Disorder

All fun aside, some people need spring, and the longer hours of daylight, for bigger reasons than to get a break from the cold and dark.  These are people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that is related to the change of season.  It is experienced by individuals who are not usually depressed at other times of the year.  It often begins, and ends, at the same time every year.  While most people who suffer from SAD do so in the winter, some may do so in the summer instead.

How Do I Know If I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

There are a variety of symptoms that people coping with SAD are dealing with.  These include:

  • Low energy
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
What Causes SAD?

While there are no known clear-cut causes, we do have some ideas of what may bring on SAD.

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm).The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels.A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels.The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
What Can I Do?

There are many ways that you can cope with SAD symptoms.   Depending on the severity of your symptoms, some or all may help.

Increase Your Exercise
While it’s easy to hunker down during the winter, especially when feeling depressed, increasing your level of exercise has been shown to improve negative effects of SAD. Exercise releases endorphins (the ‘feel good’)  hormone as well as improving seratonin levels.

Cut Back on Simple Carbs
During cold days, when we spend more time on the couch, we may also be spending more time with white pasta, candy, potato chips, cookies and other ‘comfort’ foods. Unfortunately, these foods cause sharp spikes in our glucose levels that play havoc with our moods.  If you’re suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s a good idea to pay special attention to eating well.

Take Advantage of Natural Light
When possible open your drapes or shutters to let in the sun (when it makes an appearance!).  Spend time outside by going for a walk, shoveling the driveway, or inviting friends over for a snowball fight or snowman-building competition.  As long as you dress warmly, it can be fun.

Use a Natural Spectrum Energy Light
If Mother Nature doesn’t provide enough natural light, box light therapy is an alternative. Natural spectrum energy lights mimic the sun’s rays.  While data on the results of these lights is mixed, many people say that they are helpful.

Make a Point of Socializing
When we’re feeling depressed, often the last thing we want to do is be with other people. However, this is often what is needed.  If possible, plan a regular get-together with friends–even a coffee date will do.

Meet with a Therapist and/or Medical Professional
As with any form of depression, sometimes it becomes difficult to cope with.  If you are feeling unsafe, hopeless, attempting to self-soothe with self-harming behaviours, alcohol or drugs, feel that SAD is taking over life or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for professional help ASAP.  You don’t have to cope with this alone.

And now…here’s a break from the winter.  No sunscreen required!  Enjoy!

 

 

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