Friday, August 5, 2016

Oh, The Weather Inside is Frightful (PART I)

At the end of last winter I wrote this reflection : 
We may be finally seeing warm bright summer-like days, but not too long ago winter was in full swing and it was cold and grey for what seemed like forever. Snow blanketed the sleeping hemisphere.  Ice had replaced the joyful trickling of streams and brookes. The cities were especially slushy, dirty and bleak.      
But the weather wasn't necessarily only frightful outside during that time of year.  The winter can definitely also mean a nagging frigid mood on the inside. I had been thinking of these so called "winter blues" alot through February and March, as I found myself overcome with a particular kind of weariness most of the time in those months.  
Well, February, which I've heard called "the most depressing month of the year" finally ended. Though the shortest month of the year, it seemed to drag on. We passed mental health awareness week and the Bell Let's Talk campaign, as well as anxiously awaited the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil and his predictions for the end of winter. March saw a few warmer days but the cold weather lingered. Even as April began, Easter snow had many in disbelief.  It looked like I'm not the only one that was pining for the warmth of the sun and a splash of color in the world. 
This year I found myself overcome with these same weary feelings, eventhough this year the winter was so mild it's almost like it never came. Record high temperatures and barely any snow, yet I still found the internal climate as low as ever. Now that summer is here and the world is lush, my mood is better. But at times I still find it hard to remember the sunny world around me and I give in to the overwhelming gloom inside me. 

What is in our heads can be a very real and scary afliction, and a real source of suffering. The winter 
can really bring out those thoughts and feeling of hopelessness. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is 
a real thing! BUT even in warmer temperatures, some may not find relief. The bleak climate of depression unfortunatley can also be an ongoing condition, not made better or worse by the coming and going of the seasons. No matter what the weather is outside, green and sunny or icy and cold, depression could decend regardless, bringing with it it's own dreary weather.

Now, before I make all you readers more depressed,  let me explain why I am talking about this: In short, I have found, from my own experience, there are effective ways to alter one's mood; to change the doom and gloom inside to sun and fun. I find this transformation starts with accepting the reality that depression is affecting oneself. That's the first step to getting better, to lifting a little bit of the burden and finding hope, that is, to at least seeing a forshadowing that the spring thaw is on the horizon, so to speak. That acceptance is half the battle really. It can be very difficult to even realize, let alone accept, that one's mental health is suffering! But, if one recognizes that they are stuck in a hole, they can finally stop digging deeper into that dark pit that they are stuck in and actually look up at the sunlight. And then start, little by little, to get out of that hole.

As I have written before, I have struggled with mild to moderate depression most of my life. In 2012 I experienced an episode of severe depression. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, but coming out of it may have been one of the most profound gifts. With the help of doctors,  psychologists, moderrn treatments, loved ones and a lot of prayers and hard work and time, I overcame a lot of that darkness that overshadowed my life. It was that process of identifying depression and of finding concrete ways to counter-act it, little by little, that has made the difference for me. Every now and then I find myslef slipping into that malaise, that negative perspective, that weariness, that lack of wholeness and balance that is the beginning of depression. That is my signal, my warning sign, when I know it is time to pull out the depression fighting tool-kit and put it to use. I am so glad I did not give in and give up back then during my darkest hour, and that rememberence gives me hope when other hard times decend.

I trully believe we are meant to be WHOLE! The search for happiness, rather than wholeness may have mislead our society. (More about that here). Depression is not just sadness that needs to be avoided at all costs, rather it is a sign, telling us, that part of our wholeness is missing. We are body, mind and spirit. Each of these is connected and affects the other. All three of these need to be nourished for us to be whole and well. So I beleive that there must be a multi-faceted approach. But the good news is that this doesn't need to be an overwhelming undertaking. From my own experience, when I've been depressed everything seems impossible, so telling me that I need to do a complete 180 would probably not help. But if I can recognize that I am afflicted with depression and that depression is not me, but a hole in my wholeness and that there are little things I can do to help become the complete version of myself, then suddenly I may find hope! In reality, nobody on this planet is perfect and nobody is the absolute complete whole and best version of themselves. BUT to realize that is the end goal, that is the purpose, and the ups and downs of the journey are worth it, can be liberating. Every baby step makes us more the person we are meant to be, every little task completed can be a victory, anything I can do to persevere and fight the depression is worth celebrating. 

So accordingly, this is my multi-faceted, wholistic first aid kit when depression strikes (or better yet, to prevent it from striking back):

MIND
1) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This is a very effective method of talk therapy that teaches a person how to identitfy their thoughts, how those thoughts are affecting their emotions and behaviour and how to change that into good positive habits. I found a psychologist using the CBT method life-changingly helpful. He was like the life coach or old-school mentor I never had. CBT is also accessable in a wonderful book called  "Feeling Good" by Dr. Burns, which is like "do-it-yourself" talk therapy, a possible alternative if seeing a pricey therapist is not an option.

2) The Conveyer Belt Technique
A method tought to me by my CBT therapist to learn, in a concrete way, two fundamental truths: "Feelings are not facts" and "Just because you think it doesn't make it true." Essentially, do not accept or believe any thought that comes into your head. Instead, place all thoughts "outside" of your self on an imaginary conveyer belt for inspection. This sifting processes retrains the mind. Once this becomes a habit it becomes extremely liberating and empowering! For the depressed person, negative thoughts such as "I am incapable of doing anything", "I am worthless" or "I might as well die" become  automatically accepted as truth in their minds. If you can begin to question those thoughts and not give them power, you may find that you begin thinking more positively and clearly again, as the life-sucking negative thoughts diminish. 

3) Mindfulness
I only recently learned what this term means, and I still do not know the full meaning of it. But my limited practice of mindfulness has been helpful, especially in times of numbing anxiety. Essentially, it is being still, and focusing on the here and now, rather than the million voices and flood of confusing thoughts. It is about being grounded in our physical body, and not thrown around in our mind. It is done by focusing on one sense at a time, slowly and calmly. What do I hear? What do I feel? Or just take deep breaths and think about only breathing etc., and as thoughts come and distract them we let them go and calmly resume. For exmple, I started doing diaphamic breathing for two minutes a day, everytime I brush my teeth at night, no matter how I'm feeling. Then when I'm feeling anxious or depressed I can do this familiar breathing. It has really helped ground myself and get a better sense of my surroundings, in stead of having a panic attack or giving into negative thoughts.

4) Positive Social Life
This can be the hardest thing during a time of depression, becuase the illness really is a vicious cycle. A depressed person often does not want to see anyone, but seeing others may be exactly what they need to do to feel better. This includes, firstly, confiding in those you trust who will listen and comfort and encourage you, and, secondly, going to friendly, fun and light-hearted social gatherings on a regular basis. Personaly, eventhough I am an introvert, I find being alone for too long makes me go bananas and interacting with others really gives me a boost and helps me focus on reality. Alternatively, this may also mean ending contact with people that are very negative or toxic relationships. 

5) Reading Engaging Material
Sometimes when I start feeling that malaise, I realize I have not engaged my mind recently in anything stimulating or interesting. Something as simple as reading an article about science or art, or downloading a language learning app or even listening to a TED talk or a podcast or audio book, rekindling old interests or discovering new ones helps us get out of our own minds, learn about ourselves and and grow in confidence. Literally, learning things makes new neurons bloom and grow in your brain!

BODY
1)Diet
You are what you eat! I cannot emphasize this enough! After recovering from major depression and coming out of the psychiatric ward I took my health seriously. I got tested for allergies and found out that I am gluten and casein intolerant. This has changed my life. Did you know most of your neuro-transmitters are produced in your gut? This means that symptoms of food intolerances include brain fog, depression, anxiety, ADD etc. More information can be found out about that here: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/05/12/dr-campbell-mcbride-on-gaps.aspx

Besides that, sometimes it's just important to eat enough! Sometimes cooking seems impossible so I just fry some eggs or have some rice veracelli with coconut oil (literally ready in 2 minutes), because eating something half decent is better than stressing out my body with hunger (so my naturopath tells me), and avoiding getting "hangry!"

2)Medication/Suppliments
Though I am personally not a fan of anti-depressant medications, and have been able to avoid them, I cannot dismiss the fact that many people's lives have changed for the better because of them. If one has the means, I think it is also worth talking to a naturopath or a wholistic nutrionist , because the problem might be related to nutrients that are lacking in one's diet or that one's body cannot absorb. Again, you are a whole, and the body's systems are all interconnected and need to be balanced. My personal appoach has been finding balance in my diet, my suppliements, my social life etc., rather than use a pharmacetical that may mask the sysptoms or cause side - effects. 

3) Excercize
Moving the body makes the brain happy! Here's  a great article about what happens to your mood when you move. I have heard excercise mentioned so many times as a help to mental illness.

4) Being your own best advocate for healthcare
Hypochondia aside, sometimes we eat right and excercize and take all our vitamins and things still seem off. I'm starting to realize more and more that I need to take charge of my health, because no one else will. I'm blessed to have extended health benefits through work and am able to use this to create a multi-faceted approach: psychologist, chiropractor, naturopath, and family doctor etc. Again, I really believe heath is about wholeness, and I continue to discover so much by making use of the plethora of health services offered. I think that the fact that psychotherapists are not covered by OHIP is a real tragedy, as I think our society would greatly benefit if they were. In any case, if funds are limited getting multiple opinions from various doctors and psychiatrists (covered by healthcare in Canada), and not stopping until you find the right fit, can be very beneficial.

5)Rest
Personally, my brain goes into dark places when it's tired. It gets stuck on obsessive thoughts like a broken record and is prone to over-reacting and negativity over otherwise small issues. Knowing one's limits is key to keeping depression at bay. I find  likening this to the idea of an"occasion of sin" helpful. As I learned my limits and my triggers more, I realized there are certain circumstances that will greatly increase my chance of becoming depressed. These include: drinking a lot of alcohol, not sticking to my dietary restrictions, not having a realistic routine, etc. Out of all these those, not getting enough sleep or downtime is huge. But when do I fail to get enough sleep, I forgive myself and I try to accept that I'm in a more fragile state of mind, and that I shouldn't accept any thought I have as truth. Overtime I've trained myself to ignore dark thoughts when I'm tried.

To be continued....Next time: - the third and final facet - how to care for your SPIRIT during depression!

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is not a comprehesive list. Everyone who is struggling is different and is at a different part in their journey. These methods helped me but might not help everyone. If someone has severe depression or is suicidal it may not be the time for these methods, rather please consider going to/taking the person to Emergency immediately. Looking back, it was a really good thing that my friends took me to the hostipal when they did. I'm so grateful!

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