Today I'd like to talk about all the stuff in life that can knock us into a whirlwind of negativity or kick-start that spiral of depression that seems so difficult to get out of. Right now I'm fortunate enough to be in a relatively positive round of my fight with depression but it seems every other week or so I take a few body blows or the odd right hook that threatens to put me on the canvas. I'm writing this post for two reasons, firstly, to highlight what I can do to protect myself from life's punches and second in the hope that someone reads this and thinks about what threatens their current mental health and in turn realise what defence systems they need to implement.
Now as far as I'm aware I have three main triggers: stress, loneliness and inactivity. I'm going to break each one down, talk about how I fight each one and then I'm going to talk about what defences I can build up. Then I'll share a few tips to act as a "get out of jail free card".
Note: This methods work best assuming you're not in too deep. If you really feel like you've been dragged under please do seek professional help.
EVEN BIGGER NOTE: NOT SURPRISING ALCOHOL IS TERRIBLE FOR DEPRESSION. IT AFFECTS EACH AND EVERY TRIGGER.
Well, stress is the obvious one isn't it. I think most of us have stress as a trigger. I recently heard a great quote, that goes along the lines of "being overwhelmed isn't about having too much to do, it's about not knowing what to do next" personally I think this is a perfect description (although I do normally have far too much to do I kinda like it that way) Anyway becoming stressed and overwhelmed can make you feel powerless, it can hit our confidence quite hard. After all, we said we become overwhelmed when we don't know what to do next and surely somebody who was better at dealing with life would know what to do next, right? Stress has this indirect way of telling me I don't have my shit together and I'm not particularly good at dealing with life. Another common thought process when you experience stress is to think the world is out to get you, or life's unfair because it's incessantly giving you all this shit to deal with, why can't we just catch a break for crying out loud?! And lastly when we don't know what to do next the future can look pretty bleak. If we fail the project we're working on then we might fail the course, or get fired, or ...(insert bad thing here)... Basically it seems to us that our inability to deal with the task will lead to grave negative consequences. Now while those of you who struggle* with depression will be all to familiar with these thought processes many of you might not know that they form what psychologist call Beck's Cognitive Triad which forms part of Becks cognitive theory of depression, thank you psychology A Level! Basically the Cognitive Triad involves extreme negative thoughts about three things (obviously, it's a triad!) but those three things are:
- A negative view of oneself (I'm worthless/I cant cope/ nobody loves me/nobody likes me etc.)
- A negative view of the world or your environment (Life's unfair/The universe is out to get me/ etc.)
- A negative view of the future (e.g the futures hopeless, life is never going to get better
Now while it may seem like an over kill to get all scientific about the way we feel, I find it quite helpful to have a succinct expression and explanation of the problem (I guess it's the mathematician in me!) Anyway, I find once you've gotten a clear grasp of the problem it can be a lot easier to find a solution. So how can we combat stress? First of all, I like to take a breather. Depending on how pressed for time I am I'll take either a thirty or a fifteen minutes for a guided meditation (see my previous post on the wonders of meditation here) or I'll just take a short five minute walk focusing on taking deep breaths while a forcing a few smiles. There are an abundance of studies showing body language and facial expression affect emotions not just the typical "emotions affect body language and expressions" that most think. Try it, force a smile for a few minutes and watch yourself feel better. This is one reason why happy people tend to stay happy and sad people tend to stay sad. By taking these breaths and forcing the smiles I can clear the negative thoughts from my mind and build from a base line of neutrality or positivity. Once I've had a short breather and cleared my mind I like to focus on the reality of the situation. Very rarely is it ever as bad as our brains like to make it out to be. While focusing on the reality I also reassure my self with positive affirmations counteracting Beck's Negative Triad. These go along the lines of:
- I am smart enough, clever enough and sensible enough to deal with this problem. I will find the solution somehow, asking for help or advice if need be.
- Life is not out to get me, there are much bigger problems in the world and I'm not the only one struggling with this.
- Even if I don't get through this test the consequences will not be as bad as I'm making them out to be. I will be okay, I will survive.
Once I've taken that breather and gone through these affirmations a few times, writing them down if needed, I tend to feel a lot better about the situation and normally find that I make great headway into dealing with the stress. I find its incredibly important to take a step away from the problem and the stress that comes with it, have a breather and then look at the situation objectively.
*Note: I like to say struggle with depression rather than suffer because using the word "suffer" is quite negative and reinforces negative thoughts. However, the word struggle has a more positive tone and makes us feel a little more in control.
Loneliness is an interesting one, very often it actually has very little to do with the actual number of people around me and little to do with who those people are and how I'm feeling. In particularly dark periods of my depression I don't feel connected to anyone at all and I feel that nobody would care if I wasn't around any more. Now obviously this is during the extremes of my depression and it takes a full blown attack to feel that way, however loneliness can occur at almost any time. There have been times when I've been surrounded by my closest friends yet still felt alone. For me, my connection to others can be intertwined with my sense of worthiness. If I feel alone, If I feel disconnected from the world then I really struggle to feel valued and appreciated leading me to the faulty conclusion that I'm not worthy of love and connection. I find loneliness incredibly difficult to deal with. I mean its difficult to say a few affirmations and convince yourself that people do care when the current evidence suggests otherwise. I guess there are two ways in which I try to deal with loneliness:
- Find times in your life when people have been there for you, when people have gone out of their way to help you or find examples of when they have actually expressed how much you mean to them. For this it can be quite useful to keep a diary of the times you've felt loved and more superficially , the compliments people pay you. It can really help to remind yourself of these times and of these kind words. They hold much more value than a simple affirmation.
- Reach out! Now this one is kinda scary because if you reach out and people don't respond then it feels like you've been rejected which only confirms your feelings of loneliness and unworthiness. However, if you reach out to the right people, if you ask to just spend time with these people and if you just let them in on your feelings, then people will come but on the off chance they don't, understand that it may be at a very bad time for them.
This is my main reason for being a big proponent of being open, of being honest and of being willing to talk about your issues. By letting people into the world of issues you face it helps them to understand who you truly are. I find that my feelings of loneliness often stem from this feeling of not being understood and obviously the more honest you are to those around you, the more they can understand.
Now inactivity's a particularly frustrating trigger because it's very easy to fall into and it feeds itself, perpetuating the cycle. Imagine the scenario, you've been hard at work all week and the weekend comes around. You decide to take Saturday as a lazy. You sleep in late, you spend all day in your pyjamas and you don't leave the house. You spend all day watching Netflix, binge watching your favourite TV show or having a huge movie marathon. You let your healthy diet slip and you treat yourself to popcorn and brownies and even that Ben and Jerry's you've been longing to eat. Its's okay to take a day out of your busy schedule because you've had a great week and what's a day anyway? . Sounds great doesn't it?! However, rest assured this day of decadence will kick start a spiral of inactivity for me. I will find it INCREDIBLY difficult to get out of bed at a reasonable time the next day and I will find it super hard to motivate myself to do anything. It puts me in a slump. This slump makes it less likely to do anything the next day, leading me to spend it doing a similar set of things, just this time less happy about doing them. This furthers my slump and the cycle continues. I have a theory that it's down to three things (I'm liking my lists today)
- Poor diet
- Weakening of my willpower
- Lack of stimulation of the Central Nervous System (A lack of movement and a lack of physical activity tying in with too much sleep)
I personally think the main trigger is the lack of stimulation but I think this is also linked to the strength of my willpower. My willpower muscle seems to deplete pretty quickly. By this I mean unless I'm using it most of the day, every day, it can become incredibly difficult, incredibly quickly. As I've said one day of lounging around is enough for me to struggle the next day. Heck even an evening of laziness is enough to derail me sometimes. Does this mean I can't have lazy days? Does this mean I'm doomed to spend forever and eternity spending my days being productive or face a spiral of depression? I like to think not. I'm still developing my system of taking lazy days but I've found I have to counteract each of the triggers above.
I have to:
- Ensure I take in lots of greens. I like to use my Nutribullet for this. I just blend all five portions of my fruit and veg up and consume them in one tasty beverage sometime in the evening.
- I still have to be slightly productive. This could mean doing the laundry, or writing, or studying a bit of German but it definitely means getting some exercise and doing a bit of reading before bed. I absolutely can't finish my day watching a TV or a movie.
- I have to do some exercise. I have to get moving. Now it doesn't have to be particularly strenuous, it could just be a walk around Hampstead Heath but I have to at least get a little bit of fresh air and get a little bit of movement into my day.
In fact this ties in perfectly with how I had planned to end this article. I had planned to end this article with the three cornerstones to being able to deal with life and they somewhat overlap with these counteractions to inactivity. I find that these three cornerstones are paramount to ensuring I stay emotionally healthy. If I stay emotionally healthy then I find it ten times easier to deal with all the troubles that life wants to throw in my direction. I become happier, more energetic and generally much healthier. The increase in mood and energy feeds my ability to deal with all the problems I encounter. I'm less likely to feel lonely (When I'm feeling down and sluggish, lacking energy I'm much more likely to feel lonely). I find it a lot easier to deal with stress as my happiness increases my resilience. Problems tend to bounce off me when I'm happy and energetic.
The three cornerstones are:
- Ensuring I get a decent amount of sleep (Not too much and not too little) and ensuring I maintain a decent level of energy throughout the day
- Ensuring I maintain a healthy diet paying careful attention to ensure I eat enough calories to fuel my mind and body while getting the vitamins and minerals I need to maintain a happy, healthy body.
- Being productive. For me, unless I've been productive I struggle to go to bed feeling happy and content with my day. I'm likely to get anxious over how much I have to do and I'm likely to lose sleep over it or alternatively, I'm likely to want to avoid getting out of bed in the morning as it means confronting the mountain of work.
As you can see, battling depression can be difficult. It's a constant battle with a constant stream of things to think about. You have to be vigilant. You have to be in tune with your body and in tune with what it needs. So how do I stay on top of all the information? How do I stay alert to all the warning signs, and how do I ensure I do what I have to do to counteract these triggers? Well, to be honest, I don't always stay on top of it. That's probably why it feels like I'm falling over or, following the analogy on from earlier, why I feel like I'm hitting the canvas, every other week or so. However, I'm trying to keep a journal. A journal of what I'm eating, of what I'm getting done and of how much exercise I'm doing. I have a thoroughly planned out timetable which I try to stick to. I do however, have a couple of things that will pull me up and out of a potential down turn, providing I can recognize the triggers early enough.
As I've briefly mentioned, my lazy days need exercise. In truth everyday needs exercise but its less important on the days when I'm being productive. Presumably because I'm leaving the house, typically walking places and getting a low level of exercise any way, or perhaps its because when I'm being productive my leg has a habit of bouncing around like a rabbit. Either way when I'm being productive I tend to be moving and so it's not so important. However, If I fall into a slump and my diet falls off the wagon, I'm sleeping too much and I've lost all motivation to get anything done then getting to the gym can really help. When I go to the gym I take more care of my diet, I try and eat healthier, I'm more likely to ensure I'm consuming enough calories (gotta fuel that recovery bro!) and it also acts as a regulator for sleep. As you can see, it can act as a shot of adrenaline to a heroin junkies heart, Pulp Fiction style. (Note: this is a metaphor, I'm not actually a heroin junkie) However, this does rely on me being able to have the baseline motivation to actually get out of bed and get to the gym. This is where the next tip is the real saviour.
Coffee is my go to get out of jail free card! When I can't motivate myself to get to the gym I get a "Bulletproof coffee" down me. For those of you who haven't come across Bulletproof Coffee yet it's actually a lot better than it sounds. It's coffee with grass-fed organic butter and a healthy dose of coconut oil all blended together into a creamy, frothy cup of calorific goodness. The fats and oils are supposed to keep you fuller for longer while improving brain function. This article here does a much better job of explaining it and also provides us with a wonderful but short origin story. Putting all that aside, for me, it provides a boost in energy, calories and motivation, providing me with just enough ummph to get out of the house and into the gym. On top of that coffee contains a bunch of other benefits. Just read this paragraph from Dr Judith Orloff. (Full article here)
How great does that sound huh? It's for these reasons alongside my own trial and errors that I've come to realise that coffee has become an incredibly important component of my arsenal of weapons to fight depression. It can provide me with that fundamental foundation to build and maintain the habits I need to stay healthy, both emotionally and physically. I'm a genuinely incredibly glad I've realise how helpful coffee can be.
(A quick word of warning: Be careful with how much coffee you consume, you don't want to get those pesky shakes and headaches)
Please note, I am not a doctor, the advice here comes from personal experience and a little online research. If your depression has become particularly bad I urge you to see a professional doctor and get the tailored, personal advice and help that only a professional can provide. Going to a doctor should not be seen as weak or as failure because it really isn't. If anything seeking a doctor takes courage and should be lauded praised.
So there you have it, my rather long but hopefully enjoyable and informative article about dealing with some of the triggers of depression. What works for you? I am by no means finished with my journey of discovery and I am always looking for helpful tips to help fight "The Battle" so let me know what works for you and even what doesn't. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can leave a message in the comments section below.
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In case you missed them, here are the links to articles mentioned and I also provide a little further reading on the benefits of coffee for depression.