How To Beat Depression

I am very candid about my past. Probably more than I should be at times. If I had to name the two key features of my childhood/youth they’d be chronic depression and anxiety.

Depression I became conscious of first. I had an acute bout towards the end of high school triggered by a number of very stressful events. To put it bluntly, it’s only via sheer dumb luck that I’m here right now writing this. That’s how bad it was. I came to realize many years later that I wasn’t just a depressed adolescent. I was a depressed kid. I had a lot growing up that confused me and placed enormous emotional stress on me, and I was fearful about expressing it, so I turned it inward. I was a classic example of someone who was really angry, but had little or no outlet for that anger and turned it in on myself.

Anxiety and I became familiar with each other a bit later in life.

I began to have attacks of extreme anxiety in any situation that involved a crowd in my early 20s. If my depression was rearing its nasty head while I had an anxiety attack it would turn into full on desperation and abject terror. There was nothing even remotely rational or related to reality in these panic attacks. Friends who attempted to talk me down from one were likely to be shouted at as if they were causing the problem instead of trying to help.

I’ve always been exceptionally strong-willed, and that allowed me to remain functional, even when I was despondent or otherwise terrified. I was able to engineer a safe bubble in which I could function. I was safe with certain people. I was safe in certain places, including the office I worked in. I even managed to feel safe riding specific types of public transit. But even then I was miserable.

Along the way I met well-intentioned doctors and psychologists who prescribed medication, or who suggested I get involved in certain types of therapeutic groups.

I consider myself somewhat fortunate that my body chemistry wouldn’t tolerate the meds, or I might be on them to this day (and no more well now than I was then). The groups helped, but not in the way that was intended. Instead of connecting with people suffering from similar problems to mine, I felt no kinship to them at all. I had the experience, more than once, of sitting in a room with a dozen or so very depressed people, listening to their stories and saying to myself, “Holy crap, I’m a lot better off than you folks are… SHEESH!” Looking back I now realize that most of these folks in these groups weren’t clinically depressed. Their lives genuinely and actively sucked. It is one thing to be relatively healthy, have a good job with good prospects, a nice place to live, pets and friends and family who love you and be depressed – that’s clinical depression – and a totally other thing to have recently lost multiple family members to cancer, be unemployed, be addicted to narcotics, be suffering from multiple chronic illnesses, have no social support network and be alienated from your family and recently divorced (the actual description of the circumstances one guy in one of my groups found himself in) – if that’s your circumstance you’re not depressed, your life is awful and it’s perfectly logical and reasonable for you to be sad.

So, why am I lucky that none of these programs for curing my depression and treating my anxiety worked well for me?

Because they led me to seek other resources and to educate myself about my mind and my default emotional responses to the kinds of stresses life throws at us. I had to learn to face my flaws and alter my behavioral responses. I’m not 100% there. I’m still more likely to react to something I don’t like with anger (although I’m much less likely to turn it inward these days – healthier for me, but difficult sometimes for people around me), for instance.

What have I learned?

  1. The sunlight is your friend.
    – Get outside at least once every day and get some sunshine on your face and in your eyes, preferably as early in the morning as possible. Our ancestors spent almost all their lives outdoors. Indoors were where they retreated to to sleep, seek shelter from bad weather or from creatures or other humans who meant to do them harm. Spend most of your time inside and your brain is going to start believing you’re in a bad situation, and that triggers specific hormonal responses that are not good long term.
  2. Touch other people.
    – Obviously I am not suggesting you grab or rub yourself against total strangers. We are social animals. Actively seek out hugs, hand-holding and other ways to physically connect with the people you love and who love you. Touch is calming and reassuring. It’s also healing.
  3. Be active.
    – Not only did our ancestors not sit in dark rooms for 1/3 of their lives, they didn’t spend a whole lot of time sitting, period. Movement, particularly exercise that requires a significant amount of exertion, takes us out of our our left brain – the portion of our brain that is constantly trying to analyze the past and project and predict the future, and helps us to more fully inhabit our right brain, the portion that exists most fully in the present moment of experience. To put it in a less fluffy way – when you’re breathing heavily, sweating and struggling through something that’s physically tough it is nigh on impossible to worry about the future or dwell on the past – the two habits that spawn depression and anxiety.
  4. Eat real food.
    – My diet in my youth was a train wreck. I had an accelerated metabolism that burned calories like a nuclear reactor with the control rods removed. If I was having a rough time of it what was bad become worse. A bad day at school or the office generally meant a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner, which I fooled myself was healthy by pairing it with some frozen spinach. Garbage in = garbage out. Feed yourself filth and you will be filthy. Think of it like trying to run your car on whatever you can find that you can pour into the gas tank instead of properly designed and formulated fuel. Your brain is an organ. We all pretty much get that if we eat poorly it will damage our hearts, stomach, intestines, etc. Why would the brain be any different?
  5. Choose your other inputs with the same caution you should use when choosing what you eat.
    – Again, garbage in = garbage out. Does the news upset and depress you? Stop watching it. Are there people in your life who rain negativity on you? Avoid them. Feed your mind and spirit wisely. I used to literally laugh at people who read personal development or self-help books. Now I understand that feeding yourself with a positive message that lifts you up is possibly the only way to fight off the torrent of negativity that is woven throughout our culture.

If you do these five things will you be cured? Maybe. I don’t know. I know you certainly won’t feel worse.

You may need interventions from medical or psychological professionals. I spent 12 years in therapy myself, and without it I’m not sure I could have become clear-headed and strong enough to take any of the other steps I took on my own. For others, you may need medication to keep your head above water. Just don’t fool yourself into believing that you are permanently broken or incapable of helping yourself along.

What can seem overwhelming about this is that it can seem like you need to fix everything at once, that if you leave anything out you’re doomed to failure, but that’s not true. Every positive step you take is a positive step. Pick one thing to change that you know you can manage and be consistent with that thing.

When I started working on my strength and fitness one of my goals was to be able to do ten pull-ups. At the point where I started I couldn’t do one. I could barely stand to hang from the pull-up bar for 15 seconds. I started there. 15 seconds of dead hang from the bar each morning. After a week it became 30 seconds. After three weeks it was a minute. Then I struggled to get one pull-up done. Now after doing one pull-up was I stronger and fitter? No. But after doing one pull-up each morning for a week I was, and I turned that into two, then three, and so on. Now I can do thirty.

If you want to change, you have to change.

Each day, each hour, each minute, each moment provides an opportunity to make a choice. Pay attention to the choices you’re making. If you aren’t liking the outcomes you’re seeing in your life, make different choices. Each incremental step brings you closer to whatever is down the path you’ve chosen. Wherever you are now, you will not be there tomorrow, whether you like it or not.

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