I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety for all of my adult life. I know that’s not saying much these days. Depression is almost a buzzword. But here’s what it feels like: you wake up each day to flu-like symptoms, nothing, and I mean nothing (not sex, ice cream, drugs), sounds like a good idea. You hope the coffee will have some lifting effect, but nothing is working, nothing is going to work. You begin to believe NOTHING CAN HELP YOU.
But Wait… That’s Not the Truth
There are a number of causes of depression and anxiety. Let me define the big three, as I refer to them.
- Existential Depression – this life, this job, this broken relationship, this poverty, this loneliness dragging you down. You have real reasons to be bummed out.
- Physical/Chemical Depression – your body is misfiring some chemistry as a result of the stress you’re under.
- Emotional Depression – or moods.
In various moments of my life, I’ve suffered from all of these beasts. Sometimes, I am able to bounce back quickly. And, in some darker periods of my life, I’ve been nearly dead for months. What I’ve learned over the last five years is how to use mindfulness, self-awareness, and good health habits to mitigate or even prevent the onset of a depressive episode.
My Four Lines of Defense Against Depressive Meltdowns
My first line of defense is physical management.
- Am I getting enough sleep?
- Am I getting outside in nature? Exercise?
- Am I eating healthy foods?
- Am I avoiding alcohol and other substances? (Not coffee, what are you crazy?)
My second line of defense is energy management.
When I’m tired I rest, nap, and sleep. When I need a boost I drink coffee, go for a walk, play a game, or play music. Throughout the day there are hundreds of moments when we can pause and check in on our energy. Am I trending downward? What options do I have to keep my energy up so I can complete my work? Am I too high, did I drink too much coffee this morning? What are some of the things that can rachet me down a notch? Pausing during the day and feeling into your body and what it needs, is a great step towards taking charge of your daily cycles of energy, productivity, and rest.
My third line of defense is mood management.
“Just because you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s real.” – Radiohead
My moods are part of life. But my moods no longer have to define me or my approach to the day. I use a simple technique for understanding my moods and creating the awareness I need to keep myself above water.
- Notice that a mood has arrived. “Oh, hello loneliness. What brought you out today?”
- Labeling that mood. “I am experiencing some loneliness.”
- Identify the trigger. “A random photo came up and reminded me of my mom, who died last year.”
- Be with the moment. “I am lonely and sad about my mom.”
- Breathe for a moment. Hold a short timeout for the mood.
- Choose the next right action. “Okay, I’m lonely and missing my mom. I also need to start working on that invoice so I get paid next week.”
What I feel is important, but it’s just a feeling. I don’t have to let a mood wreck my day. I might let it influence my afternoon. I may even choose to give my mom and my longing for her to take up part of my day. But I try to do this intentionally now, rather than being blindsided and overwhelmed by the mood. I can choose to give the mood some space and time. I can also choose to move on with my action items and do what needs to be done.
My fourth line of defense is spiritual practice and gratitude.
In some of my dark moments, say at 2 am when I’m worried about some future event, I have begun saying the serenity prayer like a meditative mantra.
God (or whoever you choose to pray to), grant me the serenity,
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Sometimes, that’s enough. I don’t need to do anything. A few rounds of the “accept the things I cannot change” and I’m able to let go. And there are times, of course, when it’s much harder to let go. In a rough moment a few years ago, I began writing affirmations every day and texting them to a close friend. He knew I was struggling. He reminded me to take my gratitude like a tonic early in the day. It wasn’t always easy. It didn’t feel like it was working. But it did remind me, daily, of some of the good things in my life. And the touchpoint with another human was invaluable.
I may not ever fully flush the devil of depression out of my life, but I have gotten much better at keeping the sad moments from becoming sad days. Yes, I do give my grief and loneliness some attention. And there is even some gratitude to be recognized for my deep level of empathy and feeling. But, I cannot let my moods overrun my life or my plans.
Defining Your Support Team
You need a team. You don’t have to do it alone. And often our loved ones are too close to the bone. We need to have an outside person to RANT to, to CRY to, and to CELEBRATE our victories over the blue moods of life. Self-care is important. For people with depressive tendencies, self-care is a lifeway. Self-care, sleep, good food, and exercise are the foundations of a healthy life. When I begin to feel out of balance I reset and regroup around what I can control and let go of what I cannot control.
When we get dark and cannot see the way forward, we need people who are reaching out to us, connecting with us, even when we’re feeling good and not reaching out to them. We need friends along the path.
image: breakfast with an exhausted Minnie Mouse and Elmo in NYC with my sweetheart, 2022. @cc 2022 with attribution