I’m a silver lining person, usually able to see the positive in any situation, no matter how glum or dire, but I confess that it has been increasingly difficult for me to maintain my optimism in light of what’s been happening in our world over the past year.
Each natural disaster, each horrific mass shooting, each bizarre pronouncement from the tweeter-in-chief is worse than the last. It has felt like we are witnessing the complete destruction of the planet and unraveling of the social order. As a result, I found myself falling into a deeper-than-usual seasonal depression this winter. I had to use the tools I have learned, and have taught others for years, to get out of it – and I’m here to tell you that they work!
Before talking about what worked, I should mention that there were things I did which didn’t help, in fact, they probably made my depression worse, and kept it going longer than necessary. I engaged in some unhelpful behaviors that were attempts to distract myself from how I was feeling, or control the people and things in my immediate environment. These included retail therapy (buying things I didn’t need), fantasizing about the future (more than usual), and trying to plan “perfect” family gatherings (which of course didn’t happen, setting me up for more depression). I don’t usually engage in these behaviors when I’m feeling good, but they’re old habits, and at the time it didn’t register that they were unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Despite my professional training and experience, I was in denial. I didn’t want to see that I was beginning to get depressed, though there were obvious signs and symptoms: sleep problems, from difficulty falling asleep to waking in the night and not being able to get back to sleep, which led to low energy, both physical and mental, and increased worry about all of the things that I have no control over, including climate change, politics, natural disasters, and death.
After a few weeks, I admitted to myself that I was depressed, but I didn’t tell anyone else, because I was aware of feeling shame. (This shouldn’t happen to me, I’m a mental health professional, I help other people who are depressed, but not me, I know better, etc.) By now I noticed other symptoms: ruminating about what had triggered the depression and how to get rid of it; social withdrawal – I had to push myself to connect, but it was increasingly difficult to do, and my efforts often seemed to backfire, resulting in a lot of negative self-talk (I’m terrible at networking, I miss social cues, etc.). Conversation became a chore. And I still wasn’t sleeping well, so I was consuming more caffeine and chocolate, as well as high-sugar, high-fat holiday treats, which also fed the depression. My body was lethargic, my mind was sluggish, and I just felt completely stuck.
Finally I accepted that the depression wasn’t going to just go away. I remembered what I teach: MOTIVATION WORKS BACKWARDS IN DEPRESSION. So I pushed myself to do things that would give me a sense of mastery (simple tasks like cleaning the kitchen) or pleasure (driving myself to Half Moon Bay so I could soak up some sunshine and ocean air, and be around other people who were enjoying life, even if I couldn’t yet). Once I’d done those things, I was able to build on that little bit of momentum to plan more physical activity as well as initiate social connection.
I focused on the basics, forcing myself to get back into my regular exercise and healthy eating routines. I scheduled lunch dates with friends, and made a point of telling them I’d been depressed, rather than pretend I was fine. Taking walks in nature, whether or not the sun was shining, helped a lot, as did reaching out to my network of friends and colleagues, many of whom have experienced depression themselves, for some F2F connection. Knowing that I’m not alone, other people have felt this way too, was super helpful. I’m sure the fact that the days were getting longer helped, too. By late February, I was back to my normal good mood and energy.
A word about mindfulness meditation and the role it can play in relieving depression: my own experience echoed what the research has shown, which is that when you’re in the middle of a depressive episode, it’s actually pretty difficult to do formal sitting meditation. This is also true if you’re in the middle of a panic attack or highly anxious. Even if you’ve been practicing meditation regularly for many years, as I have, it becomes difficult to access the benefits of practice during these times. So I didn’t force myself to sit on the cushion every day.
But I did practice mindfulness in other ways:
• I acknowledged what I was thinking and feeling, rather than ignoring it.
• I recognized that my thoughts and perceptions were negatively skewed, so I tried to not take them too seriously.
• I practiced grounding myself in the present moment by focusing on my breath and body throughout the day.
• I practiced mindfulness of daily routine activities, using my five senses.
• I remembered to do lovingkindness practice, and offered myself some self-compassion.
• And I sought out opportunities to do sitting meditation with others at meditation centers and yoga studios.
And finally, a disclaimer: my intention in sharing my experience is to help reduce the stigma that is still so common in our society around mental health issues. By no means do I intend this as medical advice for you, the reader, or anyone else. This is my story, and these are the things I did that helped me get better. Depression comes in many different flavors, with different causes as well, which is why it is so important that anyone who is suffering from it should talk to a medical doctor as well as a mental health professional about what might be the most effective treatments for them. The important thing is to reach out and get the help you need! If you don’t know where to start, take a look at my Resources page, or read some of the Articles I’ve written about help for depression.