Despite a sense of overwhelming optimism at the start of 2015, so far this year has not gone as planned. I’m not surprised that life doesn’t always go as planned. I’m not surprised that life has its ups and downs. What does surprise me, however, is realising that I’m not terribly bothered by this. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m making progress in overcoming depression. That would be quite ironic, given how this year has gone.
So far, I have not managed to do what I know I should be doing on a regular basis. So far, I have not done the following:
- follow a health eating plan
- exercise regularly
- practise mindfulness
- pursue hobbies
- engage in creative activities
That list is a pretty basic outline of what you need to do if you are intent on overcoming depression. But life is just not that straightforward. I have a long-held belief that one of the most debilitating effects of depression is that it fosters an inclination to do exactly what you should not be doing. It takes every ounce of willpower, and then some, to vaguely muster up the energy and determination to make a salad, go to gym, etc. It feels like every cell in your being is screaming for you to climb back under the covers – with a slab of chocolate.
So how do you climb out of bed and find your way to gym?
Overcoming depression is not a war: a war has an end.
Dealing with a chronic physical illness is an ongoing battle. Fortunately, the fight does get easier and a little less intense every time you launch an attack. And just how do you launch a successful attack?
- Make the decision. I believe that you need to firmly and consciously make a decision to fight this illness. You need to focus your energy on doing whatever it is you need to go to rediscover your true self.
- Get support. You need someone in your life who understands what you’re going through and can give you the type and degree of motivation you need to get going.
- Be flexible. Sometimes a routine can help to get you going, but too much rigidity can induce anxiety that will see you under the covers again.
- Don’t wait for Monday. As soon as you make that decision, start immediately. Don’t procrastinate even more.
If I make it sound easy, I don’t mean to. I was tired just walking up the stairs at gym to get to the treadmill. After fifteen minutes I had a headache and a blister from my running shoes. I made the decision to pull up my socks – literally – and keep going. There have been some lapses… A fondness for baking is not a great hobby if you’re trying to follow healthy diet, and yet I found myself in the kitchen baking some of my favourite goodies. But the point it, I’ve made a start and I’m trying. More importantly, I’m not beating myself up about the fact that I haven’t been doing what I ought to.
It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally learnt to simply accept that life happens. Overcoming depression means accepting that this illness has its highs and lows, and knowing that all that you can do is your best. And that’s what I’m going to do: try my best to look after my physical, emotional and mental well-being.
The things that we need to practice on a daily basis to be mindful are the same things that we need to do in times of emotional difficulty. Therefore, it’s important to practice mindfulness daily until it becomes a habit and thus our automatic response to emotionally trying times. It is in the daily practices and habits of our lives that we develop constructive coping mechanisms that will see us through challenges and trying circumstances.
However, this is so much easier said than done. Our coping methods have been ingrained in us since early childhood and it can be challenging in the extreme to override these powerful habitual responses. It is particularly difficult when trying to cope with something that places a strain on our emotions – it is as these times that our habits of old have a strong pull and newer approaches tend to fall by the wayside.
Learning and practising mindfulness, like everything else, is a process and requires patience. You will probably have to learn the same difficult lesson several times before you have really gained a habitual mindful response in times of difficulty. But the journey and the attempts are worth it. Although it may seem nebulous at first, mindfulness is incredibly powerful.
Explosive anger, debilitating desperation, uncontrolled hysteria… Dr Jekyll becomes Mr Hyde. It’s an interesting paradox that when our emotions are heightened we often experience a side to our character that is contrary to our usual nature.
Feeling an emotion to such an extreme degree is distressing in and of itself. But it’s at this point, when you’re pushed to the edge, pushed to your personal limit of emotional tolerance, when you will behave in a way that completely contradicts your natural character. It has potentially devastating consequences for you and those around you. It leaves you feeling accountable, and yet unable to explain, excuse or justify your actions, your words, your outbursts.
It can be sobering, to say the least, when you recover your Dr Jekyll personality and are left facing the hard cold truth that is the evil Mr Hyde. And that’s when you wish he would do just that – hide.
It’s a recognised paradox that exists within human nature, and potentially resides in all of us. And the only way to avoid it is to not test our limits of what we can endure – emotionally and mentally.
’m intrigued by the notion that “emotions can be divided into two broad categories – love and fear.” It sheds a new light on our emotional experiences and creates a whole new perspective of emotions and behaviour.
The idea that so many of our emotions can be reduced to some sort of fear paints a picture of vulnerability that is an interesting interpretation of the human race. The idea that fears, including fear of failure, rejection, change, etc, drives so many of our reactions and behavioural habits speaks to the insecurities and fragility of our lives. It’s an interesting perspective with which to view characteristics such as arrogance, a quick temper and condescension.
It’s much easier to see how many of our emotions stem from some sort of love. And not just romantic love, but love for life, justice, creativity, and many other facets of our lives.
Viewing emotions in this way poses questions regarding the origins of our feelings and how we should deal with them. It’s up to us to nurture the love-based emotions in our lives and to resolve the fears that cause negativity in our lives. Perhaps adopting this theory will also allow us to truly empathise with others and understand the core emotions behind people’s behaviour and reactions.
Your really don’t need to go to the extent of experimenting with narcotics to experience an altered version of reality. Our feelings often do this for us, without us even being aware that we’re experiencing an altered perception of reality.
“The valuable information provided by our feelings interprets our experiences and profoundly influences our perception of reality.”
It is only by getting rid of denial, anger, grudges, and everything that can alter our perceptions that we can truly see our experiences for what they truly are. It somehow always comes back to the theory of mindfulness.
I think that we all fall into the trap of labelling emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We’re bombarded with messages from an early age that tell us that anger is bad. That bitterness is bad. That we shouldn’t feel envious and a whole range of emotions that don’t fall under the category of the convenient ‘good’ emotions. The truth is that we’re all humans. We’re all going to experience the full spectrum of emotions over the course of our lifetimes. Some drama queens manage to get through the entire list in a remarkably short space of time. Some people are naturally calmer and experience fewer instances of the more intense emotions. We’re all different, but we can all identify with the emotional component of the human experience.
If you really want to label something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, then focus on the way in which people manage (or don’t manage) their emotions. Look at people’s behaviour, at how they treat others.
The same can be said about the way in which you judge yourself. It really is okay to feel so-called negative emotions. In some cases, it would probably be more worrying if you weren’t angry, bitter, or negative. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Deal with it. Deal with your emotions. That’s where you should focus your energy.
“Emotions are inherently neither good nor bad. It is what we do with the information and energy they produce that makes the difference.”
“Emotions are related to activity in brain areas that direct our attention, motivate our behaviour, and determine the significance of what is going on around us.”
It is so important to keep this in mind because heightened emotions have such a powerful and far-reaching impact on our lives, and the lives of those around us. Our emotions determine what we notice, how we react, and how we perceive and evaluate our environment. It’s no wonder that things look better in the morning when you’re feeling more composed. At that point your emotions are more under control, more bearable, because the immediate intensity of your emotional reaction has dissipated. This then has a calming effect on your perception of your circumstances; you tend see things in a calmer light, which then results in more mediated behaviour.
It’s just another reason why mindfulness it so important. And now neuroscience provides the incontrovertible evidence. It pays to be in tune with your emotions and to regulate them effectively. Having control over your emotional wellbeing essentially gives you control over your behaviour and the rest of your life.
Yes, you read that correctly. In fact, “experiencing and expressing emotions is viewed by more and more people as a sign of strength”. So much for the cowboys-don’t-cry parenting technique.
Many people are brought up on the notion that expressing – or even experiencing – emotions is a sign of weakness. And this view is widely adopted in society. Being stoic and holding back your tears has largely been held to be a sign of strength, maturity and socially acceptable behaviour. That idea is now being challenged and thrown on its head.
So does that mean that we should all cry at any available opportunity? (I can almost hear you hiss ‘weakness’ in response to the very idea.) But no it does not. It simply means that we need to engage with our emotions, to understand them and act on them accordingly. Experiencing a range of emotions is part of the human experience. After all, no matter what so-called macho men say, we aren’t machines. We are human. We have emotions.
And sure, there is still a time and a place to express those emotions. Encouraging people to express their emotions is still tied to the idea of what is appropriate (a debate for another day). There are still appropriate times, places and means of expressing emotions; the important point is that they are experienced and that they are expressed. It is through the process of truly experiencing and expressing our emotions that we develop true emotional strength.
So yes, cowboys do cry. And they do get frustrated and they do have bad days. And the sooner they embrace this, the stronger they will be.
“Being able to perceive, understand and act on one’s emotions in constructive ways, especially when emotionally aroused, is vital.”
All three of these stages require a certain degree of emotional intelligence:
To perceive emotions one has to be free from denial, doubt and all the other trappings of emotions that limit our perception of our true experiences.
To understand emotions, one has to have self-insight and self-knowledge. This is often clouded by the messages we receive from others and what we want to believe of ourselves.
To act on one’s emotions constructively requires the full spectrum of emotional intelligence, the acquisition of which is an ongoing lifelong process.
Once we’ve embraced the idea that our thoughts are neither us nor reality, the next step is deciding which thoughts are worth our contemplation and acceptance. Ultimately, this choice will define our lives. Our inner lives, our relationships, our careers… everything is defined and shaped by the thoughts we select for our own personal reality. The implications are both overwhelming and empowering.
“From thoughts come actions. From actions come all sorts of consequences. In which thoughts will we invest? Our great task is to see them clearly, so that we can choose which ones to act on and which ones to simply let be.”