According to Leo Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As a clinician I find the same goes for depression, which may be what Tolstoy meant in the first place. We know depression hurts. It’s not good for us to try to function with a low mood as our effectivity is greatly diminished, not to mention our subjective well-being, overall health, and longevity. But what triggers a depression differs very much from person to person. Loss of a loved one, trauma, stress, childbirth, the feeling of not belonging to a social group or to this world, failure, drugs, a medical condition are just some of the causes. And the way depression unfolds also differs very much from person to person, that is how long and intense our depression is, whether or not it goes hand in hand with anxiety, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness, sleeplessness, ruminations, lack of focus and fulfillment, et cetera.
The uniqueness of every depression should not surprise us. After all, human beings are unique in so many aspects. There is no exact replica of you on this planet! As people are unique, their depression is unique as well (one could argue the same for happiness, but that’s another article altogether). Given the uniqueness of each depression, how is it that we so readily gravitate to the one-size-fits-all approach of the antidepressant pill? Please do not misunderstand. As a clinical psychologist I have seen plenty of people who have benefitted from psychotropic medication. However, the relative usefulness of the pill should neither cause us to mistake it for a miracle drug nor reduce our individuality, our personal circumstance and needs. We deserve to be seen as a Mensch and responded to as a Mensch. While this is always the case, it matters most when we are down, especially when feeling down amounts to a depression.
Instead of jumping to conclusions and answering to depression with any preconceived approach – be it a pill or a particular psychological approach — we are much better served when we take the whole picture into consideration: the person we see in the moment; the depression and conflicts within the developing life story; health behaviors as reinforced or ignored by his or her environment; the person’s spirituality, intentions, and potential.
Good psychotherapy begins with the humble experience of not-knowing and curiosity. Only out of an on-going exploration comes a much needed variety of interventions that are fit to meet the most pressing and current needs of a depressed person. I want to share some interventions that are relatively new, at least for the psychological academia. Some of the interventions can be applied readily; others may require psychotherapeutic collaboration.
The question is simple enough: what can we do to elevate the depressed mood? To be clear here, we are not to escape every bit of sadness or bad feeling. Often the simple rule applies: to get over it, go through it. Tolerate discomfort by keeping things in perspective and by standing by you as your best friend. However, if your mood is truly depressed, zapping your energy and hijacking your mind with negativity, it’s time to intervene. For example:
SPEND TIME IN NATURE
Eighty percent of Americans live in cities. The polluted air, gray tones, loud noises, fast tempo and city-life in general can be exhausting, gradually leading to depression. The solution can be simple. Many of us reap the benefits of spending just 30 minutes a week in a park. It is astounding how much the human mind-body receives by seeing soothing shades of greens and blues, by hearing natural sounds of birds and flowing water, and by inhaling so called “phytoncides” (aromatic compounds emitted by plants), the latter working like aroma therapy. Walking in nature relaxes the mind amidst of an environment that wants nothing from us. Also, when done mindfully, rhythmic walking is meditation which elevates most people’s mood. If parks are unavailable, potted plants, natural sound recordings, essential oils, blue and green walls in our homes are frequently uplifting too and might inspire us to:
Researchers have long discovered that exercise is so powerful a natural antidepressant – stimulating the production of neurotransmitters and hormones – it might even replace the drug altogether. Even oxytocin is elicited when we move, a hormone that helps us create social bonds and thus reduce feelings of loneliness. Our mind is not a disembodied entity. In a highly individualistic manner the body ought to be included when we answer to depression. Because moving can be a challenge when our mood is low, psychological support and motivation are often essential.
LET GO OF COMPACT CARBOHYDRATES, ESPECIALLY REFINED SUGAR
Sugar ought to be classified as a depressant drug. Sure we are born with a sweet tooth, but only to digest fruits and vegetables. It is curious how easy it is to let go of carbs after the withdrawal period is over. Be brave and let that ice-cream habit become extinct….
SLEEP AND SLEEP WELL
Depression can be both: cause and consequence of sleep-related problems. In either case, assuring regular 8-8.5 hours of sleep often lightens our mood. Recently scientists have found that subjecting ourselves to blue light emitted by electronics before bedtime is commensurate with drinking a powerful caffeinated drink. In addition, soothing sounds from loved ones, including pets, can make us feel securely interconnected.
It is safe to assume that a more natural life — in terms of diet, movement, social connectedness, sleep, mindfulness, and coping with challenges – elevates the mood. Realizing what “more natural” means for us personally ought to be as unique a journey as the phenomenon of depression in itself. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions on the subject.
Dr. Polard is a psychotherapist practicing in the Los Angeles Center for Zen Psychology. You can contact Dr. Polard at 310-455-0928 or DrAPolard@verizon.net
“Copyright 2016 by Andrea F. Polard.”
I want the best for myself and my family–naturally. Why settle for less? We live in a society of plenty; all we have to do is go for it and ask for exactly what we want, in department stores, restaurants, on the love market, and of course from doctors. An almost inaudible, but powerful voice inside of us may tell us to reach for the best and only for the best.
Is this a good choice though?
Malcolm Gladwell, who made unconscious, intuitive decisions a popular topic with his book “Blink,” insists that people who have their individual taste buds satisfied are happier for it. Researchers, he pointed out, have found that there is no such thing as a perfect Pepsi or coffee type or tomato sauce. There are only perfect Pepsis, coffee types and tomato sauces. There are clusters of people who like a particular taste of a given product, for example a cluster liking sodas very sweet, another medium sweet and yet another a tad sweet. When food corporations honored these more varied ideas of “perfect,” they beat their competitors by large margins and made fortunes. So, corporations get richer and individuals happier with the perfect choice–a win-win situation.
When I go to a specialty store, I may ask for exactly what I want: a single shot of espresso with equal amounts of heated almond milk. Do I like this? Sure. Does it make me happy? No. It is a nice pleasure which may grow into a habit. Pleasure is good in good measure, but even in measure it isn’t happiness. It cannot touch the human heart the way love can. It certainly does not bring inner peace as tickling our senses makes us want more of particular things and less of non-particular Being. Getting precisely what we want can spoil us to such a degree that we become insensitive to the simple pleasures of life, the less-than-perfect experiences, the subtle tastes of the mundane.
Besides, when I go to a supermarket, I may resist going to the coffee aisle, fearing the avalanche of choice in cylindrical form which may burry me alive. I feel overwhelmed with the abundance. And actually, research confirms: less can be more. Gerd Gigerenzer, author of “Gut Feelings” which delivered much of the science for “Blink,” says,
“Choice is good, and more choice is better, says global business credo (…) But this is not how the human mind works. There is a limit that often corresponds to the magical number seven, plus or minus two…”2
This applies even to dating. Don’t wait around comparing hundreds of specimens to find the ideal one. People with fewer choices have just as happy or unhappy relationships. I reckon what matters most is not a pool of people, but if I have the guts to jump into the pool (commitment) and the ability to swim (love).
Fact is, less is often more. We get to be overdiagnosed and overtreated as doctors are increasingly afraid of being sued. To our detriment, they just might prescribe useless tests and harmful treatments out of fear of repercussions instead of using common sense.
Gigerenzer distinguishes between “maximizers” and “satisficers”.3 Maximizers are people who weigh their choices very carefully. They are the ones who spend a lot of time to choose the perfect program on TV and an item in a department store. Satisficers, on the other hand, are the ones who engage in a more limited search and readily accept what they deem “good enough.” Who do you think is happier? Studies say, by far the satisficers. They have more optimism, higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction than the maximizers who tend to be more depressed, full of regret and self-blame.
So, let’s kiss perfectionism good-bye. It does not cultivate open-mindedness and a flexible consciousness as I describe in my book “A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life.”4 Quite the opposite: it narrows the mind, making it judgmental and cranky.
What can we do besides understanding these insights about the workings of the mind? Maybe we should begin with something very small in order to cause a ripple effect or to get a foot in the door of our unhealthy perfectionism. For example, next time when visiting a restaurant, order something under a minute and observe how you feel. Most of the time, you will end up liking the dish –unless you chose hell’s kitchen. In the less likely event that you don’t like it, shrug it off. This could have happened even if you had searched the menu for hours. Go on training your mind to let loose and thus begin to trust that “good enough” is still “good.” It is your life that will become better because appreciation of “good” is simply the best.
2) Gerd Gigerenzer (2008). Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. New York: Penguin Books, p. 31.
3) Ibid, p. 6.
NOTE: If this post in any way “spoke” to you, and you believe in might to others also, please consider sending them its link.
Images from One Dollar Photo
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