Thursday, November 19, 2009

Taking On Depression: Part 5: Body Language

Just as you can change the focus of your thoughts (the content of your mind) in order to change your mood, you can also elevate your mood by doing a variety of things with/for your body. The most immediate change you can make may simply be your posture. Most of us prepare ourselves for our reflection in a mirror by making little adjustments before we look. But I dare you to take a candid look at yourself in a full length mirror. What do you see? Do you need to tuck in your tush and your tummy, straighten your back, lift your chest and relax your shoulders, tuck in your chin? Having done so, do you feel even a bit more self-possessed? More dignified? If this is not your usual, commit yourself to making it so, and every time you become aware that you are slumping or slouching, tidy it up. You’ll look better and feel better.

How about your face? Many of us are surprised by what we see when we’re caught by surprise in a mirror. We may see a furrowed brow, grim mouth, tense jaw, protruding chin, or other signs of tension. Many of us do store tension in our faces, so while you’re correcting your posture, put on a happy face, or at least release the tightness around your eyes, your brow, your nose and cheeks, your jaw and mouth. If you’re not smiling at this moment, think a pleasant thought and smile. The way you now feel is your proof that even smiling to yourself can shift your mood. You can give yourself the further enjoyment of smiling at others, including strangers, and watching their mood shift along with yours.

Then there’s the matter of exercise. Everyone knows about endorphins, the body’s natural mood enhancers, which are produced by aerobic exercise. You may know from your own experience that regular exercise is energizing and boosts self-esteem right along with the immune system and general fitness. The endorphins help lift mood, and so does exercising the self-discipline to do something you know is good for you. If you exercise with gratitude for a body that is able to exercise, regardless of your level of fitness, and further, do so mindfully and respectful of your limitations, you ramp up the benefit even further.

So, even simple things that you can do with and for your body can improve your mood. Anthony Robbins, the hugely successful motivational speaker acquired his material from exhaustive research as well as from his own experience overcoming major depression. One self-observation he made is somewhat similar to the “fake-it-‘til-you-make-it” strategy, or acting “as if.” At a time when he saw himself as an utter failure, he realized he immediately felt better by simply carrying and presenting himself as he would if he felt great about himself, i.e., by carrying himself straight and tall, by looking others in the eye, smiling and showing some interest in them, all actions that typically elicited positively reinforcing responses. By taking a shower, donning clean and self-respecting attire, shaving and combing his hair, correcting his posture, and being willing to smile, he came to realize how much power he could exercise over his own life and sense of well-being.

For him, this was the beginning of his implementation of a daily routine of deciding and visualizing what he wanted for that day, including what he wanted to accomplish, how he wanted to interact with others, the attitude and mood he wanted to carry, and how he wanted to respond to annoyances and frustrations. This harkens back to the previous blog addressing what you want. It is obviously helpful, therefore, to engage the mind in a manner that supports what you are doing. So, if you find yourself thinking, “That may work for some people, but not for me,” then transform that thought to something like, “If it works for others, it will certainly work for me, too.”

Any discussion of caring for your body is incomplete without talking about “fuel.” It is common knowledge that a balanced diet low in sugar and fat is good for the brain and body and that both diet and exercise are critical to health maintenance and longevity. We all know the difference between good nutrition and junk food; we’ve been hearing the data and the warnings for years, decades really. You need not be a purist. I, for one, am a believer in the benefit of my daily dose of chocolate (rarely just one square). And I consider a slight excess of carbs to be one source of soul food. But without good nutrition, the amazingly adaptable and most forgiving body will begin to cause you problems and expense far greater than that of providing yourself good nutrition. Yes, it does take effort to budget the necessary time and money, but doing so is, again, self-empowering and helps lift and maintain a good mood.

Well, you may say, I can manage all these things quite comfortably when I’m not depressed. When I’m depressed, it’s more of a struggle to motivate myself and may even feel impossible. It is true that it may feel impossible, but it is not true that it is impossible. It may help to remember that you don’t have to do everything all at once. You can start by just doing one thing, even one very small thing, until it becomes routine, and then add another action. Do not permit yourself to be seduced by the feeling, but stay focused on what you want and what you are going to do, and then put yourself in motion. And don’t indulge in discouragement if results are not stellar at first. Persist and you will get your results.

Think about this: what impression would you like to create in the mind of someone meeting you for the 1st time, or even for the 1st time today? What do you want the “take away” to be from your encounter with another person today? Do you want it to be productive, useful, pleasant, fun? Do you want to relax and enjoy it and for both of you to walk away from it feeling at least generally positive? Imagine yourself engaged in such an encounter and then play it out in your interactions. If you can imagine it, you can do it, however much practice it may take. If you fear that making changes such as those suggested here will be too “out of character,” too noticeable to others, or evoke comments or compliments, don’t be deterred. In response, you can just smile mysteriously and say that you’re conducting a scientific study.

For some who are battling depression, the thought of having to make such an effort indefinitely may be overwhelming. Do it just for today. “Yesterday’s gone, tomorrow’s but a dream.” Commit to doing something just for today. Changing your behavior, i.e., your posture, your face, your care of your body, your energy, in some small way may produce an initially imperceptible difference, but the momentum builds. The long term results of persistent small changes can be huge.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Taking On Depression: Part 4: What Do You Want?

Overcoming depression is about change. Last time I talked about changing your thinking by focusing on thoughts of gratitude in order to generate the energy to act, to make further changes, to get where you want to be. For many with depression, especially long term depression, thoughts about what you want may have become habitually secondary to what you think others want from you. Early childhood experiences that honed your vigilant attentiveness to others’ needs may have represented an instinctive and necessary, i.e., adaptive survival strategy. While sensitivity and responsiveness to others’ needs can be rewarding, maybe even lead to a career path as a lawyer that employs your valuable people skills, it can also become an impediment to your discovery of what you really want and need, to what will enable you to experience “authentic happiness,” not just win others’ admiration and approval, and perhaps a spurious sense of security.

A common manifestation of this impediment is what is increasingly referred to as “codependency,” a relationship of mutual dependency based on an implicit bargain in which “I take care of you and you take care of me,” in which both parties avoid having to take full responsibility for themselves. While self-sacrifice is a part of all healthy committed relationships (spouses and parents do it all the time), sacrificing oneself in order to avoid something difficult, or to leverage payback from the other is a form of avoidance or manipulation. Whether it occurs in a personal relationship or a professional one, it is somewhat dishonest, self-defeating and disempowering and inevitably creates resentments, disappointments, feelings of victimization, and possibly depression.

Some have never learned to give themselves permission to want and to dream, to know their own feelings and wishes, or have done so in a very limited way. Some may be very clear about what they want in one sphere of their lives, say the professional sphere, and much less so in their personal life, e.g., the successful lawyer who lacks close satisfying personal relationships. So, how do you begin to identify what you want? One place to start is to simply think about what makes you feel good, enhances your self-esteem, that employs your unique talents, that piques your interest or gives you enjoyment, that inspires, energizes, and excites you, that makes you want to get up in the morning.

If you haven’t felt any of these things recently, or experienced them in only one sphere of your life, think as far back as necessary to when you did. Pursuing the things that make you feel good is not frivolous self-indulgence; it is a participation in life, in the creative process. True creativity is implicitly positive, additive, contributing to the larger community and greater good in some way, however small. Do you like to cook and make pleasing meals for your family? That is creative. Do you like to read and share your thoughts with a book club? That is creative. Do you grow vegetables or flowers in a garden? Exercise to maintain your health and energy? Keep a home that is welcoming to others? Work collaboratively with others at home, in the workplace, in the community? Share your energy, time, or money with someone in need of it? Do you smile at strangers? Write programs, plays, books, pamphlets, songs, poetry, menus? Do you pray, meditate, praise, appreciate? It’s all creative.

What do you want? If you don’t know, then you must figure it out, discover it, keep asking yourself the question until you do. Be sure to ask yourself the right question(s). Do not ask yourself questions such as, “Why can’t I do this?” or, “Why can’t I be happy?” or “Why haven’t I accomplished more?” Such questions invest a subtle belief in an undesirable condition. The questions are pointless and will yield invalid, useless answers. Ask instead, “How can I do this?” “What makes me happy?” “What can I do to make myself feel good right now?” The amended questions create a receptivity to discover new possibilities, ones you may not have previously considered.

If you want to feel good, you must discover, decide, and begin to move toward what you want. It involves training yourself to think in ways that open possibilities, create new opportunities. Give yourself permission to explore what you want. Dream, visualize, fantasize, and then take a step. In so doing, you are beginning to change yourself, consciously and intentionally, from inside out and outside in. Your best and healthiest self is happy, alive, involved, and active. If you realize you have an interest in something, stay with it and nurture it with some action, however small, that moves you in that direction. You can change course at any point as you gain clarity about exactly what you want. If you don’t know what to do, seek the assistance of someone who can help you discover what you want and overcome inertia.

A helpful and inspiring read is Martin Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness. He correctly notes that happiness is not something that one can pursue directly; rather, that happiness is a condition that ensues from the creative utilization of our given talents in a manner that participates in and contributes to the greater community – be it your family, your workplace, your neighborhood, or the world. Everyone, even you at your most depressed, has something to offer. I’ll go so far as to invoke Chaos Theory; the truth is you may never know how even an unreturned smile to a stranger will reverberate and magnify to your own or another's ultimate benefit, or how your holding the door for someone may improve the course of that person's whole day. Small consistent efforts at change can produce enormous results over time. The important thing is to act, to put yourself in motion and enjoy the results.