Sunday, October 30, 2011

Practicing Gratitudes

For some reason, most human brains retain negative memories far better than positive ones.  Especially when we are not feeling good about ourselves, our lives, our love relationships, we often forget to notice what is going well.  In fact, we need an assignment to look for small good things in life.  This is not about "positive thinking" but rather about being present, aware, and mindful of what is happening in your immediate  world, taking in the positives if you are already seeing the negatives. It can become an important part of mental hygiene.

Buy a small notebook--one that will fit in a pocket or a purse.  Each day for the next two weeks, use one page to record 3 things that happened during the day that were good, gave you a smile, or allowed you to see beyond the gray.  These can be tiny tiny things in your world--a squirrel running up a tree, making scritching noises with its toenails, a mushroom growing in your yard, the texture of the lettuce in your salad, hearing a favorite song on the radio....even, if you can't find something else, having a bowel movement (because not having one can cause more issues <g>).  If you have kids that are constantly picking at each other, try to catch them at a moment when they are playing quietly together.  Watch your partner, look for something he or she is doing that is kind, good, caring...even if they do it everyday.  Take a moment to appreciate that meal, the made bed, their warm (or cool) feet.  Even better, express your gratitude for the little positive somethings they bring into your life (even if you are often angry about what is missing.)

At the end of two weeks, read back through your journal and see if there is anything to learn from your writings.

This exercise is also one that families or couples can do.  At a family dinner, have everyone at the table say three things that were good about the day.  Or when you go to bed, trade gratitudes with your partner.  Blog them, put them on Facebook if it feels comfortable, share them with a friend.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Separating yourself from your depression

I remember one late winter day in Lincoln, Nebraska.  There was a blue sky, a cold wind, and bits of snow drifts that had not yet melted.  I was walking towards a classroom and my friend Lee was leaving the building.  She asked how I was doing.

"Fine," I said. "Well, I'm feeling depressed but everything is going well in my life so objectively I guess I am doing fine."  This was the first time I remember actually being able to observe my feeling of being depressed as being separate from what was going on outside of myself.   Years later when I began to study cognitive therapy that conversation came back to me.  Cognitive therapy examines how thought affects life.  Here is the analogy I use now:  My favorite place in the world is a small sea town in Oregon.  It sits atop a huge basalt flow that dates back to a time when the whole west coast was 100 feet below the ocean surface.  There is no sandy beach here, merely a sharp drop from the edge of the rock to the ocean.

When a log comes rolling in on the tide, you can stand above it and watch it get smashed into the rock and then drift back out, only to come in again and crash against the stone with each succeeding wave.  With depression you get a choice:  you can be on the log or you can be on the stone above the log watching.  You can be in the middle of the devastating, soul eating thoughts and beliefs that go with depression or you can stand back and observe your thoughts as something that is created in your brain but  that is not very accurate.

The negative thinking in depression appears to be related to low levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain.  When these neurotransmitters drop below a certain level, negative thoughts come unbidden into the mind.  Interestingly enough, it appears that having negative thoughts can also cause the neurotransmitters to drop.  This becomes a feedback loop, one causing the other, causing the other.  Sometimes a person can actually feel themselves spiraling into depression.  Something bad happens, they start ruminating about this and that leads to more negative thoughts that generalize to other aspects of life.