Tag Archives: clinical depression

Faux Feelings, Real Consequences

“This human tendency to look for outer causes for our moods is the greatest addiction on our planet.” –Richard Rudd

For depression levels: All

The headline in this morning’s paper blared, “Mock abduction exercise a success.” As I read the article over my tea and toast about the 10-agency exercise conducted yesterday to find a 14-year-old girl by the name of “Veronica Doe” who had been “kidnapped,” complete with eyewitnesses, neighborhood canvasses, and search dogs, I found tears coming to my eyes.

This morning's headline.

“8:04 a.m.: An Amber Alert has been sent out to local media,” reads the article’s dramatic timeline. “A backpack and sweater Doe left behind during the abduction are collected as evidence.” “9:13 a.m.: … [T]he community emergency response team and the search dog network are brought up to speed so they can start combing different areas in hopes of locating Doe.” “10:55 a.m.: Dogs are brought to the area. After being exposed to scent on shoe, the canine takes off down a park trail and locates Doe within seconds. Abductor is arrested. Doe is reunited with parents and taken in for medical examination.”

Why was I getting all teary-eyed and emotional? It was a mock kidnapping, for pity’s sake! The teen probably volunteered to play the role and had the time of her life. She was fine, her family was fine, and law enforcement agencies for miles around gained valuable experience in what to do if the real thing comes along.

Although I am not a neuroscientist, my educated guess is that reading about a girl being overpowered by an adult up to no good, ripped away from her family, and exposed to trauma triggered reactions in my primal or “reptilian” brain circuits of similar experiences in my own childhood. The reptilian brain isn’t rational when it comes to these things; it has embedded in its cells the conviction that undergoing certain types of experiences automatically means pain.

While my rational mind knew the kidnapping was staged, the feelings that came up in response to this mock kidnapping felt real. Tears came to my eyes, my heart rate sped up, and a ball of anxiety formed in the pit of my stomach. Emotionally, I felt vulnerable. If I had chosen to take these feelings seriously, such as telling myself the world is such a dangerous place, children aren’t safe, you can’t trust anybody, etc., then I could have initiated a downward spiral into depression.

Here’s the sequence of events that leads, oftentimes, to the start of a depressive episode or the exacerbation of a current one:

  1. Something happens that reminds me of something in my past.
  2. My reptilian brain thinks it’s a replay of the same situation, and it responds with chemical reactions that increase feelings of fear, anxiety, and dread.
  3. I tell a story about what has just happened that reinforces those negative reactions.
  4. Depression sets in or gets worse.
  5. I am incapacitated, unable to function.

The stories we choose to tell ourselves about what's happening can generate negative feelings that trigger depression.

You can see how such a reaction to a minor (or even a fake!) event can have real-world consequences. Perhaps you find yourself reacting with anger or distrust towards a loved one, refusing to try new things such as checking out a different career field, or isolating yourself because you assume you will always be alone and friendless. It’s been said, “All limitations are self-imposed” (attributed variously to Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ernest Holmes—take your pick). Realizing that your neurochemical reactions and the stories you tell yourself about them may be in response to situations that are, in reality, negligible can restore your power and allow you to make more positive decisions about what’s going on in your life.

The Weekend Stretch

This weekend, pay attention to a situation that triggers you in some way. It could be a “rude” waiter at a restaurant, a close call while driving, an item on the TV news, or a conversation with a friend. Write the answers to the following questions in your journal:

  1. Is what’s happening something that actually applies to me now, in the present? Or is it simply a reminder of something from my past?
  2. What stories am I telling myself about what happened or what was said?
  3. Do I really want to give away my power to this?
  4. What’s a different, more empowering way to look at this? (Consider that maybe, just maybe, what happened has absolutely nothing to do with you!)
  5. What resources or coping and communication skills do I have at my disposal to deal with this situation constructively?

To take this exercise further, print out these questions and carry them with you, responding to them whenever you get triggered.

Have an empowering weekend!

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

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We’re Back!

“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there’s love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” –Ella Fitzgerald

Thank you for joining me on this journey!

After a two-month hiatus, Rescue Yourself: CPR for Depressives is back. I’ve retooled the website for a fresher look, added some new widgets, and included an about me page. I had loads of fun adding unique photo headers at the top of each “About” page (see the links at the top of the blog); with the exception of one, all the photos are from the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens near Pasadena, California. And yes, I took them all! I am in the process of redefining the categories so that they will be more obvious and act more like an index. Look for the more user-friendly categories sometime this coming week.

Pretty pictures aside, it is my hope that the blog will be more readable, enjoyable, and useful to you.  Many thanks to everyone who gave input via the poll I posted in July. I am looking forward to doing some cool things with the blog such as interviews with experts in the health and wellness fields, recipes for foods that supercharge the brain, and even some guided visualizations using audio technology.

I hope your summer was everything you needed it to be, as free from depression as possible. I found myself in the midst of a few depressive episodes, largely due to the extreme heat and exceptional drought here in Texas, the likes of which haven’t been seen since–well, never. We broke every heat and dryness record here since they started recording such things. Excessive heat can actually inflame the brain and make depression worse. (Hmm, maybe, just maybe, Texas isn’t the right place for me!)

I’ve been cogitating a lot this summer on the true nature of depression, not just how it manifests, but what causes it, why some people get it and others don’t, and what–going beyond the physical and emotional symptoms–it really is. It’s my opinion that chronic, recalcitrant depression is, by and large, a spiritual illness, or what medical intuitive Caroline Myss calls “mystical depression.” I’ll be talking more about that in a future blog post.

Also coming up in the next couple of months will be an in-depth look at the underpinnings of the CPR recovery program: Care for yourself radically, Practice reliance on a Higher Power, and Re-vision and revitalize your life. As part of this exploration, I’ll introduce the Twelve Pillars of Wellness, material that I developed a few years ago for a live workshop entitled “Going Beyond Depression,” which I gave in Tucson in 2004. Additionally, you’ll have a chance to try more interactive exercises, including some forays into the expressive arts, and you’ll be seeing more insights from leading lights in the fields of nutrition, exercise physiology, spirituality, and alternative healing.

St. Francis is a worthy exemplar of serentiy for us.

I spent the last few weeks recovering from acute bronchitis. When my lungs aren’t working, there isn’t a whole lot I can do except rest, sleep, and think. In between nebulizer treatments, I got to thinking about what it really means to heal and if complete healing from depression (not to mention bum lungs!) is possible. I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but I invite you to explore that possibility with me in the weeks and months to come.

I’m glad to be back here at CPR for Depressives, and I hope you’ll continue to not only follow the blog as new posts appear, but actually try the exercises and suggestions and report back on how well they worked or didn’t work for you. It’s through sharing our experience, strength, and hope with each other that we are better able to recover from depression and create lives that are rewarding and infused with everyday happiness. I look forward to serving you by sharing not just knowledge about what it takes to recover from depression, but also wisdom about living an amazing life, no matter what challenges we face.

Until next time,

Patricia

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Top Ten Remedies for Depression Emergencies — Part 2

“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” — by John Milton

Where there is life, there is hope.

For depression level(s):  Severe.

Before continuing with the last five of my top ten remedies for depression emergencies (for the first five, see Top Ten Remedies for Depression Emergencies — Part 1), I want to focus on what you should not do if you are experiencing a depression emergency. The emotional pain of severe depression can be acute, making us want to do anything to make it stop. However, any self-destructive or acting-out behavior might alleviate that pain for all of five minutes, after which you will feel much worse. I have been there, more times than I can count. Trust me, it doesn’t help.

Here’s what doesn‘t work:

  • Overeating;
  • Eating neurotoxic foods, such as wheat, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, and processed foods;
  • Drinking and drugging;
  • Excessive smoking;
  • Spending sprees;
  • Isolating;
  • Cutting (self-mutilation);
  • Putting in motion plans to commit suicide.

If you are seriously contemplating suicide, call 911 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you need to go to the hospital, ask a family member or friend to take you, or call 911 for an ambulance. You are too precious to take your own life. Don’t do it. The world needs your unique gifts and talents, and you deserve to get well and enjoy your life. It can happen, but only if you give yourself a chance.

With that said, here are the last five remedies for depression emergencies:

5.    Increase your dosage of Omega-3’s. If you’re currently taking 1000 mg. of fish oil, take 2000. If you’re currently taking 2000 mg., take 3000. If you aren’t currently taking any at all, get some high-quality, mercury-free fish oil as soon as you can and start with 1000 mg. A “normal” dose (for folks without depression) is 1000 mg.; a therapeutic dose starts at 3000 mg. As with any supplement, you are responsible for determining whether this is the right thing for you.

4.     Call your therapist. Try to get in to see her immediately for an emergency session. She can talk you out of the really scary place you’re in, give you some additional coping strategies, and determine whether you need to be admitted to a hospital on an inpatient basis.

3.     Go to a support group meeting. I recommend you go to a face-to-face 12-Step meeting. If you are not in 12-Step recovery, that’s okay; you can still attend an open meeting of almost any fellowship. The important thing is not that you share the outward manifestation of addiction, whether it be alcoholism, compulsive overeating, drug addiction, codependence, or what-have-you; but that you connect with people who have experienced many of the same struggles you have and who understand what it’s like to be in emotional pain. Their experience, strength, and hope can get you over this rough patch and help you to feel connected and empowered.

The following fellowships are the most likely to have open meetings in your area:

Your town may also have a depression support group. Chances are, however, that they don’t meet very often and may not meet soon enough to help you through your current depressive crisis. To find a depression support group near you, contact your local hospital; they frequently sponsor these groups. You can also go to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance’s (DBSA’s) website.

2.     Get a massage or other bodywork and/or energy work. Getting some type of body work done, such as massage, craniosacral, or reflexology and/or some energy work, such as Reiki or Therapeutic Touch, will not only be healing for you but will also help you to feel connected and nurtured. To find a practitioner in any of these modalities (and many others) visit massagetherapy.com’s referral page.

You have the option to activate your very own spiritual "SWAT team."

1.     Call in the spiritual SWAT team. That’s right. It’s time to bring in the big guns. Connecting to your Higher Power accomplishes three things: a) It allows you to surrender and let go of your fear and anxiety and turn them over to something bigger than yourself, b) it helps you to feel supported and connected, and c) it activates spiritual healing forces on your behalf.

Here are just a few suggestions on how to activate your own spiritual “SWAT team”:

  • Ask a friend, loved one, or your spiritual community to activate a prayer chain on your behalf. Family members and friends of people with cancer and other serious illnesses do this all the time. You are just as sick and just as in need of the loving care of other people and of your Higher Power. This has the added benefit of allowing people to actively care for you instead of just wondering how they can help you.
  • Work the first three Steps of 12-Step recovery around your depression; discuss them with another person. You don’t even have to be in a 12-Step program to do this. The Steps go like this:
    Step 1: I admit I am powerless over depression; it is making my life unmanageable.
    Step 2: I believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.
    Step 3: I turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand God.
  • Call upon the Archangel Raphael and his team of healing angels. Ask them to surround you and send the healing white light of God’s presence and love into your brain to heal it. This technique can be especially powerful and effective if you ask some friends to join you in “seeing” the angels doing their healing work.

You do not have to suffer. Do what it takes to stabilize yourself at this time, and then start taking proactive steps to rescue yourself and live well in spite of having depression. Whoever you are, wherever you are, my prayers are with you.

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

Do you know anyone who is in a depressive crisis? If so, please share this with them! It may help.

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Filed under Making Tracks, Survival Toolkit, Top Ten Lists

Top Ten Remedies for Depression Emergencies — Part 1

“A life of reaction is a life of slavery, intellectually and spiritually. One must fight for a life of action, not reaction.” — by Rita Mae Brown

We might not be as peaceful as this butterfly, but we have to at least try.

For depression level(s): Severe.

Unlike the ironically funny Top Ten list I wrote a few weeks ago, “Top Ten Things NOT to Do When You’re Depressed,” this article is as serious as, well — depression.

I wasn’t planning to write on this topic today. In fact, I was going to supply you with my original recipe for gluten-free pot roast, as a follow-on to last week’s “Eating Wheat Can Cause Depression.” (Check this blog over the next week or two; I’ll share the recipe soon.)

But the fact is, it’s hot here in central Texas. I don’t mean just fan-your-face warm. I mean searing. We’re in a drought here, folks: Ten inches of rain below the average for this year already, and a ten-inch deficit left over from last year. And we’re already in triple-digit temperatures. What does this have to do with depression, you ask?

Heat + Glaring sun + Drought + Being cooped inside + Isolation = Depression

People tend to think of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as applying only to cold, rainy, cloudy climes in the wintertime, places like Seattle, Milwaukee, Helsinki, or London. But the fact is, SAD can occur in the summertime, too, due to too much of a good thing: Sun. The primary reason I moved away from southern Arizona was because I became increasingly suicidal with each summer that passed. The summers there are absolutely brutal. I moved here because I have family here; it never occurred to me that it could get as miserably hot and dry and glaring as it does in Arizona. BIG miscalculation.

So, yes, my depression has kicked up in a big way, and I am in a bad way. Fortunately, I have friends and family who love me and who are willing and able to be there for me when I need them. (God bless them, because for sure I’m not pleasant to be around when I get like this.) My mother suggested I write up the most important things a depressive can do to help herself when the depression gets really, really bad.

Since in helping others I tend to help myself, I’ve taken an imperfect stab at the top ten things in our survival toolkit. The first five (nos. 10-6) are listed below; the second five (nos. 5-1) can be found in a separate posting: Top Ten Remedies for Depression Emergencies — Part 2.

10.    Call someone. Immediately. Don’t wait. Better yet, call several someones and ask one of them to come over. Right now. This is not a good time for you to be alone. So what if you haven’t showered in two days and dirty dishes litter your kitchen counters. The folks who really love you won’t care. (Yes, there are people who love you, even if your depression brain says otherwise.)

You are not alone.

9.     Don’t listen to anything your depression brain says. It is lying. Anything your mind comes up with at this point is suspect; don’t give it any credence whatsoever. Just this morning, my mind told me that I am a complete loser, a waste of space on the planet, that I’m unloved and unwanted, and that I should never have been born. Instead, replace all that ugliness with a positive affirmation and keep saying it over and over again, like a mantra. One of my favorite ones is, “I’m lovable, worthy, wanted, and good enough just as I am.”

8.     Take a walk. Seriously. Put on your raggedy old t-shirt and shorts and ask a friend or family member to drag you outside. You have to get moving. Getting the oxygen and the endorphins flowing is imperative.

7.     Give your brain something else to do. Distract it by going to the movies, sitting at a cafe and reading, talking with a friend over lunch — anything so you don’t have to think. Ruinous rumination is to be avoided at all costs. See “When the Going Gets Tough…” for more distraction techniques.

6.     Do some EFT. Emotional Freedom Techniques, that is. This can bring your mind and body out of a state of emergency and give you the ability to make better choices. If you already know EFT, great; you’re in business. If not, at some point in the future when you’re feeling better, you can teach yourself how to do it by downloading the free manual from EFT Universe or by watching videos on YouTube. Right now, this is probably beyond you, so here’s something very simple you can do:

  • On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being “suicidal” and 1 being “barely noticeable,” note the intensity level of your depression.
  • With the middle and ring fingers of your right hand, tap on the “karate chop point” of your left hand (the bottom edge of your hand when your thumb is pointing up toward the ceiling).
  • As you tap, say to yourself, “Even though my depression is bad today, I deeply and completely love and accept myself anyway.” Do this several times.
  • Switch hands, so that now you are tapping on your right hand’s karate chop point with the middle and ring fingers of your left hand. Continue saying the affirmation.
  • Take note of your intensity level now. It should have gone down by several points.

Take good care of yourself. You’re worth it (as am I). Remember: This, too, shall pass.

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

Do you know anyone who is in a depressive crisis? If so, please share this with them! It may help.

Keep striving towards peace, one baby step at a time. You're worth it!

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Filed under Making Tracks, Survival Toolkit, Top Ten Lists

Eating Wheat Can Cause Depression

As yummy as it looks, bread and other wheat-containing foods can be brain allergens for depressives.

“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.” — Thomas Edison

For depression levels: All

A couple of weeks ago, I took myself out to dinner at a local home-cooking franchise. I was really hungry and looking forward to the pot roast they had on special.

I did not take into consideration all the flour they add to the pot roast to bind the broth and make the dish appear more appetizing. I also forgot about the gravy that comes automatically with the mashed potatoes. Being a pot roast lover and a mashed potato addict, I inhaled them both.

Within 15 minutes of having begun my meal, I was hit with a wave of brain fog so severe that I literally could not form sentences. Fatigue washed over me, and I could barely keep my eyes open. It was only about 6:00 in the evening; it had not been a particularly arduous day and there was no reason for me to feel so tired. The waitress came and asked me if I needed anything else. It took an immense effort to even look at her and say, “No, thanks.” I felt drugged, or drunk. I managed to pay for the meal and left.

It was no coincidence that over the next couple of weeks I experienced a severe depressive episode. The pot roast and gravy-laden mashed potatoes were not the only culprits; I had been indulging in sweets, Mexican food wrapped in flour tortillas, and even sandwiches. I had also dropped off on my exercise plan.

I’ve known for many years that wheat is contraindicated for people with clinical depression. The essential reference book Prescription for Nutritional Healing, the first book I consulted after my diagnosis in 2001, states, “Omit wheat products from the diet. Wheat gluten has been linked to depressive disorders” (p. 317 in 3rd ed.). Julia Ross, M.A., author of The Mood Cure, describes the link between wheat consumption and depression:

“Dozens of studies confirm that depression is a common symptom of gluten intolerance, one that usually disappears when wheat and the similar grains are withdrawn. People with gluten intolerance have low levels of the . . . brain chemical serotonin, and gluten has been implicated in mental illness since at least 1979, which is when I first noticed psychiatric journals reporting tremendous improvement in the symptoms of patients with depression and manic-depression . . . who had been experimentally taken off gluten-containing foods.” (p. 126)

And Dr. Jeffrey Morrison, in his ground-breaking book Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind, shares with readers how he actually eliminated all symptoms of schizophrenia from one of his patients, a man who had received that horrendous mental illness as his official psychiatric diagnosis, by removing all gluten-containing products from his diet.

Knowing something and actually acting on it, however, are two different things, particularly when the substance at stake is both highly addictive and near and dear to our hearts. Wheat contains gluten, as do barley and rye; oats can also contain gluten because they are typically processed in manufacturing plants that process wheat. Gluten has been described as a “brain allergen” and an opiate (Ross, p. 126). Eating gluten actually causes us to feel comforted, at least temporarily: We feel a drug-like high whenever we eat bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, pizza, and other wheat-containing foods.

"Amber waves of grain" = wheat!

In addition to being a potent addictive substance, wheat is woven tightly into the fabric of American culture. Think about the patriotic song, “America the Beautiful”: The second line is, “For amber waves of grain.” I don’t think they’re talking about rice! According to the National Association of Wheat Growers, three-quarters of all U.S. grain products are made from wheat flour. And what can you count on being served at every special occasion, from birthdays to Thanksgiving, from baby showers to the Fourth of July picnic? Breads and baked goods. Can you imagine your birthday without a birthday cake or the holidays without pumpkin pie? And how about eliminating sandwiches from your lunch menu?

Most people can’t. That’s why it’s so hard to say “no” to eating wheat. Everyone else is eating it; why can’t we eat it, too? Eating the same things most people eat makes us feel like we’re part of the tribe, like we belong. When we have to stick to a “special” diet, it exacerbates that feeling of being somehow different and oddball that we already experience due to having depression.

I’ve been using my own body and brain as an experiential food lab for many years. Time and time again, eating wheat has produced adverse affects for me, emotionally and cognitively. It has taken me this long to convince myself that I need to stay away from the stuff–permanently. I finally get it that eating wheat means giving up functionality and quality of life. It’s simply not worth it.

If you’ve been suffering from depression for a long time and have had less-than-stellar results from taking antidepressants, try eliminating wheat from your diet, even if it’s just for a short time. You should feel better in as little as a week, which might be enough of an incentive to continue avoiding wheat and even to seek out gluten-free alternatives. Changing your diet so drastically takes courage and fortitude, and practice, practice, practice. However, it’s a major step toward getting your life back. You’ll be amazed at the results!

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

Did you find this article helpful? If so, please share it with your networks!

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Filed under Nutrition, Provisions for the Journey

When the Going Gets Tough…

“When the going gets tough/ The tough get going/ When the going gets rough/ The tough get rough.” – Billy Ocean

Depression level(s): Moderate to severe.

Here’s what’s real for me right now: My writing muse must have gone on vacation because, I swear to the heavens above, I can’t think like a writer tonight. You’d think she could have given me some advance notice, like, “Hey, Patricia, you’re on your own, ‘cuz I’m heading to Cozumel for the summer. Hope your neurotransmitters are up to snuff! Yuk, yuk, yuk.” But noooo….

Absent inspiration notwithstanding, because I want to honor my commitment to post something on this blog at least once a week, preferably on Tuesdays, let me share with you what I wanted to say.

What I wanted to tell you was this: When the going gets tough, it’s okay to distract yourself in reasonably healthy–or at least non-destructive–ways. Distraction can be a godsend to pull you away from your pain and negativity for a while.

Take music, for example. I defy you to remain completely down while Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” is playing on your stereo. Come on, go ahead! Put it on. Don’t you just want to get up and dance? Okay, maybe you don’t really want to, but at least give yourself the opportunity. Stand up, if you can (i.e., if you have two working legs). Turn up the volume. Start moving! The song is 4:08 long; by the time it’s over, you should not only be breathing hard, but also have a smile on your face and perhaps a germinating sprout of hope in your heart.

Distraction–healthy distraction, that is (put down that package of Oreos and step away slowly, please)–is a divine gift of sorts. When you’re hurting so much in your mind and heart that you just might do yourself some harm, give yourself permission to divert your thoughts from their usual ruinous rumination to something that feels better, even if it’s just for a little while. Here are some options:

  • Movies: Go for the comedies. Norman Cousins (Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient) famously healed his life-threatening disease by watching Marx Brothers films. Rent feel-good DVDs. Don’t be afraid to go to the movie theater by yourself. You will have nearly three hours outside of the dark and dangerous neighborhood that is your mind; it will be well worth it.
  • Books: Again, lighthearted is the theme here. There was a 2-1/2 year period when my depression was at its worst during which I simply could not read anything but the lightest of books because my cognitive processing abilities were shot. Back in high school and college, I was a romance novel addict; reading those books after I became ill with depression made me feel lonely, however, so I turned to “cozies”: mystery novels that were upbeat and funny, and not all that violent. Ask your local librarian or bookstore clerk to turn you on to some good cozy series. One of my favorites was “The Cat Who…” series, by Lilian Jackson Braun; the first book in the series is The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.
  • TV: Good TV, that is. Stay away from the gory crime dramas and stuff like “48 Hours.” You don’t want to feel worse, do you? Yeah, I know: “Good TV” is an oxymoron. Nevertheless, there’s some good stuff out there. A friend of mine who was in an abusive marriage in her younger years told me that watching M*A*S*H episodes prevented her from committing suicide. British comedies can be very funny. PBS is nearly always a safe, non-triggering alternative. Rent from Netflix or Blockbuster those titles you can’t find on the viewing schedule.
  • Music and dance: I put these two together because unless you are moving while the music’s playing, you’re going to be thinking too much. Line up a few get-up-and-boogie favorites for when the going gets really rough.
  • An outing: Any activity with a friend or by yourself. Get out of the house and out of your head.
  • Laughter yoga: Find a club near you and learn how to laugh on demand. It increases healing endorphins and helps you connect with others. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel. Check out this laughter yoga video, in which my friend Gita Fendelman is teaching the “Ha ha ha mantra”:

So, that’s my article for this week: Not planned, not particularly well constructed, not too clever. Not even a photo. But hey, I figured out how to add a video to a blog post! Did you check it out? Didja? Huh? Huh? At any rate, it’s done. The article, I mean. I hope you got something useful out of it. Maybe you were even distracted for a little while. I hereby give it the Good Enough Seal of Approval!

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Filed under Humor, Making Tracks

Sudoku Therapy

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

Solving Sudoku puzzles can help heal the brain.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” – Vincent van Gogh

As Van Gogh, the famous artist and fellow depression sufferer, indicates in the quote above, depression can be healed by doing many small, seemingly insignificant things consistently over time. He probably knew what he was talking about, since he created beautiful paintings such as “Starry Night” and “Sunflowers” one brush stroke at a time.

Believe it or not, working Sudoku puzzles frequently—at least three times per week—is one of these small things.

The brains of people who do not have depression are resilient, capable of processing myriad thoughts, events, words, and sensory information almost instantaneously. The brains of people who do have depression are likely to skid to a halt if they receive too much input too quickly. This is because, in cases of moderate-to-severe depression, actual brain damage has occurred due to the chemical ravages of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. In addition, physical trauma in the form of head injuries may have occurred at some point.[i] As a result, the brains of people with depression exhibit cognitive and emotional dysfunction. In other words, you can’t think clearly and your mood is in the toilet.

Think back: Have you ever had any kind of head injury, especially when you were a child or young adult?

I was surprised when I found out that having sustained a head injury could increase the risk of depression, but as I thought about it, it made perfect sense. When I was in my mid-20s, I stood up into the top drawer of a five-drawer filing cabinet at work—you know, one of those heavy-duty, industrial-style jobs. I had left the drawer open while I bent down to pick up something that had fallen on the floor. I forgot the drawer was open and, when I stood up, the top of my head connected violently with the bottom of the file drawer.

The pain in that moment was excruciating, but even worse were the severe headaches and dizziness that plagued me for nearly a year. I was in so much pain that I had difficulty doing my job, and I had to lie down frequently throughout the day with my eyes closed. In addition to getting a CAT scan, I also consulted a neurologist who specialized in headaches. After an exam that tested my reflexes, eye-hand coordination, ability to walk, etc., he said that I had post-traumatic head injury syndrome. The headaches, he stated, would fade with time. He never mentioned that I might be prone to depression later in life.

All this is to say that engaging in predictable, repetitive, yet mildly challenging tasks such as working Sudoku puzzles can actually contribute to healing the brain and make it more resilient. Successfully—and repeatedly—solving Sudokus develops the following attributes:

a)     Ability to see patterns and make connections;

b)    Ability to think ahead;

c)     Concentration;

d)    Persistence;

e)     Relaxed mind;

f)     Desire to succeed.

Other benefits include a sense of accomplishment and the establishment of new neural connections in the brain.

When I first attempted Sudokus more than four years ago, I could not do even the simplest level without looking at the answer key. As the years went by, I found myself able to complete those puzzles fairly easily without “cheating”; I went on to the more difficult levels and developed more sophisticated problem-solving strategies. Now, it’s exciting to be able to solve a puzzle that would have stumped me a few years ago. On occasion, I can even complete puzzles at the “Diabolical” level!

You don’t have to be good at math to solve Sudokus. Although they are number puzzles, they have nothing to do with math. You could substitute nine different icons for the numbers 1-9, if you wished. Numerous websites give instructions on how to solve Sudokus; YouTube even has videos! Just do a search to see which ones appeal to you the most.

If you are new to Sudokus, give yourself permission to take your time, to make mistakes, and to not finish them at first. As you practice, you will find it gets easier and you will delight in how much sharper your thinking becomes. Your self-esteem—and your mood—will improve with every puzzle you complete.

Here’s to a new brain!

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.


[i] Tracey Holsinger, M.D., et al, “Head Injury in Early Adulthood and the Lifetime Risk of Depression,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 59.1 (2002) : 17-22. Web. Jan. 2002.

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