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Top Ten Principles for Depression Recovery

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” — Henri Nouwen

For depression levels: All

These Principles form a strong foundation for health and everyday happiness.

There’s been one positive, unintended side effect of having recurrent debilitating depression over the last several years: It’s given me time to think. In between depressive episodes, I have pondered what it really takes to get well and be well on an ongoing basis.

I came up with 10 foundational Principles that have helped me to keep moving in the direction of wellness. I can’t say as I’ve mastered them all; far from it. As I’ve mentioned before, having depression and choosing to undertake the journey to recovery is an ongoing hero’s journey (see Hitting the Trail–Part 3). However, keeping these Principles in mind helps me to bridge the gaps between despair and hope, passivity and activity, and disempowerment and empowerment. More importantly, practicing these Principles makes the essential difference between remaining ill with depression and recovering from it fully.

As an example, here’s Principle #5: “I am not a victim. Even though depression has taken away my motivation, there are still some things I can do to help myself. Therefore, I do one thing right now to feel better.” One of the ways I live this Principle is by belonging to a wellness center operated by the local hospital. The monthly, no-contract fee is very reasonable; it’s near my house; and I can go to as many yoga, water aerobics, and studio classes as I want. Because the classes are on a regular schedule, and because the instructors and other members know me and remark if I don’t show up, it’s relatively easy for me to grab my gear and just go. I seldom actually feel like going, but I know I will feel so much better afterward; conversely, I know I am inviting depression if I don’t exercise.

The Principles

1.     I am not my depression. Depression is an illness I experience. Therefore, I quit saying, “I’m depressed,” and look for ways to treat the illness.

2.     No matter what diagnosis I received, it is not definitive. Remission and even complete healing are possible. Therefore, I choose to believe that I can become completely well and go on to live a rewarding life.

3.     My feelings are not facts. They are real only if I let them be. Therefore, I make choices based on what I know and not on what I feel.

4.     I am not alone. It may feel that way most of the time, but there are lots of people who are willing and able to help me. Therefore, I reach out for support daily.

5.     I am not a victim. Even though depression has taken away my motivation, there are still some things I can do to help myself. Therefore, I do one thing right now to feel better.

6.     I am not my past. While understanding how past experiences contributed to my depression can be useful, ultimately, this will not heal me. Therefore, I forgive the past to the best of my ability, see the good in my present, and project hope into the future.

7.     I am responsible for improving my state of health and state of mind. No one can heal me, rescue me, or make my life better but me. Therefore, I stop waiting and start acting.

8.     The Universe is on my side, even though it might not seem like it. The more aware I become of Divine forces working on my behalf and call upon them to help me, the more they will do so. Therefore, I develop a simple daily practice of prayer and meditation.

9.     Although depression affects every aspect of my life, it isn’t personal. Life isn’t out to get me. Therefore, I choose to stop feeling persecuted and start looking for the deeper meaning of my illness.

10.  My experience of depression is unique to me. Although friends, loved ones, and colleagues care about me, they will never “get it.” Therefore, I stop demanding that others understand me and make specific, practical requests for help instead.

Working with these Principles invites beauty, order, and wellness into your life.

Working with the Principles

Rather than seeing these Principles for depression recovery as “to-do’s” or “shoulds” that you have to memorize and act on immediately, I invite you to simply write down in your journal or on a scrap of paper that you post in a visible location the Principle that speaks to you the most right now. Just read it aloud a couple of times a day and ponder the possibilities that Principle could open up for you.

Say to yourself, “If this were true, I could… .” Or, “If this were true, it might mean… .” Do some journaling in response to these springboards. Discuss the Principle with a friend or therapist. Introduce it at a support group meeting. See what opens up! You may find that you are inspired to take certain actions. Write down these inspirations so can keep track of them; select one to follow through on, asking for help from your support team if you need it.

When you feel that you’ve got this one embedded in your consciousness, pick another one and go through the same process. You might wish to rotate the Principles once a month, coming back to the first one you selected in the rotation after 10 months. Each Principle informs all the others, and you’ll be able to look at the older ones with fresh eyes and a heightened consciousness.

Share Your Experiences

I invite you to share your experiences in working with these Principles by leaving a comment below. I hope they make as much difference for you as they have for me.

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

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Depression and Parenting

“When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.” –by Sophia Loren

Caitlyn Johnston, taking time to smell the roses.

Note: The following article was written by a wellness coach, writer, and friend of mine, Caitlyn Johnston, a single parent who has struggled with depression in the past. I asked her to write this article, since I do not have children but I know that being a parent while struggling with depression is one of the most difficult things a person can ever deal with. Caitlyn worked hard to do the things that would help her heal the depression, and is now doing quite well; she is both functional and happy. Her son is doing better all the time. For Caitlyn’s contact info, please see the end of the article.

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While I was depressed, there were only two things I was truly motivated to do: Be as good a parent as possible to my son, and heal the depression permanently. With research, support from a wonderful holistic doctor, and taking daily baby steps, I was actually able to improve both simultaneously.

Being a single mom is deeply depressing, and all I felt was harried, overwhelmed, and anxious about everything. Doing the dishes and laundry, changing my little one’s diapers, and even grocery shopping seemed like major efforts. Trying to work full-time on top of it all was untenable, so I switched to part-time substitute teaching. Needless to say, we went on food stamps, which was even more depressing. In short, everything took me out of my comfort zone, and the sleep deprivation of my son’s early years drove me over the edge.

Depression rendered me barely capable of good parenting. It was a nightmare for me, and I can’t imagine how awful it must have been for him. One of my saddest memories is when he trotted in one day at the age of five and announced how he’d finally learned to ride his bike. He’d done it completely alone. What was even worse is that he’d asked me several times, and I kept telling him we’d do it later. The truth was it was yet another thing I just couldn’t deal with.

There were only three things that brought me comfort and nurturance: Holding him on my lap and reading to him, my spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, and eating as much and as often as I could. The more sugar I ate, the more numb I became to my distress. Close human contact and my active internal spiritual life anchored me, yet the desperation of depressive parenting drove me to find a way out. I ballooned to a huge 225 pounds. This was even more depressing, but at least it helped me cope.

However, being a parent while having depression was also, in its own way, a blessing. With a small child in tow, I had no choice but to get up and take care of him. I could do for him what I couldn’t do for myself. I found the minute physical activity helped me stay out of the negative mental chatter that erodes the mind.

To be honest, though, when I was taking care of him, I was only going through the motions. Emotionally, I was inundated with foggy fatigue. Physically, I got him bathed and dressed, fed and off to preschool, although he was constantly late. I often got a talking-to about how it was important to get him there on time, because he’d miss fun or interesting things. They had no idea he was lucky to be there at all. But of course I never told them that; isolation is a silent killer of this disease.

In the summer of 2001, I was finally diagnosed and put on SSRIs. I felt better, more alive, but they had an intolerable side effect: I felt spiritually disconnected. Prayer and meditation became numb and scary. I am vehemently against taking drugs of any kind, so I sought out a naturopathic physician who does real-time biofeedback brain training. It took six months to teach my brain how to have healthy brain waves, and I was able to ditch the SSRIs. I didn’t escape them unscathed, though; they caused endometriosis (an internal bleeding disorder), for which I had an ovary removed in 2007.

As you make healing choices, your life blooms like a beautiful rose.

While I was healing my brain, I was also determined to lose some weight. At one point, I had noticed a correlation between physical movement and feeling better. Sure enough, as I took up a little exercise—wooden though it felt—exercising for only 20 minutes a day really made a difference. I knew 20 minutes really wasn’t adequate, but the baby step that was manageable was either walking a mile, or doing a quick exercise video. I found my mood lifted. It also became clear that the toxins making my body fat and sluggish continued to make my mind fat and sluggish. More baby steps included banishing soda and wheat from my diet. As I ditched them, my mind cleared even more!

As I began to piece my physical and spiritual health back together, my mental health improved right along with them. So did my relationship with my son! Parenting—and life—began to take on an ease I’d never felt before. All my little baby steps seemed inadequate at the time, but they had powerful results. Currently, I’ve been depression-free and off SSRIs for ten years, I’ve lost 50 pounds, and my income has radically increased as I was able to get back to my career as a writer. When the tendency for depression does show up, it’s only for a few days at most.

My story turns out to be not unique. Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D. cites similar cases in his book Spontaneous Healing. As it turns out, the best kept secret in the mental health industry is that depression can be healed by taking baby steps using a holistic approach. And if I can do it, so can you! The best part is that your relationships with your children improve right along with it all.

(c) 2011 by Caitlyn V. Johnston, M.B.A.

To contact wellness coach Caitlyn, visit her web site at Expansive Prosperity and Health Holistic Coaching.

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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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Derailed—And What to Do About It

“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” – Gilda Radner

For Depression Level(s): Severe depression that has somewhat resolved.

There you are, chugging more-or-less merrily—or at least functionally—along, doing your job, shopping for groceries, spending time with your friends, when—WHAM! The train of your life jumps the tracks and you find yourself laid out on the couch, severely depressed and unable to function.

Forget work. Forget doing the dishes. Forget paying your bills on time. Forget being a support to your partner or friends. Forget feeling even halfway good.

Recurring depressive episodes can stop us in our tracks.

You’ve been derailed.

Depression is once again your constant companion, for days or even weeks. Who knows why it happened? Could be you ate one too many snack-sized Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars over the last couple of weeks. Could be you misplaced the yoga schedule. Could be you forgot to take your medication or supplements. Could be Mercury is in retrograde, a butterfly sneezed in Spain, or there was a hiccup in the time-space continuum.

Could be anything. Really, the reason why depression has revisited you, like an ex-lover you thought you’d dumped but who keeps turning up on your doorstep, is not that important.

The question is: What do you do about it?

I had to ask myself that question last week when I found myself smack dab in the middle of another depressive episode. I felt exhausted, achy, and lethargic. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t do chores, and certainly couldn’t write. All I wanted to do was sleep. You know the drill.

Getting yanked back into severe depression is kind of like having a bad cold. You used to get bad colds a lot, but not so much anymore. You’ve gotten to where you enjoy life without colds—the contrast with the way things used to be evokes deep appreciation. It makes you angry that yet again you have a bad cold, with all that goes along with it. “None of this should be happening,” you think. “I’ve worked so hard to get to the point where bad colds are not such an issue anymore.” Yet, here you are. You have one. All you can do is wait it out.

But wait—that’s not quite true. Even though a bad cold cannot be “cured,” there are things you can do to speed up the healing process. We all know what they are: Drink plenty of fluids, take Vitamin C, eat chicken noodle soup, rest.

It’s the same with a depressive episode. Although you and I have both worked hard to overcome severe depression through medication and/or supplements, lifestyle changes, therapy, and the complete restructuring of our lives, brain chemistry being what it is, it’s inevitable that we will from time to time find ourselves falling back down that dark well of despair.

There are things we can do, however, to ease the severity of the episode and shorten its duration. Since I used to work for NASA, I like acronyms. They serve as useful mnemonic devices. Here is a five-step process using the acronym TRACK. The steps can be taken in any order and are ongoing; in fact, the more you do them, the more they reinforce each other.

T = Take radical care of yourself. This means eating high-quality nutrition, exercising daily, taking the meds or supplements that are part of your regimen, and getting plenty of rest.

R = Refuse to eat sugar and wheat. Both of these substances have been shown to play havoc with brain chemistry. Do yourself a favor and leave them out of your diet.

Using the TRACK process can bring back contentment and functionality.

A = Accept the situation. Although it’s natural to be angry that you are once again at the mercy of severe depression, staying angry will ensure that you stay depressed. Accept what’s happening and let go of the anger. Here is where it can be helpful to ask the assistance of your Higher Power. Say a simple prayer such as, “God, here I am again, depressed. I don’t know how I got here, and I’m powerless over it. I’m so mad. Please help me to accept this situation and let go of my anger. With your help I know it’s possible. Thank you.”

C = Connect with family and friends. It is important not to isolate during the episode. Talk to at least one friend or family member per day, either by phone or in person.

K = Keep a low profile. Reduce your current commitment level and don’t accept any new ones. Now is not the time to launch a major project at work, give a speech at Toastmasters, or have friends over for dinner. Really, if none of these things takes place this week, what’s the worst that could happen? Learning to say “no” is one of the most important skills you can develop.

With the TRACK process and a little time, you will soon be chugging merrily along in your life.

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

Did you find the TRACK process useful? If so, please leave a comment below and share your experience with others.

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Quick-Start Guide

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

The last time you bought a computer or installed new software, you probably found a quick-start guide bundled with the package (for those who hate to read the manuals). If you are willing and able to take some concrete actions to combat your depression without having the explanations for them, then this list is for you. If the list seems overwhelming, then pick one Level 1 item and do it. You can always try some of the other items later. If a blog post has already been written about the technique, the link to the post is listed next to the item. Eventually, there will be blog posts corresponding to each of these items.

Level 1 Actions

[ ]  Make your bed every day: “The Dailies.”

[ ]  Take a daily 15-minute walk: “The Dailies.”

[ ]  Talk to a supportive friend every day: “The Dailies,” “Friends on Call—Part 2.”

[ ]  Avoid eating refined white and brown sugar.

[ ]  Eat some lean protein every day.

Level 2 Actions

[ ]  Increase your walks to 20-30 minutes per day: “The Dailies.”

[ ]  Do Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) once a day (http://www.eftuniverse.com/).

[ ]  Take vitamin B-12, the amino acid L-tyrosine, and mercury-free fish oil every day.

[ ]   Limit your wheat (white flour or whole-grain) intake to two servings per week: “Eating Wheat Can Cause Depression.”

[ ]  Do something that brings you satisfaction—no matter how minor—every day.

Level 3 Actions

[ ]  Increase your walks to 30-40 minutes per day: “The Dailies.”

[ ]  Eliminate wheat from your diet altogether (this includes whole wheat): “Eating Wheat Can Cause Depression.”

[ ]  Have regular bodywork (massage, Healing Touch, craniosacral, etc.).

[ ]   See a cognitive/behavioral or interpersonal therapist at least once every two weeks.

[ ]  See a doctor to rule out any illness-related causes of the depression.

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

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