Tag Archives: journaling

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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Filed under Making Tracks, Perception Pivot, The Weekend Stretch

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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Filed under Finding Your Way Home, Principles, Top Ten Lists

The Good Enough Seal of Approval

Putting our own seal of approval on a situation helps us to move past it.

“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.” – Mark Twain

Those of us above a certain age remember the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. As a child, I can remember being impressed when I saw the seal, thinking, “Ooh, that must be good!” People actually used to look for that seal and choose products that had it over those that didn’t. Turning 100 years old in 2009, it was and still is well known as a guarantee of quality.

Part of Good Housekeeping’s mission when it was established in 1885 was to “produce and perpetuate perfection as may be obtained in the household.” Although their intentions were good—to ensure that consumer products and foods were safe, reliable, and unadulterated—their readers began applying that perfectionism to their own lives. Magazines such as G.H. became arbiters for how people were “supposed” to live.

Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the media is a powerful force for influencing not only our purchasing choices but also the thoughts we have about the world around us and even ourselves. Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us hold an invisible set of standards by which we evaluate everything that goes on in our lives, including our accomplishments, careers, lifestyles, families, companions, and how we come across to others.

Every time you say, “Oh, shoot, I should have…” or “If only I’d said…” or “Why did I…?”, you are applying these invisible standards to whatever you have or have not done. How does it feel when you talk that way to yourself? I don’t know about you, but I know that when I think that way about myself, I feel ashamed and disempowered.

I got a chance to experience this phenomenon last week. A friend of mine hosts a weekly segment on our community radio station, KEOS 89.1, called “Brazos Valley Health.” Because the guests she had lined up to speak on the show had bailed, she asked me to come on the show to talk about depression. I said, “Sure, sounds like fun!” I had only about 20 minutes to prepare and had no idea what I was going to say. Fortunately, my friend has been doing this show for a long time and is an expert interviewer; that, along with my experience in Toastmasters, made the hour-long interview go smoothly.

In spite of this rather considerable accomplishment, on the way home from the radio studio I got into a critical conversation with myself. It went something like this: “Darn it all, I forgot to mention supplements! And I didn’t talk about the statistics regarding depression and disability, how depression is the leading cause of disability in this country. People need to know that it costs more than $300 billion per year! And I really shouldn’t have said anything about the fatality rate, because I didn’t have the source for that stat with me. Boy, I really blew it! Maybe only a handful of people were listening. Let’s hope so!”

This diatribe continued for a couple more minutes, threatening to take me into a depressive tailspin. I finally saw what I was doing and said to myself, “Stop it, Patricia! That’s enough! The interview really was good. You gave valuable information to folks; you spoke clearly; you even brought in a little humor. It was good enough.” I visualized a rubber stamp that had a seal with these words etched into it: “The Good Enough Seal of Approval.” In my mind’s eye was a piece of paper with the words, “Interview at KEOS”; I took the imaginary stamp, inked it with imaginary ink, and stamped it on top of the words, giving it a final seal of approval.

When my critical mind started to harangue me again, I said to it, “Nope, sorry. This event has been approved. It’s over.” Amazingly, it worked! The impulse to criticize myself receded, and I was freed up to go on to the next thing on my schedule.

When you become more conscious of the unreasonable standards by which you evaluate others and yourself, they will lose their power over you and no longer contribute to your depression. Try the following simple exercise:


1)    Think of a recent situation in which you had a conversation, completed a task, or had to follow through on a commitment. Write it in your journal.

2)    How do you feel about how you did? What do you wish you had said or done differently?

3)    Where do you think this negative self-talk came from?

4)    Imagine that rubber stamp I described above; it says, “The Good Enough Seal of Approval.”

5)    “Stamp” your journal with this imaginary seal. You could even take colored pencils, markers, or crayons and draw a seal on top of the sentences you wrote. Be sure and write, “Good Enough.”

6)    You’re done! This situation has been approved, and you no longer have to think about it.

7)    Write up your results in the Comment box, below.

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

For another take on the perils of perfectionism, see “Going Beyond Perfectionism.”


Filed under Milestones

Depression: Not a Life Sentence

Stretching Towards Recovery

“Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle all my problems at once. I can do something for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime.” – by Al-Anon Family Groups

When I received my diagnosis of “double depression,” recurrent major depressive disorder and dysthymic disorder, nearly nine years ago, I cried for 24 hours straight (crying non-stop while you’re at work doesn’t make a good impression; I really don’t recommend it). My psychiatrist told me that, very likely, I had suffered from depression most of my life, would have it the rest of my life, and would have to take medication indefinitely. I felt I had been given a death sentence.

Perhaps you have received a similar dire pronouncement from your doctor or therapist. There is nothing worse than being told you are going to be miserable and barely functional for the rest of your life. You might be thinking: How will I manage? Do I not even have the hope of ordinary happiness? Is there anyone who will want to be a part of my life?

Certainly, the statistics support what my doctor told me and your doctor might have told you. According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, at least 50% of people diagnosed with major depression experience a recurrence of the illness after recovering from the initial onset (2000; 157:229-233). The risk for recurrence, says the article, goes up with each successive episode.

This might be true in the general, statistical sense, but what if—just consider this, now—what if it did not have to be true for you?

You don’t have to know how you can escape the odds, just that it’s possible. (After all, approximately 50% of people diagnosed with major depression do not experience a recurrence, yes?) Consider it for the next few days. Ask yourself: “What if depression weren’t a life sentence for me? What if I could live a productive, happy life in spite of it? What if I could even be free of it?”


Grab your journal. (Nudging it toward you with your toe during commercial breaks works, too.)  Number down the page 1-10, leaving 3-4 blanks between each number. After #1, write the following stem sentence: “If I didn’t have depression, I could ______”; write the first thing that pops into your head after you finish writing the stem. Continue down the page until you have 10 possibilities of what you could do or what your life would be like if you didn’t have depression. Carry this list with you and read it at least once a day.

Next time: “What Dogs and People Have In Common.”

(c) 2010 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

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Filed under Depression Dodger, Making Tracks

A Key Question

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” – by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I know you want to be well. Your spouse, your parents, your friends, your kids, your doctor, and your therapist all know you want to be well. Who, when given the option, would wish to remain mired in a pit of despair, back aching, exhausted, foggy-brained, hopeless, unable to function in the most basic of ways?

The question is, are you willing to be well? Before you say, “Uh, yeah! Duh!”, think for a minute. No, more like, feel for a minute. Close your eyes and focus your attention (however fractured) on that place in your heart that knows the truth about who you are. Search it. Ask it: “Am I willing to be well?” Listen for the answer.

This may take some practice. Especially since, chances are, you’re pissed that anyone is even questioning your willingness to recover from clinical depression (I was, too, initially). Whatever the answer, “yes” or “no,” it’s okay. There is no right answer, and there is no judgment; only a reading of where you are right now in your journey to recover from depression. It’s kind of like using a thermometer to take your temperature when you have a fever. You don’t feel ashamed just because your temp is 101.2° instead of 98.6°.

(c) 2010 by Patricia R. Henschen

Am I willing to be well?

Connecting with that heart space within yourself may be especially problematic because depression, by its very nature, dulls your emotions and makes it difficult to know what you are feeling about anything. This wrapped-in-cotton-wool state of existence is exacerbated by any antidepressant or anti-anxiety meds you may be taking.

Even so, practice. Ask. As you’re lying in bed at night, unable to sleep: “Am I willing to be well?” When you’re in the shower: “Am I willing to be well?” When you’re struggling to get a meal together for your family and/or yourself: “Am I willing to be well?” In the quiet moments of your day, when you least expect it, the answer will come.

BONUS EXERCISE: Please do not do this exercise unless you are seeing a therapist. Take your journal (one of those 5/$1.00, single-subject spiral notebooks will work just fine) and a pen and, in your dominant hand (the one you normally write with), write: “Am I willing to be well?” Then transfer the pen to your non-dominant hand and allow it to write an answer. You should only do this exercise if you are seeing a therapist because non-dominant-hand writing can unlock some serious stuff; should anything major come up, you’ll need a pro to help you process it.

Next time: “Willingness: The Key to Recovery.”

(c) 2010 by Patricia R. Henschen

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