Tag Archives: weekend

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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The Royal Elf of No-Shoulds

Some of my Henschen ancestors, who clearly had higher standards than I do!

“Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?” –Julia Child

It’s time to rout some of those “shoulds” that have been running your life and exacerbating your depression.

Start paying attention to your thoughts. How many of them contain the word “should” or “shouldn’t”? Perhaps you are even now thinking, “Oh, boy, I should count all my ‘should’ thoughts. I should grab a legal pad and make a tick mark for each one. I should carry this notepad with me everywhere so that I can capture every thought I think that contains the word ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t.’”


You don’t have to keep track. You don’t have to write anything down. Just think of some. I don’t doubt that, if you’re at all like me, you have an inventory in your mind of hundreds to choose from. And that’s just the conscious “should” thoughts. Never mind the ones that fly under the radar, controlling us without our knowledge, making us dance like puppets on strings.

Here’s a “should” thought that’s been ping-ponging around my brain lately. As in many houses, my kitchen floor is surfaced with ceramic tiles, with quarter-inch grout between each one. I’ve lived here 5-1/2 years. Here’s what I’m thinking: “Man, that tile’s starting to look kinda grody. I really should get down on my hands and knees with a toothbrush and scrub all that tile and get it really clean. And while I’m at it, I should scrub the baseboards and the shoe moldings as well. It would look so much better!”

Well. You can guess what happens. Every time that “should” thought skitters through my mind, I groan at the very thought of all the effort involved, the time it will take, and the inevitable toll on my back and knees. Of course I don’t do it. Not only do I not scrub the floor with a toothbrush, I even avoid the usual scrubbing with a mop. And so the floor looks worse than ever.

The need to be/do/have perfect means that we’re never satisfied with good enough. That, my friends, is a surefire way to take a nosedive into paralyzing depression and stay there.


Try one of these simple exercises:

1)    Take control of your thoughts. Substitute the word “could” for “should” in whatever “should” thought is currently foremost in your mind, then give yourself a choice as to whether to do that thing or not. Examples:

a)     Original thought: I should scrub my kitchen floor with a toothbrush.
Depression-dodger thought: I could scrub my kitchen floor with a toothbrush, but honestly, the whole idea is simply ridiculous. I’ll just mop it the usual way. That’s good enough.

b)    Original thought: I should make homemade crafts for all of my friends for Christmas. I need to give them gifts and this is what I can afford.
Depression-dodger thought: I could make homemade craft projects for all of my friends for Christmas, but I feel that this blog is more important and I don’t have time to do both, and so I choose to call my friends for a cozy chat instead. They’ll be glad to hear from me, and I love talking with them.

c)     Original thought: I shouldn’t take afternoon naps. Successful people don’t take naps. I get hardly anything done and I don’t sleep well at night when I do that. Besides, people will think I’m lazy.
Depression-dodger thought: I could refrain from ever taking a nap again, but the fact is, some days I simply need one. It’s okay to take care of myself. I have learned the difference between actually needing a nap because things have been busy or stressful lately, or I haven’t been sleeping well; and wanting to avoid responsibility for something by retreating from it through a nap. When this latter happens, I can call someone on my support team and bookend something more productive instead. Besides, what other people think of me is none of my business.

2)    Get creative. Imagine that there is a Royal Elf of No-Shoulds. He stands outside the door of your favorite imaginary castle, his pointed ears perked at attention, reading from a parchment scroll. He has just decreed that all “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” are to be banished from the kingdom. This means that all lists of invisible standards are hereby banished as well, especially the 26 different kinds of Christmas cookies you thought you had to bake after you watched The Martha Stewart Show. In their place, only a question is allowed: “Does this potential choice empower me or does it worsen my depression?”

Take action accordingly, with the help of your support team. Better yet, don’t.

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

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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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