I am learning about depression from the inside. Despite its destructive and enervating qualities, the experience has fascinating aspects. I notice the physical nature of the process in a profound lack of energy, especially as the day turns into afternoon. Aspects of life that seem manageable in the morning gradually turn into major difficulties by 3:00 in the afternoon, and into overwhelming obstacles by evening. I wait for bedtime so I can shut down the toxicity of my mind for a few hours.
I usually wake up willing to make coffee and sit with my morning writing pages. As I write and sip my hot coffee from the heavy white mug labeled, “Flatiron, Jerome, AZ,” I am able to watch my mental processes as they spill out my fingers onto the page. In this way I can put my attention on my thinking processes while my mind is fresh and focused. Even when the morning seems somewhat dim, by the time I am finished with three pages of writing I am usually able to see how to reframe my thinking into a more positive framework.
When I stop writing and go about the day my attention tends to shift and no longer notices the flow of toxic thoughts. They circulate in the background of my psyche, just out of my conscious awareness. By the time a few hours have passed these thoughts have done their work on my mood and energy. The evidence for the effect of thoughts on mental and physical health is overwhelming. Thoughts trigger countless chemical, hormonal, and organic reactions. We have, perhaps, 30,000 thoughts each day and most of them, in our culture, are not particularly health-enhancing.
One aspect of countering toxic thinking is helping the brain chemistry in its production of serotonin. Stress and aging decrease serotonin. Sunlight enhances its production. Exercise enhances its production. Rest and self-care enhance its production. And certain pharmaceuticals enable serotonin to remain circulating in the brain longer. These strategies provide a basic biological/physical support for treating depression.
A second, and perhaps even more important, tactic in dealing with depression is developing the ability to bring attention and mindfulness to the thinking process. This practice is difficult to perfect because our conditioned mind is not trained to be attentive and mindful of its own processes. Toxic thinking is usually the default mechanism for the idle brain. When we are not depressed the mind has a certain resilience which injects more positive elements into the thinking process; seeing options, alternatives, support systems, and broader views of reality. When depression settles in, however, toxic thinking – always in the background – combines with the physical aspects of brain chemistry and together they overwhelm the resilience.
Sometimes the toxic thoughts are overt and one can almost hear them echoing in the chambers of the mind: It’s too much for you. You made a big mistake. You’ll never make it. You’re not strong enough. Who do you think you are? What have you done? You should be ashamed. You’re a failure. Your life is meaningless. Disaster is just around the corner… on and on the repetitive, vicious, poisonous voices drone; overtly and covertly they drone on. An alert and non-depressed mind can somewhat balance these thoughts – though they are toxic to all of us even at the best of times. Our brain/body system is continually struggling to balance the effects of this truly poisonous process.
As I work with my own depression I am using all the tactics at my disposal: sunlight, exercise, rest, self-care, a mild SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor that helps the serotonin remain in circulation), and a commitment to the practice of attention and awareness. Qigong provides both exercise and mindfulness of my body’s energy. Walks promote the flow of energy but I have to be careful to keep them shorter and slower so as not to bring on extra fatigue. Continuing to write during the day helps me see the processes. And I am reminding myself to make every moment a meditative moment – not in the sense of seeking serenity but simply cultivating the ability to notice what my thinking is doing while I’m going about each little ordinary activity. I am beginning to consciously catch the toxic thoughts more often. This doesn’t always stop their poison from entering my system, but it lessens the dosage a bit. I am able to say to myself, “That’s bullshit. Stop poisoning me. I wouldn’t have a person in my life who talked to me like that and I won’t have you! Get the hell out!”
I have accepted depression as an essential part of this “Desert Experience.” I have, in part deliberately and in part unknowingly, withdrawn most of my life-long support systems – systems that have maintained my conditioned mind and business as usual for decades. I’m experiencing the natural consequences of this withdrawal and I trust that I will come through to a new and profoundly transformed phase of my life. If you have experienced, or are experiencing, depression (and our number is legion!) you know the difficulty. But trust the process; take care of yourself; rest; get the help you need; and pay attention. It’s an important time, perhaps the most important time of our lives.