When I was a kid, I had a lot to be depressed about: little parenting, little money, little safety. I spent a lot of time alone in the woods or in my room or on the basketball court early in the morning before other kids showed up. I avoided parties like the plague, participated in zero extra-curricular school activities, and acted out my disorganization on the family pets, while engaging in any number of other anti-social activities like gang-fighting and public drunkenness as a teen (I was actually arrested for my high school science project: illegally manufacturing moonshine that made several of my friends sick).
Then one day I met two Yale Divinity School students. I still remember their names more than half a century later: Vic Weber and Dave Woods. I spent two weeks with them at a summer camp for underprivileged kids. They were the counselors. The first day at camp I almost drowned because I was ashamed to confess that I didn’t know how to swim. Dave pulled me out of the deep water when I was just about to go under. He and Vic also modeled something for me that up until that point I hadn’t had modeled: hope.
When someone models hope for us, it’s difficult to feel depressed. Why? Because hope mitigates the fear/stress response in the body. And both my personal experience and the research of Stephen Ilardi confirm that most often depression is a runaway stress response. How I suspect it works in the brain is that it throws our four basic neuromodulators out of whack (serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine and dopamine). Neuromodulators essentially regulate and balance the firing of neuronal action potentials in the brain. When the stress response makes the neuromodulators run amuck, action potentials simply are inhibited in their firing and propagation. The low energy of depression is exactly that: a significant number of our brain batteries (neurons) have gone dead.
Neuromodulation Makes It Happen
One in nine Americans over age 12 takes pharma for depression in an attempt to re-regulate their neuromodulators. But meds are not even close to being a decent long-term solution. And in fact, many meds taken over long periods become addictive and end up being more difficult to manage than the condition they were originally prescribed to treat (for some real horror stories about withdrawing from benzodiazepines, do a “benzo withdrawal” search online).
So, if I’m not going to take meds, and everything else I’ve tried for depression hasn’t worked, what am I going to do? Here’s what I’ve managed to do in my own life that seems to have worked so far for the first 60+ years:
1. Attend to Shame Thoughts. I continually monitor the thoughts that surface in my Word Brain and do the best I can to catch those that show up and try to make me feel bad. Many are shame-insults and once I catch them, I simply refuse to submit to their attack. I thank them for their concern for my well-being (which is often what they’re unskillfully attempting), but then immediately replace them with my favorite now-now-now mantra: “In this moment, everything’s all right.” (I once considered purloining Frank Costanza’s mantra, “Serenity Now,” but that didn’t resonate as much as I hoped. But don’t use mine or Frank’s. Feel free to come up with your own).
2. Sleep Sufficiently. I haven’t used an alarm clock in more than 50 years. I simply go to bed when I’m tired and wake up when I’m rested. That usually works out to retiring somewhere around 8:30 to 9 at night, and has me waking up around 3 in the morning, fully rested and rarin’ to go. From time to time I may find myself needing a 20 minute nap during the day, which I usually honor the need for.
3. Anti-rumination. This is related to Number 1 above. Life unfolds in the present moment. Any time my mental machinations take me away from what’s directly in front of me, I deliberately redirect my focus and attention right back to what I can see, taste, touch, smell or feel that’s right in front of me. If I’m wrestling with the puppies, then I’m fully wrestling with the puppies. If I’m raking the dead rhodie leaves and piling them into the John Deere wagon, then I’m raking and piling. Anything else that shows up in my mental space is simply a ruminative distraction. Time to get back, Jojo, to being right here, right now.
4. Sunlight. It’s interesting; since moving to Whidbey Island, I have never before paid so much attention to the weather, especially to sunny days. Sunny days are truly prized here in Puget Sound, and whenever they show up, like many Whidbey Islanders, I tend to spend much more time outdoors. And I also supplement with a little larger than recommended doses of Vitamin D.
5. Body moving. Exercise is medicine. The only problem is that both me and my body hate exercise. By “exercise” what I mean are things like pointlessly walking on a treadmill, using a step climber or sitting in a rowing machine. Most of the exercise in my life that I’ve enjoyed has been in the service of creating things: houses, healthy pets or beautiful landscapes. These days, the puppies help, along with a goodly number of scheduled weekly WalknTalks with friends.
6. Social Interaction. We’re all people who need people. But that doesn’t necessarily make us the luckiest people in the world – unless the people we surround ourselves with have some knowledge, care and concern about this embodied journey we are all on. The world is full of people with disorganized brains and broken hearts who, because of that damage, have a propensity for performing unskillful acts. Growing up in the housing projects in New Haven taught me early on the truth in this wisdom teaching from Arab scholar Ali Bin Abi-Taleb: “Keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise person.”
So, there you have it. Mix, match and modify to create your own anti-depression protocol.