Stay in the Present – it’s Less Depressing

(Second in a series on taking steps that lead away from depression. For the first post, press here.)

Living in the present is the only thing that really works.

I’m particularly bad at it. But sometimes the people who struggle with something are the best teachers; they’ve had to figure it out the hard way and can make it easier for you.

Here’s what I mean by living in the present: You focus your eyes, ears, smell, taste and touch on the present moment. This causes your thinking to recede or disappear, giving you a mental break. It shuts out regrets about the past and worry about the future.

So often, we try to think ourselves out of our negative thinking, but that can lead us in mental circles. Try switching to right now. For example, thoughts about tomorrow creep into my head, and with them, a slight anxiety. Will it snow and cancel a program I’m in charge of? How’s my mother in the nursing home – did they find her missing blanket? Is there anything I should be doing right now that I’ve forgotten? You know the drill.

The thing is, I’ve already scheduled the day, and addressed those issues within it. So there’s no point thinking about them again. It’s a waste of energy. I can’t do what I’m doing now and do anything about those thoughts. Instead, I can take some deep breaths, look around and focus on what I see, listen and pay attention to what I hear.

Just stop thinking and be alive right here and now. After that moment of mental reboot, it’s easier to focus on the task at hand with a clear head.

But, you say, what if my life right now completely sucks? When we’re thinking that, we’re remembering the past and anticipating the future. If we’re in pain right now, then let’s focus on how to manage that pain right now. Don’t pile on top of it with the past or the future also sucking. I hope that makes sense. I don’t want any of us to suffer more than we have to.

This all sounds elementary, but many of us can’t control our thoughts. Our thoughts utterly control us and we feel helpless against them. But we’re not. We’re the boss of our thoughts. We can stop them, correct them, redirect them.

If we absolutely cannot do this, that’s when we know we need to get some help. Some of us have anxiety, depression, rage, obsession, compulsion or delusions that we really can’t control. If that’s the case, this is the best time in history to find the mental health professionals and medications we need to regain the power of choice. There’s no shame in this. It’s just like going to the doctor for the flu, or an asthma flare-up. More on that in another post.

Back to right now. Now is all we have, right? It’s the only time in which we have freedom to make choices and do stuff. Revisiting past pain is useless, unless we’re doing it in a healing setting. Past pain isn’t us. It’s just something that happened to us. We’re bigger than our past pain and we’re bigger than our future fears.

Homework. Close your eyes. Breathe in and think, “I’m the boss of my thoughts.” Think it again as you breathe out. (If you have trouble with images intruding, see the words written in your imagination.) Do that three or more times. Then open your eyes and without thinking about past or future, focus on what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Do that till you have to do something else, or want to do something else.

Anything helpful to add? Comment below.

10 Steps Away from Depression

(I call this series “10 Steps Away from Depression” because no step is a fix in itself. There is no quick fix for depression, but we can take steps, whenever we have the strength, and enough of those steps put together add up to a good journey – joyful even.)

Years ago, decades maybe, I saw this Al Franken movie about a guy who used affirmations to help him recover from all the trauma and developmental snags that came from growing up in an alcoholic family.

He’d been on Saturday Night Live, a child-like, nerdy character reciting, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me,” as he addressed his image in a mirror.

The sketches were so ridiculous I assumed the movie he starred in would be the same.

But the film actually worked on two levels – as comedy, but also as an authentic account of someone trying to salvage their sanity and work a recovery program that would break them out of crippling generational patterns. I even found it inspiring.

I’ve given all those sappy affirmations on coffee mugs and driftwood a little more respect ever since. As someone who’s had a lifelong struggle with depression, I now consider affirming myself to be a survival tactic.

I even do the talking-into-the-mirror thing. Apparently the chemicals in our brains can’t dintinguish cool from uncool behavior, because I always feel a little better after I do it. I say things like:

“You don’t have to be model thin; you look nice.”

“Congratulations, you finished the article ahead of deadline.”

“You helped four people today. Good job.”

When I’m too cynical to take it seriously, I repeat, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

On days I feel pretty useless, I can at least say, “God loves you and won’t give up on you.”

Affirming good things about ourselves can become the lifeline that draws us out of our stuck places. We gain the energy to do fun things that help us feel happier, and challenging things that help us succeed and build confidence.

One of life’s most wicked truths is that you can’t love anyone else better than you love yourself. If we dislike and neglect ourselves, our motives will always be tainted with subconscious need, and we’ll live on the edge of burn-out.

So, one path away from of that yucky emotional weight inside us called depression is to start saying nice things to ourselves. And to stop ourselves, just as we would a little kid, when we find ourselves insulting ourselves.

Homework: write down 5 compliments to yourself, then (check that you’re alone!) say one of them to yourself out loud as you look at yourself in a mirror. Then smile. You don’t have to feel better right away for this to be helpful. Just keep doing it once a day. We’re working on becoming more aware of the messages we give ourselves.

Anything helpful to add? Comment below.