Happiness Needs to be Fed and Watered

(Sixth in a series on fighting depression. Click here for the first post.)

So far in this series on fighting depression, we’ve covered:

  • The need to affirm yourself, to speak kindly to yourself.
  • The habit of staying in the moment, using your senses to focus on now.
  • The need to process and heal past trauma.
  • Choosing connection instead of isolation.
  • Addressing anxiety by working against avoidance, since that feeds depression.

Foods that Help Depression

While we’re on the topic of what feeds depression, let’s talk about actual food. This is my least favorite of these posts, since I’m super fond of desserts, breads, sweets and chocolate in any form. I don’t want to face that what I put in my mouth can bring down my mood, but it does.

Ironically, when we’re down, that’s when we have least energy to prepare good food. We tend to grab what’s easy and gives us a little comfort.So here’s the dare: journal what you eat and drink for three days. Face up to it (no avoiding, right?) Note what you eat, and also write how you feel in the hours after until you eat again.

Nutrition blogs abound, so I won’t go over how to eat, but here are some tips I’ve made into habits that help give my body and brain what it needs to function and have a fighting chance at happiness:

Food Habits that Fight and Heal Depression

  1. Don’t skip breakfast. Include something with protein like eggs, meats, nuts or seeds, so your energy doesn’t dip mid-morning. That helps focus and get me into the day’s work. (And we generally feel better after we’ve gotten some work done.)
  2. Don’t pig out on lunch, or skip it. Both options are bound to lead to a long afternoon nap, at least for me. Work some fruit or vegetables into your meal. If you can’t do without the fries that go with a burger, add a small salad and eat it first. Put some lettuce and a tomato slice on a ham or turkey sandwich. Finish with a few strawberrries. You get the idea.
  3. Make yourself a decent dinner. Frozen meals heated in a microwave every day are a sure recipe for depression in my book. If you’re a meat eater, focus on fish and chicken instead of beef and pork. Fill half your plate with veggies.
  4. Buy stuff that’s easy to prep, especially snacks. If I have a choice between a salad with five ingeredients that all need preparing, and a nice little peel-top container of pudding, guess what I’ll go with! It helps me to buy individual yogurts, protein bars with natural ingredients, and nuts that go in little bags or an easy cannister. Baby carrots and celery sticks can be pre-washed and stored in jars, and most fruits can be washed and ready to eat.

Dehydration is Such a Downer

I think the single biggest difference I can make to my mood and energy levels is to drink enough water. Buy yourself a boujee water bottle, and make it your best friend. (Wash it well every night, you don’t want a stomach ache from bacteria in your water on top of depression!)

Changing how you eat and drink can’t all happen at once. If you don’t get close to eight glasses of water a day, start with that. Get used to one extra before you add a second, and so on. And remember the first post, speak kindly to yourself. “I’ll feel better if I go drink some water now,” is much more effective, and feels a lot better, than, “I’m such a moron. I can’t even remember to drink water.”

Homework

Pick one food or water habit to start working on. If you don’t get close to eight cups of water a day, start with that. Start small and add a cup every day or two. If you get down or stressed and forget all about it, start again. Remember the first post; be nice to yourself. “I’ll feel better after a glass of water,” works a lot better than, “What a moron, I can’t even drink enough water.”

Anything helpful to add? Comment below, after you click on the title.

The Seesaw of Depression and Anxiety

(Fifth in a series on taking steps away from depression.)

I used to think of depression and anxiety as two unrelated problems.

But I realized, at some point, that depression often followed a time of anxiety. Then I made the connection that anxiety often set in as I was emerging from a time of depression.

Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out whether they just take turns, depending on what’s going on in your life, or if they actually trigger one another.

There is a Connection

I’m convinced, at least in my own case, that anxiety wears me down to depression. When many tasks of life are seen as a big hurdle, triggering shortness of breath, a sense of dread, a feeling of incompetence, a fear of rejection, trouble focusing – that drains me to a point where I feel so down I want to quit stuff.

One study described in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders states that anxiety and depression are often highly correlated with each other, and that depression can follow anxiety years later. People with lifetime anxiety had lifetime depression 73 per cent of the time, and people with both had worse illness and functioning than those with only one.

This article also pointed out that past depression predicts future avoidance, and avoidance predicts anxiety. A huge study of over 6000 adolescents over 14 years demonstrated that avoidance behaviors occurred in between times of anxiety and depression a significant percentage of the time.

Avoiding Makes it Worse

We kind of know that intuitively, don’t we? If my 13-year-old self chickened out and skipped a party because of social anxiety, I had to deal with a residue of shame, a sense of failure, loneliness and hopelessness that soon added up to depression.

On the other hand, if I went to the party, chances are I would have some positive experiences there in addition to all the awkwardness, and I would feel prouder of myself afterwards.

I would probably also learn a few things, whether or not I was aware of it, that would make me a little more hip to how I should behave at a party, which would make the next experience less scary.

Conquer a Little at a Time

So it goes. If we can gradually expose ourselves to what makes us anxious, our window of fear gets smaller.

I used to be terrified of getting onstage and saying or doing any little thing. Now I’m only scared if I’m performing at a big convention with video screens. The setting is usually a lot smaller than that, so having succeeded at the convention, I no longer dread a crowd of 200.

That’s how we anxious types need to march through life. The worse thing that happens is that we aim too high and we fail at something. So we learn, and we take our challenges in smaller chunks.

And when depression starts to take us down, we don’t avoid that reality either. We take care of ourselves and get as much help as we need, so the downward spiral changes direction.

It seems that often our greatest anxieties are attached to our giftedness. It’s so frustrating to see a marvellous athlete quit just because she failed in one competition. Or a wonderful musician stop playing because his performance anxiety wore him down to exhaustion.

Don’t Give Up!

Please don’t give up on yourself. Don’t let yourself get too busy, or make yourself a slave to others’ expectations, but don’t quit either.

Then you can get off the anxiety/depression seesaw and just focus on one thing at a time.

It’s so rewarding to get to a place where you can function in your strengths, and even get a handle on a few weaknesses, only to discover that they no longer stress you out.

For the previous post, press here.

You Can’t Let Go of What You Don’t Remember

(Fourth in a Series on Overcoming Depression. For the third post, press here.)

When I read or hear instructions to ‘let go of the past’, I get irritated. As if the past is like some heavy bag of groceries that you can just set on the table. Like you’re making some sort of conscious choice to carry it around to make yourself miserable.

This post is fourth in a series on depression, and gives some suggestions for how to deal with the past in healthy ways.

There’s a whole lot to unpack in that phrase, ‘Let go of the past.” There are some reasons why we don’t want to be in too much hurry to dismiss the past as irrelevant to now.

The Problem with Memory Gaps

Here’s the thing – our brains are wired for meaning and for wholeness. When bad things happen to us, we might forget them as a way to cope, but part of us will keep looking for the missing piece till we find it. Our mind needs to discover what happened in any memory gaps, to make sense of our own story. In that sense, we can’t let go of our pasts till we’ve got a finished picture.

A good current example of this takes place in the Neflix limited series, Maid.All through earlier episodes, we see the lead character, Alex, having a cold and fearful reaction to one of the other characters, who seems to be a fairly nice person. Not until a cleaning job in a creepy house triggers a very early suppressed memory do we find out what happened to plant that fear in Alex’s mind. Once she remembers, she has energy for a confrontation that brings her more peace. She’s released from having the emotions of a terrified victim without knowing why.

Getting to the Truth

Another reason we need to take a second look at our pasts through adult eyes is because bad experiences can warp our thinking. There’s no way out of that but coming to understand how we’ve been damaged, what lies we believe from those experiences, and what truth we want to replace the lies with. (See what I wrote in the first post about how we talk to ourselves.)

For instance, when a parent leaves a child, the child tends to blame himself for that. A child might think, “Dad left because I wasn’t nice enough.” He makes a vow to become the nicest person in the world. He may not even be conscious of the vow, but it becomes like a vice, holding him to niceness even when it keeps him from defending himself.

That’s a hard way to live. Not until the adult realizes how his compulsive niceness was shaped will he see that it’s been a trap based on a lie. At that point, he’s free to change his belief to something true, like, “I’m nice, but I can also be tough when I need to be.”

Making Choices That Heal

Another other benefit of looking back at the past and reprocessing it is that you can choose some new experiences for yourself that will help you heal and grow stronger. Take the super nice person above – maybe he’ll decide to enroll in a martial arts class to rewire his brain to be able to fight when he needs to.

Maybe he’ll decide that he’s got a friend who’s taking advantage of his kindness, and he’ll work with his therapist to set some new boundaries. Maybe he’ll start praying for wisdom to know when his compulsive niceness is serving him more than anyone else. Once we’re clear on what the problem is, we can address it.

It’s not self indulgent to take some time to look back and see how we may still be reacting to past trauma that we’re not fully aware of. It’s only after we’ve done that that we’re truly free to let go of our pasts and be ready for what’s next.

Isolation Doesn’t Work

(Third in a series on steps away from depression. For the last post, press here.)

Sometimes isolating feels like all we can do.

Sometimes everything else is too hard, so we hole up in a safe, comfy place and shut the world out. Our best friends become chocolate, or cats, or beer, or some memory of someone who’s gone.

We’re not alone in feeling alone. A Cigna survey found that forty per cent of the 20,000 adults they interviewed feel isolated. Some isolation has been forced by the pandemic, but this article focuses on our choice to isolate because life out there is too overwhelming and we can’t face it.

Isolating can be helpful for a few hours, or maybe even a few days in a crisis, but too much isolation makes us sadder and crazier. Here’s why:

We Need People, Even if We Don’t Like Them

It may seem easier at first, but isolation leads to loneliness, which has been found to be as damaging to physical and mental health as smoking, drinking or obesity. Chronic loneliness is associated with highter rates of depression, anxiety and many physical health problems. So it’s a vicious cycle: depression driving us to isolate, isolation leading to loneliness, loneliness making us more ill and depressed. It’s a stuck place that we have to find a way to bust out of.

People Give Us Structure

We need a schedule that connects us to the world, especially if we’re introverted. Many have observed during covid that a whole day in the house alone results in an empty feeling by evening. Since the pandemic started, alcohol and other drug use rates have gone through the roof.

Making sure to plan at least one outing to connect with people, even if it’s just to go to the store and ask the checkout person how they’re doing, is really important. If going out is hard right now, make it a short trip and promise yourself a reward when you get home. (Not a noon cocktail though.)

Everyone has their own ideal balance for time out with people and time alone. I could do most of my work from home, but have been much happier since scheduling two days a week in the office of the church where I work. It lifts my spirits to get out of sweat pants, hit the road and have people to talk with on and off throughout the day.

It’s Not All About Us

Going to church, playing a sport or going to the gym, joining others for hobbies or volunteer work – all these things are key to reminding us that the world out there is big and full of possibilities. If we can’t go out for ourselves, let’s do it for the others we go to be with. It’s not all about us. Helping someone else almost instantly lifts our mood.

I often don’t feel like getting up on Sunday, donning a mask and going to church. But the music, the encouraging words, the connections with friends, being part of a community that serves people – all of that results in a sense of well-being that makes the coming week easier to face.

Homework: Look back over your last week. How much of your time was with people, and how much alone? Are you happy with the balance? Someone home all day with kids may crave alone time. Others, especially people who live alone, need to be intentional about inviting friends over and getting out into the world. What are three things you can do next week to keep the balance right for you?

Anything helpful to add? Comment below

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.

Children are So Quotable

Third in a Series on Why I Wrote “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”

Christmas is magical and kids are adorable, so when I wanted to write a book and split profits with our local pre-school, what better than a book of Christmas short stories with plenty of children?

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” isn’t a children’s book – a few of the stories, like “The Refuge” and “The Painting”, are more suited to teenagers and adults, but eight of the twelve stories do feature children.

From a three year old trying to figure out why he can’t see Jesus, to high schoolers angsting over a school dance, the stories give a compassionate snapshot of family life in its different stages, highlighting the sweetness and humor.

Only some of the stories are based on true incidents, but all of them involve real people. If the story wasn’t based on an incident that really happened, I used people in the neighborhood as inspiration, and imagined how they might interact with one another.

In “Kyle Helps Santa” I thought of the cute, sociable kid around the corner in the big house, and what might happen if he met one of my favorite students in our church’s tutoring program – a sweet, brave, loyal little boy named Andre. I love it when racial and socioeconomic worlds collide and people are richer for it.

Likewise in “Why the Bells Rang”, I riffed on an ancient Christmas legend using a man, an older student, and a little boy I knew from church. It may not have actually happened, but it could have….

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is available on Amazon. Half the profits go to 3Cs Nursery School.

Bringing Christmas Home

Second in a series on why I wrote, “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”

It seems like Christmas stories are usually set in other times or places than where we live.

I wanted to write a book where the magic was in my front yard, among my neighbors, at my church.

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is a book of 12 family Christmas stories set in a Cincinnati neighborhood. Some of them happened. The rest of them could have happened. A few of them may even have happened to my own family!

More than any other gift, we all need to feel the nearness and goodness of God. Everything we pour our time into in December – buying gifts, decorating, cooking, performing in concerts and plays, reading the old stories to our children – it’s all in the effort to give each other love and delight, to affirm that life is worth living and there is a good Creator in the midst of it.

We, as much as the characters in these stories, need to be reminded of these truths. Some are worn down from the exhaustion of trying to build a life out of poverty. Some are overwhelmed with the hard work of parenting. Some are broken by addiction, disability or someone else’s cruelty. All of them are ready for God to show up.

And God does show up, in many unexpected ways, right in the middle of everyday life. “Christmas on Pleasant Hill” shines a light on those moments, right where we live.

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is available from Amazon.

Why I Wrote “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”

1. A Fairytale Setting

(First in a series about my book of Christmas short stories.)

Sometimes a setting just calls out to an author. “There are books and books here,” it says, “In the gingerbread houses, in the quiet woods, in the old stone churches and the grimy, crumbling apartments.”

The neighborhood of College Hill, about six miles north of downtown Cincinnati, used to be called “Pleasant Hill,” back in the 1800s, before the Farmers’ College sprawled over the hilltop with its fields and parklands and the Ladies’ College sat prettily on the main access road.

Back then it was a pleasant, country town where people of means could escape the grime and coal pollution of the city; hence all the lovely Victorians lining Belmont and Glenview.

Much of its beauty remains: the grand houses, the towering trees, the nature trails winding through La Boiteaux and Tanglewood Preserves. But – the other stark reality is that now, many of its people live in poverty. When great beauty lives alongside great need, there is a fairytale in the making. Happy ending or not, depends on the choices people make.

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is a book of Christmas short stories in which dreams come true and wrongs are righted. A little boy escapes his gated mansion to help a neighbor who needs Christmas presents. The shattered life of an addict pulls together when she inherits a mansion. A young music minister overcomes political, financial and talent hurdles to pull off the best Christmas concert ever.

Setting doesn’t make a book, but it’s much more fun to write it when your setting is a familiar, well-loved place.

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is available on Amazon. Reviews greatly appreciated!

10 Reasons I Wrote “Someone They Can Trust”

10. It Showed Up in My Head

I tend to look back and have some insight into why I chose to write a book. In the drafting phase, though, I’m far less aware, less conscious. People, situations and issues just show up in my imagination.

They’re kind of irresistible – beckoning me like an open door to a walled garden.

The other nine reasons I wrote this book are all good reasons, but I don’t think many novelists just crank out books for logical reasons.

There are many logical reasons not to write a novel – they take a super long time, they’re hard to get published and even with healthy sales, you wouldn’t want to calculate your hourly pay. Probably about as much as someone who knit a scarf getting eight bucks for it at a craft show.  

We kind of do it for love – we knitters and novelists and artists of all kinds. Many of us feel like that’s what we were made to do and that’s the gift we can give people.

To have someone enjoy it – that’s compensation too.