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.

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

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.

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.

Freedom to Focus

(The seventh post in a series on working at home.)

Working at home is less like work. Here I am at my standing  desk with an iced green tea, electronic music keeping me alert, laundry in the dryer, fresh air coming in my window, and freedom to wear my dorkiest T shirt.

Working at home gives you more control over your environment. This means more than just getting the laundry done while I’m learning some lines. On a deeper level, it helps me not to live so much in reaction to other people. I’m easily distracted by the conversations, the needs, the moods, the problems, of other people.

When I’m working at home, I feel like that girl in “The Incredibles” with her invisible force field surrounding her – I can keep out what would otherwise attack me. I plan better, write faster, think more clearly. I have less anxiety.Image result for incredibles force field

Of course there are pitfalls. There’s no one there to dissuade you from eating the whole cake, or binge watching Netflix all afternoon. We need to know ourselves  and choose what environment works best. Some people are carried along by the energy of others working alongside them, and need the structure of a workplace. Some people need a mix of both; working at home one or two days a week.

Being home-based keeps me focused – not only on what I’m doing but why I’m doing it. Built into the day are not only breaks to eat or go for a walk or tend to something around the house. I build in breaks to get mentally and spiritually recharged.

In the morning I read the Bible and pray. Then I make a list of what to get done that day. I take time to think about whether I’ve made the list too long. (How often we set ourselves up to fail!)

I ask myself it I’m being driven or compulsive in my choice of tasks. Do I really need to get all that done today, or do I just want to cross stuff off a list so I can feel competent? Am I thinking about what’s most important, or just being driven by the expectations of other people? You have the freedom to soul search when you set your own schedule.

Then I try to group tasks in categories – for example, in one day I might take a two hour chunk to do detail business – checking and sending messages, scheduling meetings, updating contacts. Then after a break I may take unbroken time for writing or long term planning and not respond to any messages at all.

It often helps to take a break between tasks that need different types of energy. I’ll exercise before diving into lots of detail work because I don’t like  it and I need to be energized to make myself  dive in. Before writing I may read a post or a chapter about the writing process, something inspiring. I’ll look at a Better Homes and Gardens to get me in the mood to clean my house, and watch a video about urban ministry if I need to get motivated to recruit for our church’s tutoring program.

Our quality of life is so much richer when we know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and we have the freedom to do it at our own pace, with breaks that let us refuel and refocus. Working at home often makes it easier to do our best and take care of ourselves at the same time.

 

Why You Should Really Take a Day Off

(Fifth in the series, “Working At Home Survival Guide”)

Imagine your favorite piece of music. Whether it’s  Mozart or Beyonce, it wouldn’t work without rests. Imagine that tune, slightly speeded up, with no breaks, pauses, silences of transition. It becomes an irritating and unsustainable exercise.Related image

That’s how some of us are trying to live. We’re trying to cram every day of every week, feeling worth more because we do more, earn more, see more people, go more places. But speed it all up too much and it’s blur without meaning.

It’s especially easy to skip taking days off when you work for yourself. It’s all up to us, and anxiety over making a living can make a day off seem impossible.

In Julia Cameron’s self-help book for creatives, she insists on the necessity of the weekly ‘artist date’ where we take at least two hours off to do nothing but care for our creativity, not doing what someone else wants, but what our deepest self is drawn to.

This book was one of the more important I’ve ever read (and worked through.) I wouldn’t have found it if I had not realized that my sanity depended on getting away from my three little kids for a chunk of time every week. The first time I did, I sat exhausted on a bookstore bench, and prayed that God would lead me to something that would restore my sanity. “The Artist’s Way” fairly jumped off the shelf.

What Cameron learned through hard experience, was that if she didn’t stop working to refuel, the well dried up. You don’t have to be a writer or a painter for the creative well to dry up. You can be the IT guy who starts to resist change because it takes such huge effort. You can be the chef who starts to find every dish a bore. You can be the pastor who flinches with irritation when the phone rings. You can be the mom at home with little kids who can’t make herself sit on the floor and play one more game.

It takes a day off a week and longer seasonal breaks, to be renewed.

For a long time, I took Sundays off, going to church, going to lunch with my husband and boys, then all of us doing what we liked. The day took on a luscious quality of timelessness and work was far from my thoughts.

Then one of my jobs started to require that I run a program on Sunday nights. This went on for a school year, and threw a shadow on my day off, making it hard to relax even in the hours before it that were still free. I couldn’t see a way to find another day off in the rhythm of family life. At the end of it, I was depleted.  My schedule was far less hectic than many others’, but still I am aware of how that absence of a whole chunk of time off wearied me. I felt like I had to squeeze the last drop of energy from my heart to start a task, it was harder to focus on what I was doing and I was blocked as a writer.

Lesson learned. Not only is it wise to work less than 50 hours a week (see the last post) but there is real magic in keeping one day clear of work.

Now I don’t have time to work on my day off.

 

Our Work is as Good or Bad as our Food

(Fourth in a Series on Working from Home)

I don’t want to write this post. I want to start and end the day with chocolate, eat deep dish pizza for lunch and drink coffee all afternoon. I’m working at home, so it’s all right there for the taking, with no witnesses.

I would do this if I could get away with it. But we really can’t. All day long, we choose either the fuel of life, health and high functioning, or the Fuel of Death. When we eat and drink the Fuel of Death, we lose energy, motivation, stamina and clarity. We need little naps. We think negative, circular thoughts. We can’t sleep at night, furthering the downward spiral.Image result for fattening food

I’m not a physician or a dietitian, but here’s what I know for sure:

Too much coffee jitters and hypes us, affecting sleep hours after we drink it. I’ve had to switch to half decaf, and only two or three cups before noon.

  • Too much food at once makes most of us super dopey. Big lunches especially slow us down. It helps to eat a few hundred calories late morning, then again mid-afternoon.Image result for eating badly, eating well
  • Sugars and refined flour – the principal ingredients in all yummy food – give us nothing, tax our organs and load us up with unwanted weight. The harsh reality is that we were made to eat mostly plants that have not been messed with. You know: apples, carrots, salads, grainy brown bread with seeds in it, nuts. Anyone who has tried a few days of this stuff without the sugar and white flour knows how good it feels. Everything is easier because our bodies have what they need.Related image
  • Some protein with each meal or snack keeps our energy more even – an egg, some nuts, a few cubes of cheese, a little lean meat or fish. It also keeps us from getting hungry again too soon and grabbing handfuls of cheese puffs.
  • Alcohol does not enhance work performance, or any performance. It doesn’t matter that lots of great artists were big drinkers. Most of them didn’t end well and we could have had decades of better work from them if they’d stayed sober.
  • Drugs, illegal or misused, do not enhance work performance, no matter how brilliant we may feel for a time.

The statement of the obvious must be repeated until we really believe it; Good food leads to good work. Bad food leads to bad work. I know there are some people who code for twelve hours at a time on Monster drinks and donut holes, but it’s going to catch up with them.

Changing eating habits is really hard. I’ve worked on one at a time, and I’m still far from ideal. Drinking a lot of water is a good habit to start with. Only buying good food really helps. Measuring quantities helps. Planning the day’s food ahead helps.

However we do it, we will be sabotaging ourselves when we try to work without the fuel our bodies were made for.

Habits Give Shape to the Day

(Second in a series on working from home.)

A day is precious; we can never get it back. Even if we live to be say, 80, we have less than 30,000 of them. A day is a story – given shape with a good beginning, a build towards resolution, a satisfying ending. Image result for story arc

Everyone, but especially those of us who drive our own workday from home, need habits that give it shape, meaning and energy.

In the same way that bad habits sabotage us, good ones carry us effortlessly in the right direction. Formed within a few months, they serve us well the rest of our lives.  Most of us can brush our teeth, for instance, without an agony of will or effort.

Given the choice, I would spend the greater part of each day in bed, alternately napping, reading novels and eating chocolates. Here are some habits that have led to other outcomes:

A Good Beginning:

Getting up at the same time each day is a really good idea. If you get up when others around you do, it takes less effort. My teenagers don’t need me in the morning any more, but it’s good to see them, join the bustle, ride their energy to get going.

Eating something that won’t cause you to die young is another good idea. More on food in another post.

Focusing mind and spirit on what’s good and true feeds our work as tangibly as our bowl of granola. As a Christian, I read a few pages of the Bible and then some other good book. Ann Voskamp’s “Broken Way” is my latest favorite. This is the best time of the day for me, taking in energy before the demands of the day kick in.

Goals for the Middle:

Everyone needs to walk the line between legalism and aimlessness when it comes to schedules. I hate routine, but without a list for the week and then a list for the day, I will literally stand in the middle of the room and pivot in circles – at home there is something to do everywhere you look.

Some people use fancy apps, some people put sticky notes on the wall, but the challenge is to pick a system and work it. Some need this to do enough work, others need it to make themselves stop.

Many professionals who work remotely tend to work themselves into the ground, equating hours put in with competence and success. Actually, after less than fifty hours a week, the returns sharply diminish. For years I set myself up for discouragement with lists that were just too long. That was dumb. Now I write lists I can finish and I feel like a rock star.

An Ending you can Live With:

I know a writer who finishes each day by reading out loud to his wife. Way to go, Mitch. An actress I tour with catches up with friends online till she starts to nod off. Another friend likes to play Spider Solitaire, whatever that is. She told me the other day she thinks she should be reading at night instead. I disagreed. I think we need to be able to look forward to doing whatever we want to do at the end of the day, provided that’s not injecting heroin, or eating 30 Twinkies – you know, something not destructive.

If my solitaire-loving friend thinks she should read more, then that is a discipline to be added to the work  list, not something she should make herself do when she finally has a few minutes for herself.

Finally, as we close the book on the day, it really helps to review what we accomplished and what we’re grateful for. Those are great thoughts to sleep on.

Working at Home Survival Guide

Working at home – it’s the best and the worst. It opens the way for flexibility, creativity, self-care and family-care. It also offers every opportunity for us to self-sabotage via isolation, distraction, sloth, lack of structure, lack of accountability, lack of support, unlimited refrigerator access – you name it.

More people than ever are home-based – freelancers, businessoffice-work-1149087_640 startups, people caring for kids or aged parents, retired people, people with companies that let them work remotely. Whether you are doing paid work, caring for others, or living out your retirement, we all have work to do, and home-based work means finding your own way to structure and channel time and energy.

The next seven posts will address this challenge. I long for those of us working at home to flourish without feeling trapped, stuck, overwhelmed or left-out.

I remember  when I tried to write freelance from home in my twenties. I would stare at the dark blue wall of my basement office for embarrasingly long chunks of time, trying to squeeze words out of my circular thoughts to feed the empty page. I fought drowsiness from sitting alone in a dark room and had more than my fair share of naps. Suffice to say I did not get rich quick.

Years later, I’m better at working from home. I juggle caring for teenagers, helping my parents, writing for this website and freelance writing, running kids’ programs, acting in a theater company, and keeping my house somewhat clean. Most days end with the feeling that I have done about the right amount of work at the right tasks.

It was not easy to get to this point. People who are swept every day into the energy of a company or institution, carried by the bustle and the structure and the hierarchy; they don’t know how hard it is to get up and keep doing the right thing all day long when no one else is watching.

I think the first thing we need to do is recognize that working alone is hard. We are social creatures. People left alone go crazy.  Just read the solitary confinement studies.  Research  also reveals higher stress and insomnia levels among people who work remotely. If you have been trying to work productively and successfully from home, you have probably had some struggles. This does not make you a loser. It makes you a human.

So let’s begin simply by celebrating what we get done every day.  This will rarely be award-winning. Nevertheless, review your day when work is over, and acknowledge what you did. For example:

  • I wrote a tough report I had been putting off.
  • I helped my relative with cancer to visit the doctor and have lunch in a park.
  • I taught my kids for four hours without yelling at anyone.
  • I made ten cold-calls, even though I was rejected on the first seven and the last two.

The key is to concentrate on work done, not just results. Making ten cold calls is impressive, even if only one pans out. Maybe even especially when only one pans out.

Celebrate the day’s work with some small ritual that is good for you and helps you detach – a journal entry and a walk outside rather than, say, a triple scotch.

When we work at home, there’s no one else to encourage or compliment us. So let’s do that for ourselves.

Unblocking our View of God (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part X)

When it comes to being aware that God is right here with us, most of us are blocked. Like a guy with foggy glasses, like a girl who has the radio cranked too loud to hear her GPS, there are some simple things we need to do before we can perceive what is so close.

This is the last in a series of ten posts that discuss things we can do on our own to let God into our heads and hearts. Any contact with God is renewing. So, in summary, here’s what we can do to spiritually recharge:

Elijah on Mt Horeb, by Sister Genevieve

  • Find beautiful quiet places to be alone undisturbed.
  • Give yourself time alone in silence, undistracted by noise and the demands of people.
  • Learn to meditate on true statements, repeating them while you breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Examine yourself and confess to God the ways you have harmed yourself and others.
  • Practice gratitude for what is in your life right here and now.
  • Develop faith by praying for healing of physical, emotional and relationship problems.
  • Surrender to God anything that is not good for you, or is taking the place of God in your life.
  • Build a habit of reading the Bible often.
  • Learn to study the Bible for yourself.

There’s a balance between spending time alone with God and experiencing God in community. Each needs the other, each feeds the other. People who want to seek God benefit greatly from worship services, service projects, Bible classes, prayer groups, retreats with spiritual directors. These are the things we tend to think of first when considering practicing a faith.

But following Christ is much more than practicing a religion. It is a relationship with the one who made us, saved us and loves us every moment of our lives. God really wants time alone with us. And whether we want it or not, we really need time with God.

Whether it’s once a week hiking in a forest, or every morning sitting in an armchair for fifteen minutes, our spirits can be continually renewed, like a fountain that never stops flowing. All we have to do is give God time and permission to work in us.