Sunday, July 23, 2006

Depression Do's And Don'ts

Last week, an anonymous reader wrote this comment:

how do you live your dreams when you don't even know what they are

what do you do when you have no passion, no drive no reason to get up and out of bed at any time of the day

So this week, I'm writing my answers.

Now, these answers are not medical advice.  If you are or believe you are suffering from clinical depression, or you are feeling suicidal, please: get help from a trained professional.

However, if you're in a slump, there are some simple things you can and should do -- even if you are also going to get help.

There are two sides to depression: mental, and physical.  Most of the time, it's easy to assume that it's the mental part that's really the problem, because if you look around, you can always find something depressing in your life.  However, more often than not, the physical component dominates.  Seriously.

Indeed, over time I've begun to wonder if anything that actually happens in our lives is really the source of any depression, instead of us just noticing depressing things more often when our bodies' hormones and neurotransmitters are on the blink.

There is, however, one major mental source of depression that I think our anonymous reader might be suffering from, and I will cover it towards the end of this piece.  But please don't skip ahead - no matter how much you might think it's not physical, 9 times out of 10 it's just something physical that you haven't identified.  Healthy animals don't normally get depressed!

DO: Get Plenty of Sunshine

And by sunshine, I mean by going outdoors and having sunlight fall directly on your skin, for at least 10-15 minutes a day, preferably early in the day but late afternoon is good too.  This makes a tremendous difference to my productivity level and mood during the day.  Opening the shades to get natural light in my office helps too, but not nearly as much as getting outside does.

The body has plenty of hormones whose activity is regulated by sunlight.  Sunlight is also a factor in the production of vitamin D. 

DO: Move around

You don't have to work out, you just have to get out.  Take a walk.  Bend over and pick stuff up off the floor.  Bounce on a trampoline.  Your heart isn't the only muscle that pumps blood, and for that matter, blood isn't the only vital fluid that moves through your body.  The lymph system, for example, depends on movement and deep breathing, which brings us to...

DO: Breathe deeply

Depressed people look down and breathe shallowly.  Don't do that.  Look up, so that your throat opens up and you can breathe deeply without effort.  Combine this with moving around in the sunlight outdoors, and you're almost set.

DO: Eat well

Specifically, get quality fats in your diet, preferably raw and unprocessed fats like avocado, olive oil, flaxseed oil, or fish oils.  The latter two are especially high in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids: a substance that a significant part of your brain is made out of!  Not getting these nutrients is like a zombie not eating brains: very bad!  (Mmmm, brains!)

DON'T: Eat processed foods

You already know that fast food is bad for you.  What you may not know is that processed grains and sugars whipsaw your body's blood-sugar regulation mechanism, and your mood along with it.  Remember the case of the guy who shot the mayor of San Francisco and supposedly got away with it due to the infamous "Twinkie defense"?  'Nuff said.

(Yes, I know it's an urban legend.  Here's more scientific info about a possible link between depression and sugar, from the British Medical Journal)

The Mental Side

Okay, so you've got the physical side covered.  You've been eating right, moving, breathing, and sunning for three days and you still don't see any point to life, even if you do feel better.  Now what?

In my experience, the thing that's left is not so much that you have something to feel sad about, but that you have nothing to feel happy about.  Whatever it is that truly matters to you, you don't believe you can get it.

Sometimes, you are so convinced that the thing you want is out of reach, that you forget you even wanted it.  You might have already written it off years ago as being unrealistic... or just plain unreachable.

Since then, you've focused your attention on what you think are achievable goals.  But these goals don't inspire you, because they're not your goals.  They're not the things you really love or were really meant to do in this life.

And the emptiness you're experiencing is a reflection of the empty place where what you wanted used to be.

To Embrace Life, Embrace Pain

If you gave up a dream, it's because you believed keeping it would cause you greater pain than giving it up.

And you were right: dreams are always more painful than not having them.

But the absence of dreams is a painless void, empty of meaning or substance.

To return to your dreams will involve pain, because life is pain and joy.  Disconnecting from the pain of what you really want, means disconnecting from the joy as well.

So my suggestion to you is to find what you used to desire and believe in, that you no longer believe you can have.  And that you consider whether it's better to tell the truth about what you want -- and perhaps feel the pain of not having it -- or whether it's better to feel nothing at all.

When you're hurting, it's easy to believe that pain never passes.  But life goes on, and no feeling is ever permanent -- not even the loss of your dream, whatever it is or was.

Comfort is Depressing

And when it comes right down to it, this kind of depression is only for people who have nothing better to do.  The caveman running away from the sabertooth tiger doesn't have time to think about being depressed; he's too busy trying to survive.

You see, a lack of challenge dulls the mind and body -- and self-esteem!  If you only do what is easy or necessary, then what the hell are you here for?  You're just killing time and taking up space -- and you know it.  No wonder you feel bad!

So take a look at what people who lead fulfilling lives are doing.  Chances are, it involves doing something challenging.  Maybe even something really, really hard.  We applaud people who set new world records, not people who successfully get out of bed in the morning.

Not that applause means or should mean anything to you.  Your own esteem is really what counts here.  But do you congratulate yourself when you walk to the refridgerator to get a beer, or when you do fifty abdominal crunches?  Which one is more fulfilling, the one that's easy, or the one that's hard as hell and twice as painful?

You know, for the longest time, I kept trying to make my life easier.  It wasn't until a month or so ago that I started to realize just how unbelievably fucking stupid that was.  We're not here to have an easy life.  We're not even here to do the things that we have to do.  We are here to do the things we choose to do, and sometimes we choose to do them because they are challenging, not in spite of it.  Would you keep playing a video game that was trivial to beat?

Dream Only Impossible Dreams

So, do you want the short recipe for getting rid of this kind of woe-is-me depression?  Look for something that you currently cannot do.  Then go do it anyway.  And if you end up succeeding, start looking for something else.

But don't look for something that will "fulfill you", or "inspire you", or anything else that's directed back at your own otherwise-meaningless existence.  Look for something that you believe should exist, something that you love for its own sake, not yours.  Because the thing is, self-consciousness and despair are nouns.  They don't move.  But love is a verb, and it makes things real.

And when you make things real, you create the meaning of your life. 

We are here so we can breathe our life and soul into things that matter.  We are here to make meaning from our lives, not to "find" meaning in them.  That is, your life is the raw material from which other things are made.  What do you want to make with your life?  Not for your sake, or even for the sake of others, but simply for the love of the thing itself?

That's the important question.  And when you answer it, all the rest -- including your reasons to get out of bed -- will fall in place, to the extent that they even matter.