I have lived with major depression and know it’s a debilitating, all-encompassing, very UN-SIMPLE thing. In it’s depths, depression is a medical emergency. The same must be said for anxiety and panic disorders. Nothing I say here is intended to trivialize the clinical or traditional approaches to those illnesses. I’m not a doctor.
Depression and anxiety are referred to as mood disorders, suggesting that those who suffer the disorder have some difficulty in regulating, feeling, or responding to their moods. Millions suffer from the clinically diagnosed disorders, but all the rest of the world knows anxiety and depression, too. The workings of the human brain, its triggers and secretions and processes, influence our productivity, our physical well-being, our intuitions and our behaviors. Knowing what’s going on up there can help you navigate your everyday, ride out the storms, and come closer to self-determination.
A Brief History of Mental Health
References to depression and anxiety can be found in our earliest literature. Homer’s Achilles may have been suffering from PTSD when he flew into his epic rage and smote the Trojans. Greek drama, Herodotus, and the Bible all tell stories of persons we’d now call ‘depressed’, ‘obsessed’, or having ‘anxiety’. Through the middle ages depression was considered an emotional state caused by a physical condition; they thought there was too much black bile in the blood. Women, in particular, who manifested our recognizable symptoms of depression, stress, over work, anxiety or trauma, were sometimes considered witches, suggesting the state was visited upon them or perhaps punishment for sins. We know what they did with witches.
Freud and his posse brought psychology into the realm of modern science and medicine. However, Freud thought persons with mental health issues suffered from ‘repressions’; failing to see that mental health is a continuum along which we all fall, more or less healthy, and that certain mental health ‘issues’ are not caused by repressing one’s urges but by the strains and traumas we face in our lives. Aaron Beck, in introducing cognitive behavioral therapy, pushed our understanding still further and recognized relief in the here and now and ongoing personal development as aims of therapy. This was a move away from Freudian psycho-analysis that focused on in-depth exploration of childhood.
Most of what we’d call therapy and psychology today is a variation of cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s the therapy of choice for PTSD, bulimia nervosa, OCD, major depression, phobias, and anxiety disorders. It’s also the groundwork for any ‘talk-therapy’ focused on lifestyle, relationship counseling, self-esteem issues, grief counseling, you name it.
Thoughts and Behavior
Cognitive therapy had has demonstrable success, and has increased not only medical and scientific knowledge of the brain but our common-sense understanding as well. The main premise is that our thoughts influence our feelings and our behavior. Changing one’s thoughts allows one to change not only how we act but how we feel and what we notice in any given situation.
This is where it gets useful. We know plenty of clichés about positive thinking, optimism, changing our thoughts in order to change our lives. We also know how self-defeating our thought processes can be (“oh, god. Not six a.m. already.”, “I’ll never be as confidant as he is.”, “I shouldn’t have..”, “I’ll do it, later.”) Learning to pay attention to our thoughts, we are able to recognize where they came from, know which ones are detrimental, and work our way towards something better. Getting into the guts of what we ‘know’ and what we ‘believe’ will change us.
But how do you do this without hypnotism or papering your apartment with affirmations on yellow post-its?
This is easier said than done. Our core beliefs are deeply engrained and fueled by strong emotional attachments. Though it would be nice to self-talk our way to happiness, we need to recognize the power emotions and values have. We all get ‘stuck in our heads’ from time to time. We all have thoughts or beliefs that would be pretty hard to upset (can you convince yourself the earth is flat through endless repetition?).
By far the strongest of these attachments are the thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves. That’s where motivation and procrastination are born. This is the heart of our relationships, ambition, spirituality. What we think about ourselves largely determines who we are, and this is where anxiety, depression, obsessive thinking, procrastination, stage fright, over-eating, you name it, get ground into the fabric of our skins. The staying power and luminosity of our beliefs are the cement of our personality. It’s hard to change.
Portrait of a psyche
Over the course of billions of years we have evolved into the wild homo-sapiens that we are. In evolutionary talk, and common sense, what makes us human is our brain. In particular, we developed frontal lobes.
The brain is what allows us to think, as we understand ‘think’. While we still have the stimulus-response chain, we also have a moment of reflection between them. Rather than the rapid fire instinct of a fly or fish, we are able to receive information, think about it, and then respond. This pause is the root of creativity, reason, ethics. It’s this pause that makes us creatures that learn. This is our capacity for self-awareness, decision making, and reflection.
The pause is glorious, intricate, strange and mostly not understood. It’s the work of endless revisions and modifications. This is where we become great men, if that is what we’re going to do. The point of having a brain is to think, to solve problems, to ruminate, to reflect, and ultimately, to change ourselves and our worlds.
But our brain isn’t only new and different; it’s also prehistoric. Mother nature doesn’t work by trashing one version and starting over. She works with endless revisions. The brain we have isn’t a brand spanking new model, but a classic that has been revamped, remodeled, redone, polished up. The old frame is still there, but much of the hardware is new.
The old, ‘reptilian’ brain is still with us. This is neither a good or a bad thing. Our reptile brain is what prompts us to fall in love, protect our children, to eat and to defend ourselves. When we think of ‘baser instincts’, we’re probably thinking of something that happens in the older parts of our brain. Lest the old frame get a bad rap, we should remember that it’s also the older parts of our brain that ‘take over’ when we respond to an emergency with a strength we didn’t know we had, as well as the kick to our will to live.
The Problem With Thinking
The mind evolved as it did with a particular job to do. It thinks. It ruminates, solves, contemplates, and imagines. It does this beautifully. However, there are a number of things in the world that are unsolvable. There are also any number of things that are unsolvable at the present moment, or without further information, or until some other thing occurs. These are the things we typically get stuck with, the recurring images, the ongoing stress.
Depression and anxiety (fill in your mental hang-up at will) occur in the way we think and feel about ourselves and the world. Cognitive Behavioral therapy has taught us much about the way we think, and has given many people an awareness of their own thought processes and where they get hung-up. Depression and anxiety are distress signals, irritating, angry, frightened, or worried thoughts; they are the perception of some kind of threat.
When we receive these distress signals, our whole body and brain responds. Recognizing a threat, our lungs expand and our brains are flushed with adrenaline or noradrenaline. Cortisol rushes through us. We have a tremendous fight or flight response in us that will be triggered by a swerving car or, say, a big tiger. The fight or flight response gives us strength, speed, and a rush of urgency we need in threatening situations. This is how we survive.
Depression, anxiety, and the whole happy family are perceived as threats, stunning and dangerous as a tiger. Unlike the tiger, though, the thoughts and feelings are coming from within. And our brain, trained to work out a problem, is looping the thoughts around and around until it can find a solution.
We are the tiger threatening our lives. The threatening thought triggers a stress response and the body coils in readiness and hypervigilance. But the tiger in our brain doesn’t leave; the thinking pause that makes us so human isn’t able to solve this problem, and works harder. Our bodies stay in the condition of stress, which wears us down and sends us into further distress.
Letting the Tigers go
Learn to watch your own thoughts. Our thinking likes to present itself as ‘truth’ and ‘the way things are’. Our thinking brain will also do it’s beautiful job of thinking over and over again, even when faced with a problem it can’t solve. Consider depression. Depression takes away our interest in life, leaves us fatigued, removes joy. This is an awful way to experience life, but its something we’ll all know at one point or another. People who have problems with depression tend to ‘ruminate’. Not only will she feel the above, she may then begin to think things like this: “Why is this so hard for me? I ought to have more energy. I wish I could do this, but I just don’t care anymore. I’m letting everyone down”. Those thoughts create a whole new level of threat, and the body stays on high alert, the brain shudders and starts over, and the depression gets deeper. Similar cycles happen with anxiety and everything else.
There are two habits we can develop that will radically change the way you think, what you think, and how you feel.
Once we learn to watch our thoughts, we will quickly realize that they aren’t ‘truth’ but quickly shifting thoughts or for-the-moment understandings. We think we slept through the alarm and jump awake, but then realize it’s really 9 pm, not 9 a.m., and you’ve only fallen asleep while reading in bed. Or, we come to realize where our thoughts come from and effectively challenge them. “I’m too shy” isn’t “the truth”, but something we’ve been taught along the way. It pops into our heads in response to various triggers. Watching how we think, we can allow the thoughts to pass by without attaching too much importance to them. “I think I’m too shy, but that’s only an opinion I got why back when I was kid with a stutter. I’m smart and have had lots of experience talking with others; I just need to build up some confidence”. This is the essence of cognitive behavioral therapy, and much of the way we learn from mistakes. We realize where our thinking holds us back, and we work to replace it with different kinds of thoughts.
Secondly, once we learn to watch the on-going parade of our thinking selves, we might stop the process of rumination. We can notice that we feel depressed, anxious, or lonely. Rather than struggling to ‘not feel this way’ or ‘talk ourselves out of it’, we can step away from thinking anything at all. Practice mindfulness, or quietness, or meditation. Learn to recognize your thoughts, to feel them, and to accept them. This dissipates the rumination and keeps us from sinking. Our thinking brain is judgemental and critical by nature; it’s trying to get to the bottom of something. The heart of mindfulness therapy, hypnotism, distracting yourself or letting go, this skill gives us the capacity to feel our feelings without making ourselves feel worse. We become more compassionate towards ourselves, more aware of our changing nature, and able to move on.