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Friday, August 30, 2013

When Depression and/or Anxiety Threaten to Take You Down, Here's What Can Help

I was reading FlyLady's Morning Musing today and got to thinking.  She wrote about her past struggles with depression and mentioned that she's suffered from it three times in her life.  And of course (my brain being what it is), that made me want to start writing to my own readers.  When you get to "know" FlyLady through her program and various writings, you just don't think of her as the type who could get depressed.  She seems so upbeat, content and positive.  She writes in an encouraging manner and seems to have a good attitude about life.  How could someone who seems as "sunny side up" as her get depressed, too?  I used to think depression only happened to people like me- an overly analytical brain, brought up in a household where negativity was expressed more than positivity, a not-so-happy and rather chaotic childhood.  FlyLady is a SHE, a dreamy and creative type by nature, from what I've read.  And I can certainly relate to that!  Like me, she had to learn the hard way how to carve out routines and turn chaos into order, both in her household and in her personal life.  I'm not, however, as sunny as FlyLady seems to be!  I was told by my fifth-grade teacher, when I was all of ten years old, that I was a negative person.  I suppose that she had a point, but I also think that my teacher resented my analytical nature.  It is a difficult balancing act between being realistic/analytical/logical and being negative, I can tell you.

Anyway, I've struggled with depression many times in my life.  It waxes and wanes.  I've had periods where it lasted just a couple of days and times when it persisted for months.  Sometimes it's been accompanied by crippling anxiety and even agoraphobia, while other times it's just made me feel as nothing in the world mattered at all.  To feel as if you have nothing you care about, no personality, no passions- that's awful.  And I've been there, more times than I would like.  There are many different elements to depression, some of which are kind of like offshoots, such as depersonalization.  If you read forums on these topics, one realizes that LOTS of people- from all these various walks of life, professions, ages, job titles, socio-economic backgrounds, income brackets, etc.- experience depression and similar problems.  It doesn't just affect negative natural worriers like me, it can hit anyone at any time.  And neither depression nor anxiety always have a cause that can be identified, either.  Despite all of the research that's been done, there are simple no one-size-fits-all answers and there is still so much that doctors/scientists/researchers don't know about the topics.  The more one reads on the subjects, the more confusing it gets!  So what to do?  There are concrete things that help.  They're not cures, just aides to help get back some of the joy in life. 

What I Know Will Help From Personal Experience

Clean the house- Or de-clutter one space.  Either activity works.  When I'm depressed, anxious, have something brewing that's putting me into a whirlwind of thought (like a romantic quandary) or feel angry, I turn to cleaning or de-cluttering.  For one thing, cleaning is always needed somewhere, so it's a reliable thing to turn to in times of distress.  In other words, I can depend on it!  I think that's why I find cleaning to be a stabilizing influence.  It's something that grounds one into their physical space more deeply.  To transform a room through cleaning and/or de-cluttering means instantaneous improvement in an least one area of my life.  I may not be able to change the situation that was worrying me that quickly, but I have control over something when I get a room clean or straightened up.  Wash the dishes, change the sheets, wipe down the bathroom sink, vacuum the upholstery, mop the bare floors, delete old computer programs you no longer use, trash unneeded emails, sort through file folders and remove unneeded papers.  If you de-clutter and have items to donate, go out and drop them off at your designated receiver of donated goods.  If you have trash to take out, go get it out of your home now.  When you're feeling powerless (an emotion that often goes with depression or anxiety), seeing the visible results of cleaning and de-cluttering ventures will give you a sense of power back.

Follow Your Life's Regular Routines-  I know what it's like to be exhausted, feeling deeply apathetic, saddened and/or paralyzed by depression and anxiety.  I have firsthand knowledge of the feeling which goes along with this agony- the desire to simply lie in bed, hiding under the covers.  Or sit in a recliner and stare at the television all day.  It's often the brain and body's automatic response to emotional stress- do the minimum required of existence and nothing more.  However, letting your home and yourself go to pot while you're suffering mentally will not help the situation.  If anything, continuing the routines of life will help you get better faster.  I'm not saying that it will take away the pain.  But looking around your home or in the mirror and seeing chaos will not aid recovery.  Make your bed, clean the toilet, unload the dishwasher and refill it with the dirty dishes, straighten up the main living spaces, respond to your paper mail and emails, pay your bills, mow the lawn, trim back hedges, cook healthy meals for yourself (and eat them)...all of the basics that will keep your life humming.  Normalcy is the best friend of mental health, in my humble opinion. 

Get outside- Fresh air.  Sunshine or light raindrops on your skin.  (Don't go out if it's blustering or icy out, obviously...)  Go for a walk, go to an outdoor concert, to a county fair, to a farmer's market outdoors, to a wine festival.  Anything that will get you out of your house and out of a rut.  You can always just go sit outside and admire the trees, write in a journal or meditate, at least on nice days.  Sunshine will give you needed Vitamin D too, which in and of itself can be a mood-booster. 

Personally, I hate heat and humidity and love the cold, so autumn or winter walks are a joy for me.  Unless it's icy or super-windy outside, I actually prefer strolling in the cooler months.  I'm not a fast walker or anything.  When I walk outdoors, I don't wear headphones to block out sounds.  If you wish to listen to music or something, there's nothing wrong with that.  But I like to be aware of the sounds around me when I walk.  For one thing, I can hear cars or people coming.  The noises of nature, though, can be soothing in and of themselves.  Getting outdoors reminds you of a world beyond yourself, which is knowledge that depression or anxiety can steal from you (however temporarily that may be).

Give to others, especially those less fortunate than yourself- It's old advice, but it's true and worth repeating.  There are so many hurting people in this world.  Cooking a meal for someone, sending a greeting card to someone you love, reading to a child or elderly person, volunteering in a nursing home or hospital, going on a missionary trip, building a house with Habitat for Humanity, donating time/supplies/money to an animal shelter, working to raise money for a good cause or a political campaign...the list goes on.  There is always a massive amount of good works to get done in this world, and frequently there aren't enough people to get that work done.  This is just another way of getting out of your own head for awhile.  Some may just call this distraction, but I believe that even if it is only that, it's a healthy way to forget your own problems for awhile.  This is something that you must take on out of the goodness of your heart- not for what you may get out of it.  That said, I believe that acts performed with a pure, good intention have a way of getting positively repaid by the universe.

Go on a retreat or vacation- Not always an option, I know.  But even visiting an out-of-state family member that you get along with well can help.  A vacation to see my grandmother for a week in 2006 was actually what started my simplifying and organizing quest!  I didn't know it at the time, but that one trip was to be life-changing. 

My Grandma owned a copy of Elaine St. James' Simplify Your Life.  My company had been bought out by a much larger insurance giant and the changes which were occurring were almost entirely negative.  I went from loving my job to dreading the workday.  I had no idea what to do about that situation or the general sense of discontent that was permeating my rather stagnant personal life.  I was also immensely frustrated with my home, because it was a mess with me and my mother (whom I lived with) both working full-time.  I just could not seem to keep the house clean and organized.  That book got my head thinking in whole new directions. 

My grandmother lives in a very small town.  The house she lives in has been in my family for seven decades or so.  Members of my family have lived in that same small town since the 1700's!  Actually, my ancestors helped found the town.  Everybody knows everyone there.  Life is slow there.  People leave the land be, to a great extent, and don't believe in a bunch of development.  That's a huge difference from the metropolitan area where I reside.  When I went back there to this small town, for a whole week I had no one from work was bothering me.  I had no access to a computer or the Internet and that was an unexpectedly pleasant break.  I didn't have any work stress hanging over my head 24/7.  I got time away from my mother (in and of itself a huge vacation!)  I was hanging out with family who didn't care what I did for a living, how much money I made or what I looked like- they loved me just for being myself.  That was so incredibly refreshing.  I didn't have to wear a mask of power, success and ambition for once.

Besides reading that awesome book by Ms. St. James, I took lots of walks outside in the country.  My grandmother lives out in the boondocks and it was so quiet during the day that you could hear a pin drop.  Admiring the wildflowers, old trees, honeysuckle and everything else that undisturbed nature has to offer is soul-affirming.  There's something about that experience which can't be duplicated. 

I read my grandmother's many back issues of Victoria magazines and if any of you all also read them, you know that the magazine is full of beauty in so many forms.  With my endless workload between home and my outside job, it was as if I'd forgotten the world's beauty.  My creativity was stifled by my go, go, go lifestyle.  I knew that I needed a change.  I hope that if you take a vacation or a retreat, you'll allow yourself the downtime to experience what I did.  I came back home from that trip with renewed energy, a new outlook on life and a fresh fire in my belly.  I ended up changing so many of my habits, got back to my creative work and eventually also changed jobs.    

Even if you can't actually go on a vacation write now, plan one.  Plan your dream vacation as if it's going to be reality, if need be!  Research what you'd need to do in order to visit your fantasy locale.  Check out hotel rates and reviews, restaurants in the area, common phrases in the native language (if applicable), how much plane or bus fare would cost, what places you must see if you were to visit, comments from those who've already been there and more.  At the very least, all of this will be a great distraction.  And with anxiety or depression, sometimes getting distracted by a fascinating destination can be exactly what's needed, at least in the short term.  Travel gets you out of not only your usual stomping ground but out of the mental space you're in all the time.  Learning a new language, studying a new culture, reading up on history of a different people, visiting sites you've never been to before- all of this resets the brain.  While I love having regular routines and believe that most people need the stability those daily chores provide, sometimes we need a break from the same old, same old.

Pamper yourself- Another old hint, but again it's one worth repeating.  In times of depression, anxiety or grieving, self-care can be neglected badly.  When self-care is ignored too long, it just creates more sadness and sometimes self-hatred.  This vicious cycle has to be stopped proactively.  The first step is often the hardest when it comes to doing things while you're under emotional stress.  But getting started is vitally important to healing.  There are times when you need to focus on yourself in a positive manner.
  • Wash your hair and apply deep conditioner.  Alternately, go get a haircut, perm or color job- whatever you like and can afford.  A big pick-me-up can be going for a haircolor or cut that is completely different than what you've had for a long time.  I normally stay blonde, but occasionally I go darker- or go auburn- for a change.  Sometimes this requires a change in makeup (either deeper or lighter), too.  This alteration in appearance seems really superficial, but it can actually be a real boost emotionally.
  • After cleansing your face and neck, use a facial mask or scrub.  After that's rinsed off, apply toner and moisturizer.
  • After cleansing, toning and moisturizing your face in the morning, apply a full face of makeup to look your personal best.  Or go get a makeup makeover at a local department store.  You don't have to buy anything new if you don't want to.  Just do something to see yourself in a different and better light, whatever that means to you personally.
  • Use a product like Crest WhiteStrips to whiten your teeth.  Go get a dental cleaning if it's been more than six months since you've had one done (and don't have one scheduled).  If you need it and have the funds, you could get your teeth professionally whitened or have other needed dental work done.
  • Use a body scrub or mask to slough off old skin cells and feel refreshed. 
  • Get a massage.
  • Get a manicure or do one at home.  If you don't have time or the inclination to paint your nails, you could just use a body scrub on your hands and then apply your favorite hand cream to them afterwards.  My hands take a beating from hand-washing dishes and stuff, getting flaky skin between the webs of my fingers and looking older than I really am!  So I love to make them look good again with the scrub-and-cream routine.
  • Get a pedicure or do it at home.
  • Take a nice long soak in a bubble bath or hot tub.
  • Sit in a sauna for awhile.
  • Go get a bikini wax.  Okay, this isn't exactly pampering.  But for some women, it can make them feel confident to wear lingerie or a bathing suit again.  Do what works for you and applies to you personally.  Maybe just getting a close shave on your underarms and legs will make you feel better! 
  • Use self-tanner to get a glamorous faux-bronzing going on.  Put a little gold or bronze sparkling powder on, too, after the bronzer or self-tanner dries.  A little bit (20 minutes or so) of real sun exposure won't hurt, either.
  • If you can honestly afford it, buy a new outfit, pair of shoes or purse that you absolutely love.  Or get something tailored that's been sitting in your closet unused because it doesn't fit quite right.  If you don't have money, wear your nicest outfit that you already own one day, preferably out and about.  Sometimes I would wear my prettiest dress and dressiest shoes to the office just because I felt like it.  I'd always get oohs and ahs over it, which is so much fun to hear.  It doesn't need to be a special occasion to dress up!  I've even put on one of my cocktail dresses, my nicest makeup and just pranced around my bedroom before!  It reminds me of my personal beauty and helps me feel glamorous for a bit.  Silly?  Probably.  But that dressing up puts me in a good mood! 
Read an uplifting, light-hearted book- Or read a book that enthralls you so much you can't put it down, regardless of genre.  I love Stephen King novels.  But I also like organizing, housekeeping and time management books (some would call that a weird form of enjoyment!)  Some people like to read romance novels or thrillers.  Others prefer religious-themed books.  Depression and/or anxiety can make focusing hard, which is why I don't recommend picking a book that requires a ton of complex thought or concentration.  I like reading about things like biochemistry but sometimes my brain just isn't up to that!  Escapist books can be your best friend.  When I was younger, I read a lot of self-help books.  Go with your gut.  People change, and what you enjoyed reading in your youth may not be what you enjoy now.  On the plus side, reading will also help keep your cognitive abilities up, which is vitally important during times of depression and/or anxiety.

Start a new workout routine, preferably with an understanding trainer or teacher- Whenever I get a little blue, adding in an exercise that I've never done before gives my brain a boost.  I've heard that new cells are formed when the body does a movement it's never performed before.  Over time, the cells then get used to this movement as you perform it repeatedly, helping you get better and better at it with consistent work.  Aerobic weight-training, Yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, swimming, jogging, fencing...anything you're not used to will work.  Pick something that will take some real effort on your part to accomplish.  Exercise releases endorphins and affects the hormones in a happy way.  Doing something new presents a challenge to the brain which can cause a lift (even if it is momentary) of anxiety or depression.  Learning a new athletic skill is also an immense confidence booster, something else desperately needed when you're fighting for your mental and emotional health.  Depression and anxiety often cause "brain fog"- and exercise helps clear that fog.

Talk to an old friend- This needs to be someone who is uplifting, positive and believes in you completely.  No, these people aren't always easy to find, but when you do, cherish and nurture the friendship.  And this goes both ways- you need to be there for them, too.  Sometimes thinking of helpful, thoughtful things that you can do for others, then doing that activity, will pull you out of your depressed or anxious cloud.  Catching up with a friend you haven't talked to in ages can really be a blast, too!

Take a class- This won't work for everyone's lifestyle or budget, but I can say from personal experience that nothing will get you out of a rut like taking an engaging college course, particularly in a subject you have great personal interest in.  Taking an on-campus class (which is what I really recommend you do) may force you to face social anxiety and/or depression head on- and sometimes, that's exactly what's needed.  You'll meet new people, gain insight and read some fresh material.  It's something to put on your resume.  It gets you out of your own head for a bit of time.  Classes aren't always cheap, but many colleges offer non-credit (sometimes called continuing education) courses which are usually more inexpensive and don't always require expensive books.  However, I think spending $600 on a class & a book can be a major positive investment, both in your mental health and in your wealth of overall knowledge.  Getting out for a twice-a-week class on campus, for example, gives you something to look forward to for several weeks at a stretch.  Educational expenses can potentially be deducted on your tax forms.  A class give you something new to discuss with friends and family.  Even the homework can be engaging and the brain may just appreciate the new challenge you've given it.  At the very least, you'll gain a new perspective on a few topics and pass the time.

Watch a funny movie- I don't really like romantic comedies, as a rule.  I prefer something like Airplane! or Office Space.  Watching it with a like-minded soul is even better.  Sometimes just thinking of certain scenes in funny movies will crack me up!

Write- Keeping a journal or writing in a blog can be therapeutic.  It's not everyones' cup of tea.  Don't worry about using proper grammar or perfect spelling.  Don't judge what you write or let others criticize it harshly.  I find that writing about something which I know will help others can lift me out of a slump or a period of self-pity.  I think writing also helps keep the brain sharp, just like reading or getting outside does.  Try writing fiction- a short story, a chapter for a novel, a play, etc.  It doesn't have to be The Great American Novel that you strive to write.  You can write about things that have happened in your own life and turn it into an autobiography.  You can write a fantasy book.  You can write about travel- either based on a trip you've taken or about a place that you want to visit in the future.  It doesn't have to be fact-based, though doing research for a book can be a fun distraction for the mind.

Here's to being a happy organized minimalist,
Liz

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