6 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Recovery from Depression and Anxiety

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Recovering from depression and anxiety call for the same kind of shrewdness and amount of perspiration as does running a 4,000-person company. I say that having never done the latter. But hear out my logic: great leaders must master impeccable governing skills, develop the discipline of a triathlete, and build enough stamina to manage multiple personalities. And so does anyone wanting to get outside of her head and live a little.

So I think it’s fitting to translate the insight of a book about business success, The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price by Laurence Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey, to victory over a mood disorder, or even mild but annoying anxiety and depression.

Weinzimmer and McConoughey describe their “taxonomy of leadership mistakes,” or nine common ways an executive falls flat on his face and is made fun of by his peers. The business world is replete with calculated risks. It’s a chess game, and a few too many wrong moves will have you packing up your stuff from the corner office.

As I read through them, I kept thinking about my main job — managing my depression as best I can — and the pitfalls that I so often run into. Many are the same listed in this book. Here are six mistakes business leaders make that are appropriate for our purposes:

Mistake one: Trying to be all things to all people.

The “just say no” problem that I have all the time. If you think of requests from friends, families, bosses, co-workers, and golden retrievers as customers asking you for all kinds of products that you can’t simultaneously produce, then you see the logic in your having to draw the line at some point. You must hang on to your resources to stay well.

Mistake two: Roaming outside the box.

Clarification: thinking outside the box is good. Hanging out there, strolling around in pursuit of some meaning that you keep finding in everything that passes by — that’s dangerous. When it comes to recovery, this is very important to remember. I like to try new things: yoga, new fish oil supplements, a new light lamp, different support groups.

What gets me in trouble is when I start to think that I don’t have bipolar disorder and can go off all meds, healing myself through meditation alone. I tried that once and landed in the hospital twice. Now I double check to make sure the box is still in my peripheral vision.

Mistake three: Efficiencies before effectiveness.

This has to do with seeing the forest behind the trees, and subscribing to a policy of making decisions based on the view of the forest, not the trees that are blocking everything from your sight. The authors cite the example of Circuit City’s CEO who cut 3,400 sales people to decrease costs despite the fact that their research said that customers want knowledgeable sales people to help them make decisions when buying electronics. His approach was efficient, but not all that effective.

When you are desperate to feel better, it’s so easy to reach for the Band-Aid — booze, cigarettes, toxic relationships — that might do an efficient job of killing the pain. Effective in the longterm? Not so much.

Mistake four: Dysfunctional harmony.

Like me! Like me! Please like me! Dysfunctional harmony involves abandoning your needs to please others, which jeopardizes your recovery efforts.

“Being an effective leader [or person in charge of one’s health] means that sometimes you will not make the most popular decisions,” the authors explain. “By doing what is necessary, you will sometimes make some people angry. That’s okay. It’s part of the job. If you are in a leadership role and you try to be liked by everyone all of the time, you will inevitably create drama and undercut your own authority and effectiveness.”

So think of yourself as the CEO of you and start making some authoritative decisions that are in the best interest of You, Inc.

Mistake five: Hoarding

I’m not talking about your sister’s stash of peanuts and Q-Tips. This is about hoarding responsibility. For those of us trying like hell to live a good and happy life, this means giving over the reins now and then to other people, persons, and things that can help us: doctors, husbands, sisters, even pets. It means relying on the people in your life who say they love you and letting them do the small things so that you can try your best to be the best boss of yourself again.

Mistake six: Disengagement

Burnout. It happens in all recovery. I have yet to meet someone who can continue a regiment of daily meditation, boot camp, and spinach and cucumber smoothies for more than three months without calling uncle and reaching for the pepperoni pizza. That’s why it is so critical to pace yourself in your recovery. What’s a realistic number of times to exercise during the week? Are you really going to do that at 4:30 am? Why not allow yourself one day of hotdogs and ice-cream in order to not throw out the whole healthy living initiative at once?

Imagine yourself a great leader of your mind, body, and spirit — managing a staff of personalities inside yourself that need direction. Take it from these two corporate leaders, and don’t make the same mistakes.

6 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Recovery from Depression and Anxiety

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Why It’s Okay to Cry in Public

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I waited three months after I was discharged from the hospital for suicidal depression to make contact with the professional world again. I wanted to be sure I didn’t “crack,” like I had done in a group therapy session. A publishing conference seemed like an ideal, safe place to meet. A crowded room of book editors would certainly prevent any emotional outbursts on my part. So I reached out to colleague who had been feeding me assignments pre-nervous breakdown and invited her for a cup of coffee.

“How are you?” she asked me.

I stood there frozen, trying my best to mimic the natural smile I had practiced in front of the bathroom mirror that would accompany the words, “Fine! Thank you. How are you?”

Instead I burst into tears. Not a cute little whimper. A loud and ugly bawling — pig snorts included — the kind of sobbing widows do behind closed doors when the funeral is done.

“There’s the beginning and the end,” I thought. “Time to pay the parking bill.”

But something peculiar happened in that excruciating exchange: we bonded.

Embarrassment Leads to Trust

Researchers at the University of California, Berkley conducted five studies that confirmed this very phenomena: embarrassment — and public crying certainly qualifies as such — has a positive role in the bonding of friends, colleagues, and mates. The findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest that people who embarrass easily are more altruistic, prosocial, selfless, and cooperative. In their gestures of embarrassment, they earn greater trust because others classify the transparency of expression (buried head, blushing, crying) as trustworthiness.

Robb Willer, Ph.D., an author of the study, writes, “Embarrassment is one emotional signature of a person to whom you can entrust valuable resources. It’s part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life.”

Now public crying is even better than splitting your swimsuit in half during swim practice or asking a woman when her baby is due only to learn it was born four months ago (also guilty). Tears serve many uses. According to Dr. William Frey II, a biochemist and Director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, emotional tears (as opposed to tears of irritability) remove toxins as well as chemicals like the endorphin leucine-enkaphalin and prolactin that have built up in the body from stress. Crying also lowers a person’s manganese level, a mineral that affects mood.

In a New York Times article, science writer Jane Brody quotes Dr. Frey:

Crying is an exocrine process, that is, a process in which a substance comes out of the body. Other exocrine processes, like exhaling, urinating, defecating and sweating, release toxic substances from the body. There’s every reason to think crying does the same, releasing chemicals that the body produces in response to stress.

Crying Builds a Community

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said in a Science Digest article that crying builds a community. Having done my share of public crying this last year, I think he is right.

If you spot a person crying in the back of the room at, say, a school fundraiser, your basic instinct (if you are a nice person) is to go comfort that person. Yeah, there’s the voice that says she’s pathetic for displaying public emotions, much like the couple fighting in the hallway; however, you want the crying to end because on some level it makes you uncomfortable — you want everyone to be happy, like the mom who pops a pacifier or a stick of butter into her 6-year-old’s mouth to shut him up.

The high sensitive types begin to swarm around this woman, as she divulges her life story. Voila! You find yourself with a group of new best friends in an Oprah moment, each person offering intimate details about herself. A women’s retreat has started, and there is no need for a lake house.

In a 2009 study published in Evolutionary Psychology, participants responded to images of faces with tears and faces with tears digitally removed, as well as tear-free control images. It was determined that tears signaled sadness and resolved ambiguity. According to Robert R. Provine, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tears are a kind of social lubricant, helping people communicate. Says the abstract: “The evolution and development of emotional tearing in humans provide a novel, potent and neglected channel of affective communication.”

In a February 2016 study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, researchers replicated and extended previous work by showing that tearful crying facilitates helping behavior and identified why people are more willing to help criers. First, the display of tears increases perceived helplessness of a person, which leads to a higher willingness to help that person. Second, crying individuals are typically perceived to be more agreeable and less aggressive and elicit more sympathy and compassion.

The third reason I find most interesting: seeing tears makes us feel more closely connected to the crying individual. According to the study, “This increase in felt connectedness with a crying individual could also promote prosocial behavior. In other words, the closer we feel to another individual, the most altruistically we behave towards that person.” The authors refer to ritual weeping, say, after adversity and disasters or when preparing for war. Those common tears build bonds between people.

I don’t LIKE crying. And certainly not in front of people. It feels humiliating, like I’m not in control of my emotions. However, I no longer practice smiling in front of the mirror or the sentiments that are packaged with the grin. I have learned to embrace my PDT — public display of tears — and be my transparent self, even if the result is more pig snorts.

Why It’s Okay to Cry in Public

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6 Ways to Use Mindfulness to Ease Difficult Emotions

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Mindfulness has become quite the buzzword these days, with impressive studies popping up in the news with regularity.

For example, research from the University of Oxford finds that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is just as effective as antidepressants for preventing a relapse of depression. In MBCT, a person learns to pay closer attention to the present moment and to let go of the negative thoughts and ruminations that can trigger depression. They also explore a greater awareness of their own body, identifying stress and signs of depression before a crisis hits.

Four years ago, I took an eight-week intensive Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at Anne Arundel Community Hospital. The course was approved by and modeled from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s incredibly successful program at the University of Massachusetts. I often refer to the wise chapters of Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living (which we used as a text book). Here are a few of the strategies he offers:

Hold Your Feelings with Awareness

One of the key concepts of mindfulness is bringing awareness to whatever you are experiencing — not pushing it away, ignoring it, or trying to replace it with a more positive experience. This is extraordinarily difficult when you are in the midst of deep pain, but it can also cut the edge off of the suffering.

“Strange as it may sound,” explains Kabat-Zinn, “the intentional knowing of your feelings in times of emotional suffering contains in itself the seeds of healing.” This is because the awareness itself is independent of your suffering. It exists outside of your pain.

So just as the weather unfolds within the sky, painful emotions happen against the backdrop of our awareness. This means we are no longer a victim of a storm. We are affected by it, yes, but it no longer happens to us. By relating to our pain consciously, and bringing awareness to our emotions, we are engaging with our feelings instead of being a victim to them and the stories we tell ourselves.

Accept What Is

At the heart of much of our suffering is our desire for things to be different than they are.

“If you are mindful as emotional storms occur,” writes Kabat-Zinn, “perhaps you will see in yourself an unwillingness to accept things as they already are, whether you like them or not.”

You may not be ready to accept things as they are, but knowing that part of your pain stems from the desire for things to be different can help put some space between you and your emotions.

Ride the Wave

One of the most reassuring elements of mindfulness for me is the reminder that nothing is permanent. Even though pain feels as though it is constant or solid at times, it actually ebbs and flows much like the ocean. The intensity fluctuates, comes and goes, and therefore gives us pockets of peace.

“Even these recurring images, thoughts, and feelings have a beginning and an end,” explains Kabat-Zinn, “that they are like waves that rise up in the mind and then subside. You may also notice that they are never quite the same. Each time one comes back, it is slightly different, never exactly the same as any pervious wave.”

Apply Compassion

Kabat-Zinn compares mindfulness of emotions to that of a loving mother who would be a source of comfort and compassion for her child who was upset. A mother knows that the painful emotions will pass — she is separate to her child’s feelings — so she is that awareness that provides peace and perspective. “Sometimes we need to care for ourselves as if that part of us that is suffering is our own child,” Kabat-Zinn writes. “Why not show compassion, kindness, and sympathy toward our own being, even as we open fully to our pain?”

Separate Yourself from the Pain

People who have suffered years from chronic illness tend to define themselves by their illnesses. Sometimes their identity is wrapped up in their symptoms. Kabat-Zinn reminds us that the painful feelings, sensations, and thoughts are separate to who we are. “Your awarenessof sensations, thoughts, and emotions is different from the sensations, the thoughts, and the emotions themselves,” he writes. “That aspect of your being that is aware is not itself in pain or ruled by these thoughts and feelings at all. It knows them, but it itself is free of them.”

He cautions us about the tendency to define ourselves as a “chronic pain patient.” “Instead,” he says, “remind yourself on a regular basis that you are a whole person who happens to have to face and work with a chronic pain condition as intelligently as possible — for the sake of your quality of life and well-being.”

Uncouple Your Thoughts, Emotions, and Sensations

Just as the sensations, thoughts, and emotions are separate from my identity, they are separate from each other. We tend to lump them all in together: “I feel anxious” or “I am depressed.” However, if we tease them apart, we might realize that a sensation (such as heart palpitations or nausea) we are experiencing is made worse by certain thoughts, and those thoughts feed other emotions.

By holding all three in awareness, we could find that the thoughts are nothing more than untrue narratives that are feeding emotions of fear and panic, and that by associating the thoughts and emotions with the sensation, we are creating more pain for ourselves.

“This phenomenon of uncoupling can give us new degrees of freedom in resting in awareness and holding whatever arises in any or all of these three domains in an entirely different way, and dramatically reduce the suffering experienced,” explains Kabat-Zinn.

6 Ways to Use Mindfulness to Ease Difficult Emotions

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Don’t Force Gratitude

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In his book What Happy People Know, Dan Baker argues that you can’t be in a state of appreciation and fear, or anxiety, at the same time. He explains:

During active appreciation the threatening messages from your amygdala [fear center of the brain] and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex, where they can fester, replicate themselves, and turn your stream of thoughts into a cold river of dread. It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.

Other studies have also highlighted how gratitude can buffer you from the blues, protect you from illness, and heal your neuroses.

You Can Be Depressed and Grateful

While I believe gratitude can definitely contribute to emotional resilience and promote wellness, I disagree with Baker that you can’t be depressed and grateful at the same time.

Why? Even in my most severe depressive episodes, I was always cognizant of my blessings and appreciated the good things in my life. In fact, a section of my daily mood journal is dedicated to listing all the things I am grateful for each day. This exercise helps to create new grooves, or neural passageways, that lead to healing; however, it doesn’t have the horsepower to abort the brain entirely and start from scratch with a purely optimistic outlook.

Gratitude isn’t always the magical antidote that positive psychologists and celebrities like Oprah claim it to be.

When Gratitude Backfires

Sometimes gratitude can actually backfire, explains Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a psychologist in private practice in Arkansas. For persons with Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD), a kind of depression where someone creates the façade of everything going well in his or her life, showing gratitude only contributes to the problem.

In her blog When Gratitude Backfires, Dr. Rutherford writes:

When [gratitude] has an intense, driven, being on a treadmill quality, with the speed slowly being turned up, and up, and up, and up. It can be tremendously self-destructive….It’s not that it’s insincere. It’s very real. But the giver is in pain that she or he isn’t talking about, and showing gratitude becomes a performance itself. The gratitude backfires.

Don’t Fake It

We’ve been told to fake it until we make it, but forced gratitude doesn’t seem to be any help to depression. In one study published in the Journal of Personal and Emotional Psychology in January 2001, two researchers at the University of California in Berkeley inspected yearbook photos from 1958 and 1960.

They distinguished genuine smiles from false smiles (the two smiles activate different muscle groups). Thirty years later, the students with the genuine smiles were found to be faring much better than those with the fake smiles: The genuine smilers had more satisfying marriages, greater feelings of well-being, and so forth.

Mindfulness and Emotional Agility

For those of us who battle chronic depression, I think it’s important to know that 1) we can be grateful and depressed at the same time, and 2) it’s okay not to be grateful. For me and for many others I know, it is much more helpful to approach feelings and thoughts with mindfulness — simply acknowledging them in a loving way and trying to stay present in the moment — or with emotional agility, allowing ourselves to feel our emotions, than to force any kind of optimism or positive psychology.

Gratitude may come.

And it may not come.

Either way, we are okay.

Don’t Force Gratitude

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Does Calling Depression an Illness Worsen Stigma?

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I plead guilty to expounding on the biochemical vulnerabilities and abnormalities in neural wiring of depression to make the case that it is a legitimate illness alongside lupus, breast cancer, or psoriatic arthritis. I thought I was doing a good thing by quoting experts like Peter Kramer, M.D, who believes that because depression can be associated with the loss of volume in parts of the brain, it is the “most devastating disease known to mankind.”

My intention, like so many other mental health advocates I know, was to use science as a tool to lessen stigma. But is that really effective?

Proof of the Madness

I am relieved by clinical reports that explain why my efforts at cognitive-behavioral therapy aren’t enough to correct certain behaviors or thoughts — that brain imaging reveals the breakdown in normal patterns of processing that impedes the ability of depressed people to suppress negative emotional states and that high levels of activity in the amygdala part of the brain (the fear center) persist despite efforts to retrain thoughts. I would rather know that depression involves a problem in the wiring pattern of my brain than to know I simply wasn’t trying hard enough.

I get excited about the progress of finding genomic biomarkers for different types of mood disorders and about twin studies that show if one twin developed depression, the other twin also suffered from depression in 46 percent of identical twins. I am delighted that experts have found a common genetic mutation associated with a person developing clinical depression when faced with traumatic events in his or her life because it means that I’m not making this stuff up, that genetic variations exist that increase a person’s vulnerability to depression and other mood disorders.

No illness, please.

But apparently, people want their distance from those with illnesses or defined diseases. According to some research, concentrating on the biological nature of mood disorders can actually worsen stigma.

In his article, “Hyping biological nature of mental illness worsens stigma,” Patrick Hahn cites several studies that have shown public attitudes toward those who suffer from mental illness have worsened with the promotion of bio-genetic theories. One was a German study that found that between 1990 and 2001, the number of respondents who attributed schizophrenia to hereditary factors increased from 41 to 60 percent. In the same report, an increased number of respondents said they didn’t want to share a building, job, or neighborhood with a schizophrenic.

In the U.S. the General Social Surveys of 1996 and 2006 say pretty much the same. As the neurobiological explanation of mental illness gained approval, there was an increase in the number of people who didn’t want to be closely associated with someone with a mental illness, not as a co-worker, neighbor, friend, or in-law.

Extreme versus Sick

Hahn explains the two ways of looking at mental illnesses:

We could regard them as more extreme versions of the despondency, fear, wrath, or confusion that we all experience, as perfectly understandable reactions to overwhelming abuse and trauma. Or we could regard them as brain diseases, probably genetic in origin, requiring the sufferer to take powerful mind-altering drugs, quite likely for the rest of her life.

One approach emphasizes our common humanity, and the other seems to regard the sufferer as a mere biological specimen. One approach invites us the consider the societal and economic factors that lead individuals to feel despondent, fearful, wrathful, or confused, and to think about ways of changing them, while the other seems to regard society as basically sound, but unfortunately plagued by those individuals with faulty genes or guilty brains who can’t fit in.

I see room for both perspectives. While I regard some of my symptoms as exaggerations of the human condition — allowing me to explore the societal and psychological causes — I also recognize when my despair falls into the category of illness, an assessment that offers me a kind of relief — to know that my brain scans look different than the average Joe’s, and that there is a reason therapy and meditation and all my other efforts can’t fix it.

Embracing All Illness

Mood disorders are thorny and different from other biological illnesses in that some of their symptoms can be experienced by persons who are not diagnosed with them and their symptoms can overlap with a variety of conditions. For example, a person without major depressive disorder can feel lethargic, sad, and irritable.

But I’m not going to let the complicated nature of depression stop me from promoting research about biomarkers or genetic studies. I firmly believe that depression and all mood disorders need to be understood in their biological context. In my perspective, if the stigma increases with the acceptance of the bio-genetic model, then we need to work harder at embracing everyone who is ill, whether they have cancer, lupus, or depression.

Does Calling Depression an Illness Worsen Stigma?

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When Faith Alone Can’t Heal Depression

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There is no question that religion and spirituality can help pull us out of darkness and provide the hope and inspiration that is needed to persevere through despair. Several studies over the last decade have confirmed the positive role of faith in recovery from depression.

How Faith Helps Depression

A 2016 study from the University of Utah School of Medicine demonstrated how religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits. In the study 19 young-adult Mormon church members performed four tasks in response to content meant to evoke spiritual feelings. Based on the brain imaging scans (fMRI), researchers found that when participants experienced spiritual emotions, there was activation in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain critical for processing reward, and in the medial prefrontal cortex, responsible for judgment, moral reasoning, and focused attention.

In a 2014, researchers at the Columbia University’s Teachers College documented other brain changes caused by religious experience that contribute to emotional resilience. Lisa Miller, professor of psychology, and colleagues found that the participants in the study who valued spirituality showed thicker portions of brain cortices that may protect against depression, especially in those at high risk. A previous study by Miller and her team published in The American Journal of Psychiatry showed a 76 percent decrease in major depression in adults who said they highly valued spirituality or religiosity, and whose parents suffered from the disease.

Religion not only provides hope, it assigns meaning to suffering. Stories of redemption encourage us to look at the bigger picture and find consolation in the wider, spiritual perspective of our hardships. In other words, they place our pain in the context of other faith heroes, which makes us feel less alone in our dark night.

Stigma and the Church

But what about when we spend hours on our knees and feel no respite or consolation at all? What about when our faith fails to heal us? Are we bad Christians? Bad Catholics? Do we not believe enough?

Just as religion and spirituality can lift us out of despair, a simplistic approach to faith can worsen symptoms of depression and interfere with treatment and recovery. When some believers don’t get better, they feel as though they have failed at one more thing – that they aren’t the disciples that Jesus called them to be. Unfortunately, this kind of stigma is reinforced in many congregations.

A while back, a reader left this comment on one of my blogs:

I am a Christian and I truly believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God, and He has helped me through many dark times, but just as the diabetic, the heart patient, the patient with high blood pressure I must have medicine to treat my illness. Unfortunately, many pastors and other Christians say that I am on happy pills, never thinking how sad that makes those of us who struggle with this illness.

Her experience is hardly unique. Consider the following statistics (which I edited for clarity) from several LifeWay research studies:

  • A third of Americans say mental illness could be overcome with Bible study and prayer alone.
  • Almost half of pastors say they rarely or never speak to their congregation about mental illness.
  • Less than 5 percent of churchgoers who lost a loved one to suicide say church leaders were aware of their loved one’s struggles.

When I was a sophomore in college, I attended a Mass in the chapel of one of the dorms. I was struggling with suicidal thoughts at the time and had just agreed to start taking an antidepressant after fighting about it for a year and a half with my therapist.

“Psychologists’ offices are starting to replace confessionals,” the priest said. “We need to bring sin and spiritual warfare back to church, where they belong.”

I stood up and walked out. With those two irresponsible sentences, he discounted the 18-month struggle I endured to arrive at a place where I was finally okay seeking treatment. That was the beginning of a recovery that last 15 years, the start of a new life for me. Had I listened to him, I may not be here today. I continue to hear variations of his words today in homilies today. Each time, I walk out.

Redefining Miracles

Let me be clear. I do believe in miracles, very much so. And I believe our faith can bring on miracles. I have witnessed the line of crutches hanging over the grotto in Lourdes, France, proof of hundreds or thousands of disabled persons whose faith somehow allowed them to walk away. A year ago, a friend of mine claimed that she was “healed” of her depression during a prayer service and has been able to reduce her meds.

Most of the time, though, I believe that God offers us certain tools for intervention — medication, psychotherapy, support networks. It is by employing them that we are healed. The work isn’t separate to our faith. We don’t just sit back and wait for Jesus to relieve our symptoms.

I suppose my God is more high maintenance, demanding a little action and cooperation from me, much like the joke about the guy who dies in a flood despite his prayers for God’s rescue:

As the floodwaters rise, a man named Sam calls for God’s help.

First a neighbor offers him a ladder.

“Nope, my God is coming,” Sam replies.

Then the police arrive with a rescue boat. “Hop on board!” they instruct him.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Sam says, “God will save me.”

And finally, the national guard provide a helicopter, and he tells them to go away, too.

Sam dies, goes to heaven, and asks God, “Why didn’t you rescue me?”

“I sent a ladder, a lifeboat, and a helicopter…what more could I do?” says God.

When it comes to depression, don’t be Sam. Get on your knees. Derive a sense of hope and meaning from your religion or spirituality. However, if your faith doesn’t cure you immediately, don’t beat yourself or become idle in your recovery. Continue to do the hard work. Because most miracles demand a little sweat.

When Faith Alone Can’t Heal Depression

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Counselling in Hebden Bridge

An Introduction to the Neuroscience Behind Creating Your Reality

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Have you ever wondered why two people can share the exact same situation, yet experience it differently?

Neural pathways are often described as a type of super-highway of nerve cells, the function of which is to transmit messages. Much like a walking track in the bush, the more you walk over it, the more trodden and clear it becomes. The same thing happens when we engage in behaviors such as thinking certain thoughts with a high degree of regularity.

You see the brain consumes between 20-30% of the caloric burn in our body at rest. It uses so much energy because it’s so complex and so it has needed to evolve and adapt in order to automate various processes as a way of conserving energy. This is why and how regular behaviors become habits (or things we seemingly do without a great deal of conscious thought).

Think about something simple like brushing your teeth. You can brush them just fine, no problem but what if I asked you to use your non-dominant hand to do that instead? You’d suddenly have to think about the action of your arm and the motion of your wrist or hand. It would be hard at first because it’s unfamiliar, but if you persevered with it, over time, it would become easier as the task became more familiar. This is an example of neuroplasticity and can be thought of as “re-wiring your brain.”

So now you know in general terms how neural pathways work and their function, we can proceed to look at beliefs. Perhaps you are familiar with the famous metaphor of the iceberg where the tip represents conscious thought and everything below the water line represents subconscious thought. The subconscious mind holds our beliefs, many of which we acquired as we were growing up. The function of a belief is in part to help us make sense of the world around us. It creates a filter for our brain to receive, store, interpret and recall information picked up from the world around us by our senses and it automates the way our brain processes information.

In order for a thought (which occurs in the conscious mind) to become a belief, it must be repeated. It’s this repetition that allows a neural pathway to be created. Here’s an example. Let’s imagine that growing up, you heard your parents say things like “you have to work hard to get ahead.” You heard it a lot. Now imagine that you too now hold the belief (without realizing it) that you have to work hard in order to make money. So you work long hours nearly every day. It affects your marriage, you stop seeing your friends due to your work commitments, and you stop going to the gym. You don’t sleep well at night and you are often irritable or grumpy because you feel pressured to make the money.

If you hold a belief that “you have to work hard to make money”, then that is what will show up in your reality. Your mind will filter out all of the information that it thinks is unimportant and will only bring you the information you’ve told it is important with your belief. So that’s all you see when, in fact, the reality might be very different.

Sometimes beliefs are healthy and other times, they work against us. The good news is that there is a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System or the RAS and part of its role is to actively seek out the information that you tell it to. So, if you want to change a belief the RAS can be your greatest asset! The RAS transmits information between the conscious and subconscious minds and the other beautiful thing about it is that it doesn’t question you at all. Whatever you tell it, it will believe because it does not distinguish between fact and fiction. It simply obeys commands from your conscious mind.

But changing a belief takes time and consistent practice. There are many ways to help your subconscious mind adopt new thinking styles though and these include things like visualization, using your imagination, meditating, acting as-if, using journal prompts to uncover beliefs and develop healthier alternatives, using affirmations (they work on repetition and hence create new neural pathways) and through the use of story.

Hypnosis is another effective way of speeding up the process of changing beliefs because it goes almost directly to the subconscious. It can be more efficient than some other approaches but as with all interventions, is not without its limitations so won’t work for everyone.

One very effective tool that you can use to change a belief is listening to audio narrative such a meditation recording or an affirmation recording. This works best in the last five minutes before you go to sleep and in the first five minutes upon waking because that is when the subconscious mind is most receptive to information. You can prime your brain to develop the neural pathways that you prefer to have by doing things like listening to audio at these times.

When you change your beliefs by redirecting your conscious thought, you can change your belief (filter) and when you change your filter, you change your experience of the world around you, otherwise referred to as your reality. If you are consistent with your practice, you will be begin to see things differently in no time.

How would you prefer to feel today?

References

Goldstein, E. (2011). Cognitive Psychology (Third ed., pp. 24-76). N.p.: Linda Schreiber-Ganster.

Liou, S. (2010, June 26). Neuroplasticity. In web.stanford.edu. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://web.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/hopes_test/neuroplasticity/

Martindale, C. (1991). Cognitive psychology: A neural-network approach. Belmont, CA, US: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Neurons, . (2013, May 6). Neurons. In www.biology-pages.info. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://www.biology-pages.info/N/Neurons.html

Tassell, D. V. (2004). Neural Pathway Development. In www.brains.org. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://www.brains.org

Walker, A. (2014, July 1). How Your Thought Pathways Affect Your Life. In www.drwalker.com. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://www.drawalker.com/blog/how-your-thought-pathways-create-your-life

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