John Ballew

Depression, anxiety and the wounded ego

Why do conditions like depression and anxiety – and troubled relationships, often – cause us such intense suffering?  We find ourselves feeling trapped and helpless, unable to pull ourselves out a spiral that feels miserable and beyond our power to change.

A recent article suggests that it is the obsessive focus on ourselves that leads to the suffering caused by many psychological problems.  We not only suffer – we keep ourselves focused on our suffering until we are quite literally lost in our thoughts and beyond the reach of the outside world.  It really becomes a sort of negative narcissism, doesn’t it?

What to do?  The key is to break the obsessive self-focus; to pay attention to the outside world.  We can do this by noticing the world around us (particularly people) and choosing to pay attention.  Our minds will wander back to our ruminations.  That’s OK; notice, forgive yourself and return your attention to the world outside yourself.

Buddhist practice offers us a particular way of doing this called mettta meditation, the practice of extending loving-kindness to those around us.  How to do this?  A great place to start is this blog from a gay man who recommends meditation where we are, when we are – using the example of spending time in a sleazy bar.  Notice those around you, starting with those in your field of vision.  Open your heart.  Wish them well:

  • May you be happy.
  • May you be healed.
  • May you be safe.

Moving our focus from our own fears, judgments, addictions to consciously sending awareness, concern and love to others has the paradoxical effect of freeing us from our own suffering.

A great companion to meditation – particularly for those who really want to liberate themselves from psychological dysfunction – is action.  It may seem counter-intuitive to reach out to help others when what we most intensely desire is for someone to see and reach out to us, when we feel we have no energy to spare.  Check this out:

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To say this is kind of simple is not to say that this is easy (especially getting started).  A key component is cultivating compassion and loving-kindness for ourselves, and too often we torture and abuse ourselves instead.  If the focus is only on loving others and we fail to include ourselves among those deserving of compassion, this just becomes an exercise in codependency.  But nurturing ourselves cannot really be separated from concern for others.

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Treating depression without medication

Treating depression without medication

I work with many individuals struggling with depression; I’ve never met anyone excited about taking anti-depressants.  Most of us don’t like the idea of adding a pill to our daily routine, despite the ads that tout them as miracle cures.  They often have side effects, including sexual ones (though modern prescribing practice can often minimize them).  And for many people, the idea of taking medication instead of addressing the issues causing their life problems just doesn’t feel right.

A recent article on The Atlantic’s website (For Depression, Prescribing Exercise Before Medication) explores exercise as a first option in improving depression.  Noting that 25% of all Americans are affected by depression, the article describes one man’s struggle this way:

Joel Ginsberg was a sophomore at a college in Dallas when the social anxiety he had felt throughout his life morphed into an all-consuming hopelessness. He struggled to get out of bed, and even the simplest tasks felt herculean.

“The world lost its color,” he told me. “Nothing interested me; I didn’t have any motivation. There was a lot of self-doubt.”

He thought getting some exercise might help, but it was hard to motivate himself to go to the campus gym.

“So what I did is break it down into mini-steps,” he said. “I would think about just getting to the gym, rather than going for 30 minutes. Once I was at the gym, I would say, ‘I’m just going to get on the treadmill for five minutes.’”

“The world lost its color,” he told me. “Nothing interested me.”

Eventually, he found himself reading novels for long stretches at a time while pedaling away on a stationary bike. Soon, his gym visits became daily. If he skipped one day, his mood would plummet the next.

“It was kind of like a boost,” he said, recalling how exercise helped him break out of his inertia. “It was a shift in mindset that kind of got me over the hump.”

Easing depression is a challenge – doing the things that will make you feel better are made more difficult by the depression itself.  That’s especially true with exercise, which requires consistent effort to produce change.  Effective living sometimes requires us to act differently than we feel, and exercise-to-manage-depression is a prime example.  The article goes on to recommend 3 to 5 sessions of aerobic exercise each week, which requires commitment.

Medication helps many people suffering from depression, but effective management often requires a combination of psychotherapy and lifestyle changes.  Life is too short to live under the wet-blanket of unhappiness when alternatives exist.

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A short film about coming out: Shabbat Dinner

According to Joe.My.God., this short film has played in 50 film festivals.  I thought it perfectly captured a bit of the experience of coming out as an adolescent.  It brought back lots of memories, even for those of us who grew up Protestant!

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The “Black Dog” of Depression

Depression is a peculiar experience.  While some people experience it as a sudden, unmistakable thing, more often it creeps in gradually, sucking the joy out of life.  It damages our ability to maintain perspective — which is one reason it sometimes seems so overwhelming that it is hard to imagine life without it.

This video from the World Health Organization offers a useful perspective.  Watch it if you or someone you care about experiences depression.  And pay attention to the advice it offers on how to move beyond depression.  If you have questions, email me.

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Dealing with overwhelm

Dealing with overwhelm

Most of us experience it from time to time:  the sense that our level of stress has exceeded our capacity for coping.  People vary in their capacities to deal with stress, of course.  Some people are able to soldier on through great difficulties without feeling beleaguered, while others – especially sensitive people – may find themselves responding with a high degree of emotionality to life’s ups and downs.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is more than an intellectual sensation.  We experience this sort of stress in the body.  The chest may tighten or muscles ache.  Maybe we find ourselves feeling flushed, or our stomachs become queasy.  The challenge for many people is that these physical sensations are so uncomfortable they add to the sense of anxiety, and the situation just gets worse.

What to do if you find yourself in this sort of place?  Start by noticing what is going on in your body.  Take a few deep, slow breaths.  Deep, slow breathing triggers the body’s relaxation response.  Consider getting outside to go for a walk to interrupt the buildup of discomfort and to change your surroundings – to literally change your point of view.  And exercise may help build our capacity to handle stress.

Notice what you’re thinking.  If you are worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, and which might never happen, you’re borrowing trouble.  Our minds often scan the horizon, looking for danger.  While this is helpful in some situations, in others it most definitely is not.  Notice if you’re becoming your own worst enemy.

Change what you can.  Are there things you can do that would make the situation better?  Sometimes confronting what’s worrying us is a practical way to ease our distress.  If you’re worried about money, for instance, taking action is much more likely to reduce stress than avoidance.

Accept what you cannot change.  Not every stressful situation is under our control.  Some days it just rains and rains.  That doesn’t mean life will always be a downpour, but it does mean understanding there is nothing you can do to stop a thunderstorm.

Know when to get help.  If you are experiencing distress that has gone on for several weeks, or if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed on a regular basis, consider whether it is time to call for help.  You may need to learn new ways of handling distress, or there may be patterns in your life that really aren’t working for you and which need to change.

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Site last updated April 15, 2014 @ 2:39 pm