getting unstuck

A mindful approach to depression

A mindful approach to depression

Depression is a miserable experience for many reasons.  It robs us of perspective, particularly the perspective that things will change and we won’t always feel as we are now feeling.  And for many people, it causes the committee meeting of voices in our head to turn into a relentless chorus of negativity and bad advice.  You’re stupid.  You’re lazy.  You’re a bad partner.  You’re going to lose your job if you don’t start doing better. But we don’t think of them as voices.  We think of them as reality, and that’s what makes us suffer.

A couple of years ago I saw a Broadway show called “Title of Show” about writing a play.  One song discussed the negative self-talk that accompanies writer’s block this way:  if someone were talking to you that way while you were waiting for the subway, you’d move to the opposite end of the platform.  How true!  But the voice is in our head, and we can’t physically move away.

Arguing with these thoughts trying to get them to shut up doesn’t work.  In fact, it can make the feelings more intense.  It is just the way our mind works.  If I tell you not to think of an elephant, what’s the thought that immediately comes to mind?  A vivid image of a pachyderm.

The key is to withdraw attachment to these negative thoughts.  Instead of ruminating about them as if they were an accurate reflection of reality, just notice them and label them for what they are:  thoughts.

  • “Nothing will make this better.”  That’s a thought.
  • “I can’t do anything right.”  That’s a thought.
  • “If I don’t get this promotion, my life is over.”  That’s also a thought.

Most of us have these troubling negative thoughts and worries.  Why not stop giving them more respect than they deserve?   Notice if a thought is troubling, but demands your attention (“I really need to stop spending more money than I can afford”) or just useless negativity.  When a thought does require action, just notice it, recognize it for what it is – just a thought, background noise in your head – take a deep breath and let it go.

When we notice our thoughts, feelings, moods, opinions, etc., without getting too attached to them, something wonderful happens:  freedom.  We’re no longer captive to the negative chatter.  We are less attached to it.  The intensity of the feelings diminish.  We move on.

This approach is simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy.  Most of us have a lifetime of experience in confusing the thoughts and feelings in our heads with something we think of as meaningful and real.  Changing these patterns takes practice — and sometimes coaching.  You may want to consider a simple sitting meditation practice to help you become more proficient, or talk with a therapist who can help you learn to manage your mind.

When negative thoughts become truly obsessive and resist all urges to manage them, it may be time to talk to a professional and get more support for making changes to support your happiness.


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Men and depression

Men and depression

A recent study suggests that gender roles mean we are less likely to recognize depressed behavior in men.  Subjects were presented with stories describing individuals with symptoms of depression; they were much more likely to identify depression when the characters were female than when they were described as male.  The symptoms – not finding pleasure in life, feeling tired, not sleeping well, difficulty concentrating – seemed to be discounted when the characters in the story were presented as men.

Depression is statistically more common in women, but that may be because women are expected to show greater emotionality in our culture.  Depression in men looks a bit different from women’s depression.  Men’s depression may look less like sadness and more like a variety of problems that negatively impact the quality of life.

Anger and irritability.  Many men find that anger is quick to rise when they are feeling down.  Everything irritates them.  They are quicker to snap at loved ones.  Sometimes the anger covers hidden feelings of hurt or sadness.  Men tend to hate the sensation of helplessness, and that’s often what depression feels like.

Fatigue and difficulty concentrating.  Lack of energy is a tell-tale symptom for many men.  Interest in exercise may drop (particularly problematic because exercise can help ease depression).  Work may seem more difficult and pointless than ever.  There’s a general feeling of not being at the top of one’s game, not being very efficient.  Often that causes a lot of self-criticism may negatively impact self-regard.

Aches and pains.  When we’re depressed we are more prone to an muscle aches (back pain, for instance) or digestive problems.  Sometimes there is a general sense of just not feeling good.

Stress and anxiety.  Stress is both a symptom of depression and a cause of it.  Chronic stress depletes us and leaves us vulnerable to depression.  When we’re depressed, we use coping mechanisms less effectively.  Anxiety and stress become more troubling.  Instead of dealing with issues head-on, we seek ways around them that prolong our discomfort and often make things worse.

Changes in life rhythms.   Depression is a bit of a paradox.  For some people, appetites and patterns move one way, while for others they move in the opposite direction:

  • Sleep.  Almost everyone has occasional trouble with sleep, but depression often causes men to wake up after 4 or 5 hours of sleep.  Alternatively, some men find that they can’t get out of bed, sleeping for 10 hours or longer instead of the usual 7 or 8.  Sometimes this longer sleeping (or at least spending time in bed) is a way of avoiding life.
  • Food and sex.  Some men lose their appetites and my find they lose 10 pounds or more over the course of relatively few weeks.  They may lose all interest in sex. Other men may sooth themselves through obsessive eating or compulsive sex, seeking out a way to “numb out.”
  • Drugs or alcohol.  The urge to indulge isn’t about pleasure, it’s about self-medicating.  Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, drinking may worsen depression.

Whether in men or women, depression is something to take very seriously.  Left untreated, depression can sour into suicidal thoughts and feelings.  Suicidal thoughts are especially dangerous for men, who may be more likely to act those feelings out in ways that have greater risk of being truly lethal.

Men may be reluctant to seek help out of a misplaced feeling that they should be able to deal with this on their own, or that therapy is going to involve unfamiliar or unproductive endless talk about feelings and emotions.  Effective therapy may include that, but could also be focused on taking action to make life better.  Antidepressant medication may or may not be part of the solution.  Help is possible.

If you love a man who is experiencing clinical depression, urge him to get help.  And if it is you that’s depressed, don’t delay getting help that can get life back on track and help you move beyond feeling stuck and helpless.


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Feeling stuck?

We all get stuck.  We have times in our life when things go swimmingly, and other times when we don’t know whether to turn left or right.  What to do?  Here’s a bit of inspiration from Burning Man 2011 based on Dr. Seuss’s last book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.”  (It is age restricted for some reason; I have no idea why.)

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You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

(And thanks to Patrick for calling my attention to this.)

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Resolutions for single guys

Resolutions for single guys

The start of a new year is traditionally time to reflect back over how things are going in life and to reflect on our goals and hopes for the future.  What if you’re single?  I’m highly suspicious of resolutions like “find a partner;” entering into a relationship isn’t the sort of thing you can do simply because you want it hard enough.  But if you want a boyfriend or partner, there are things you can do that will make that more likely.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Pay attention to what you are telling the world about yourself.  If you’re consciously or unconsciously sending out a vibe that says “I’m disappointed by life,” or “poor me,” don’t be surprised if people react by avoiding you.  People – including potential partners – generally want to be around those who are appealing and positive.
  • Be the first one to say hello.  Cultivate friendliness and openness.  Introduce yourself to others.  Be the first one to say hi to the guy you see regularly at the gym, for instance, instead of wondering why the other guy won’t take the initiative.  What have you got to lose?
  • Try something new.  If you stay stuck in your comfort zone, the view is not likely to change.  If you want something different in 2012, commit yourself to trying new things and going new places.  Maybe the changes you want are big – going back to school, finding a more satisfying job – but even small changes like joining a new group or changing where you work out or shop for groceries can help propel you out of a routine that has become a rut.
  • Don’t postpone joy.  Waiting to take a vacation or do something really fun until you’ve got a permanent partner to share it with?  Why?  Invite a friend or do something on your own.
  • Take excellent care of yourself.  Watch what you eat and how much you drink.  Get enough rest.  Don’t spend too much time alone (particularly if you spend it in front of the TV or the computer).  If you find yourself troubled by stress, anxiety, depression or exhaustion, commit yourself to making changes or finding help so you can have the life you want.
  • Don’t overvalue boyfriends or undervalue friends.  Some single men find themselves on such a quest to find a partner that they end up giving short shrift to friends.  That can lead to feeling isolated, lonely and depressed.  Nourish all your social connections, not just the romantic ones.
  • Try not to spend too much time online.  Whether pouring over online dating sites or getting lost in porn or hookup sites, it is easy to fill countless hours sitting in front of the computer screen.  When minutes become hours and time that could be spent with others ends up being spent pointlessly alone, you are not building the life you want.  Life online easily provides pseudo-intimacy – it looks like the real thing, but it’s not.  It is often simply a distraction or a time filler.

Finally, if you’re not making the progress you want in building a life that is satisfying, it may be time to look at counseling or therapy to get support for making changes and having a truly happy new year.

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How to get the most from psychotherapy

How to get the most from psychotherapy

People decide to start psychotherapy for all sorts of reasons.  Over the course of a typical year, more than 25 percent of the adult U.S. population meets the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of depression, anxiety or some other disorder, according to the NIMH.  Factor in stress from a crisis like losing a job, relationship problems and other concerns and it is clear that many people could benefit from psychotherapy or counseling.

The decision to seek help may come quickly if there is a crisis, or it may emerge slowly, if there is a growing sense that life isn’t working the way we want.  Some clues that it is time to seek help:  feeling hopeless, overwhelmed or stuck, trouble sleeping, unhealthy changes in eating, drinking, sexual behavior, etc.  If you’ve felt like you’ve tried to feel better but haven’t had the success you want, working with a professional is probably a good idea.

Once you’ve made the decision to start, how do you get the most out of therapy?

Set goals with your therapist.  What do you want to accomplish here?  How will you know when you get to that point – that is, what will look different in your life?

Tell your therapist what you expect.  Some clients want to focus on specific changes they want to make or areas they want to explore; for them, therapy may be relatively brief.  Others are looking to more deeply understand themselves, and therapy will be more open-ended in duration.  Therapy is a partnership.  The clearer you are about what you want, the greater the opportunity for your therapist to help you achieve your goals.

Understand that change takes effort and time.  Changing dysfunctional patterns of living isn’t easy.  If it was, you wouldn’t need a therapist!  It is understandable that someone would want immediate relief, and sometimes a person’s mood improves just from starting the effort to change.  But realize that problems that have endured for a while may take a bit of time to resolve.

You get out of therapy what you put into it.  Be yourself.  Be honest.  Let your therapist see you as you really are, without editing what you say or feel.  Many of us have grown so protective of ourselves that we may not even be fully aware of what we are genuinely experiencing.  Keep in mind that if something feels embarrassing, that’s probably a clue that it may be a rich area to explore.

Be an active partner in the therapy process.  Ask questions if something is unclear.  Remember that your therapist isn’t a mind reader.

Pay attention to what is going on inside you.  Notice how your body is feeling, how you’re breathing, as you talk about something.  Notice if you are resisting something.  Notice if something inside you may be calling out for you to pay attention to it.

If you’re worried about something, bring it up.  That could be a concern about yourself, your life, or the process of therapy itself.  Keep in mind that this is not about looking like you’ve got it all together.  This is about bringing your most real self into the consulting room, even if that’s uncomfortable.  Share what you’re feeling.

Pay attention to feelings and emotions during and after a session.  Your emotions are clues to your internal experience.  If you’re feeling emotionally raw after a session, let your therapist know.  And if, for some reason, you feel your therapist hasn’t treated you respectfully or professionally, don’t be shy about expressing your concern.

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A soldier comes out to his father

Today’s a great day to be a gay American:  the discriminatory policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” officially has ended.  A moving pictorial listing of 100 soldiers who have come out is available via OutServe.

The video below shows a young soldier in Germany who finally feels about to come out to his father in Alabama.  It’s an amazing video — these moments are usually hidden from view.

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Site last updated February 28, 2015 @ 2:12 pm