“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” ~Viktor Frankl
Low moods can roll in like a numbing wave, washing out the pleasure from life.
If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. Surveys have shown that the vast majority of people in the US eventually experience some depressive symptoms, and many are anxious. I’ve been there before.
Early in my medical career, I made some research findings that contradicted the then-current views. My boss was not an expert in that area, so he simply sat on the papers, refusing to submit them to a professional journal. I was idealistic, but he preferred safety.
My helplessness in the matter dragged me down, until I fell ill. I developed a serious chest infection and could hardly drag myself out of bed, not even for the bathroom. I felt numb, demotivated, useless, and hopeless.
Luckily, some senior colleagues arranged for me to do further studies. The change of scene helped. Then I was offered a great job, soon followed by an even better one, and a third.
Life soon got so busy that twenty-four hours in a day no longer sufficed. My career flourished, but my family had to put up with an irritable insomniac who frequently traveled abroad and had forgotten how to relax.
I then took a break in Scotland one fall, with colorful trees and blue sky reflected in the mirror-like surface of a lake. The beauty was glorious, so I started to learn about this wonder of nature. The more I learned, the more I found parallels with challenging situations, depression, and anxiety.
Gray, rainy days followed. I went out on the next sunny day and threw a pebble into the lake. The lake rippled, but eventually returned to its calm state.
Here’s what I learned from the lake about overcoming depression and anxiety.
1. Acknowledge your emotional pain.
A lake freely expresses distress during stormy days, with a turbulent surface. Suppressing feelings is unhelpful.
Hidden emotional pain can eventually overwhelm you, as with my chest infection. Once you name your feelings, they lose some power. You become the observer, not the victim, of feelings.
Allow tears to flow naturally; they express hurt. Write or record on your phone what’s troubling you and how you’re feeling, like a child blurting out everything. Read that, or listen back, to gain understanding.
2. Practice distraction.
In stormy weather, the lake’s focus shifts to its depths. We too can benefit from shifting our focus away from persistent, unhelpful thoughts and feelings. This can help restore perspective.
Whenever my life feels too stressful, I find that making music or doing vigorous exercise can transform my mood.
Distraction can be as simple as counting the number of red cars passing by, or watching a funny video, listening to your favorite music, singing, coloring, having a massage, walking in nature, playing with children or pets, or anything that absorbs or relaxes you.
Your brain, like a computer, has a limited amount of “working memory.” Distraction keeps it occupied. Depression and anxiety have less room.
3. Accept what can’t be changed.
When you throw a rock into a lake, it won’t resist. Ice may break, but the liquid lake won’t. In discussions with my inflexible boss, I was hard as ice, and paid for that with illness.
How can distress be made more bearable? Recognize when you are resisting something that can’t be changed, and pause to observe your own breathing and bodily sensations.
If unhelpful thoughts or feelings arise, notice them without engaging with them, and return to observing your breath. Then distressing thoughts, feelings, and circumstances won’t easily break you.
4. Become less self-critical.
A lake nurtures its inner life, with nutrients circulating below the surface. We, too, need to nurture ourselves, especially when experiencing depression or anxiety. Both are bullies that try to turn us against ourselves.
If self-criticism grows, try going through a list of positive characteristics and identify a few that best describe you. Then, elaborate and write out some of those characteristics in detail, using specific examples. To illustrate, if compassion is one of your characteristics, recall specific incidents when you comforted someone in distress.
After repeating this exercise for a few positive characteristics, you’ll feel much better about yourself and life.
5. Hold on to hope.
A lake is fed by streams. We have “streams” that can feed us, as well, if we enable them.
Try reaching out to others who are likely to understand how you’re feeling, perhaps by joining, or starting, a well-being group, or seeking professional help. Others can listen to you and reassure you.
Also, realize that you’re not set in stone. Scientific research shows that even your brain can change. I’m much more optimistic, sympathetic, warmer, and calmer now than I was in my twenties. We can all learn and grow, no matter what our age..
6. Become skilled at self-parenting your inner child.
Imagine your toddler falling over repeatedly while learning how to walk. Think of the loving, encouraging, heart-warming things you might say. Practice saying such things to your inner child.
I got far more criticism than appreciation as a child, but I now consciously reverse the balance in my self-talk. I remind myself that my faults are just part of being human.
This will benefit not only you, but also the people around you. As you shower unconditional love on yourself, it will overflow to your children, family, and friends. A lake gives life to all around, but it must renew itself with water.
7. Reduce big problems to small solutions.
As you regain perspective and energy, you can start to tackle problems.
Pick one problem that seems solvable. Pick the most promising solution. Identify a simple next step.
Congratulate yourself when you take this small step. Then take the next small step. Keep going, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Life need never be more complicated than taking the simple next step. A lake needs no giant moves…