As someone who has dealt with mental illness I am painfully aware that there are times in life when focusing on your health and overall well-being can be very difficult. Health problems, loss of a loved one, a difficult life transition, and mental health all can play a big part in the brain’s ability to focus on the issues of life. Today I want to talk a little bit what I have been learning about what is going on in the brain when a person is depressed.
What depression is like…
For those who have not experienced depression, it might help to compare it to being in physical pain. Imagine you have extreme pain in your leg that has not received medical attention yet. It would be easy for someone who is not aware of your pain to expect you to get up and walk. They might say, “Hey! Get up, let’s go. Why are you just sitting there?” You might want to get up but, you know that if you get up and try to walk you will feel the pain. Some times you can plow through the pain, and manage to get up and go anyway, but doing it day after day can prove to be taxing. If you don’t know what is causing the pain it can be especially frustrating because you don’t know how to make the pain go away. Depression is something like that, except it is a mental battle and not a physical one. It can be draining, confusing, and frustrating, especially when it is not obvious that depression is the problem. Climbing out of the downward spiral of depression can be hard but, like many things in life, where there is the will there is a way.
If you are experiencing depression you might find that some of the little things that are no big deal to others feel difficult to you. The thought of things like getting up, getting ready for the day, keeping a positive attitude, getting chores done, going out with friends, and cooking up a great meal are part of a regular day for most people, but for someone with depression even these little things might be difficult.
Why do I blog meal plans?
Part of why posting meal plans is important to me is because there was a time when things like meal planning and grocery shopping felt overwhelming, and eating healthy was the last thing on my mind. Not that I didn’t care, but my depressed mind was in a downward spiral that I could not figure how to get out of. I want this of to be a resource for others who are struggling. Not because I have it all figured out (far from it) but because I understand the struggle.
Why focus on depression on MPM?
One of the reasons that this post is relevant to our blog is because depression and being overweight are often close companions. What came first? Sometimes being overweight can lead to poor self-image and that can lead to depression. On the other hand, sometimes depression can lead to poor decision-making and lack of energy/motivation to take care of oneself, resulting in obesity. Either way, the two are commonly linked. Of course you can certainly have one without the other but this particular post is for those who struggle with both. To those of you who are struggling let me start by saying you are not alone. There is help.
I started reading the book, “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time”, by Alex Korb PhD, on my vacation. A co-worker I respect recommended the book so I wanted to look into it. Prior to picking up the book I knew that there was more to this losing weight thing than just eating less and working out more. I mean, if it really was that formulaic everyone would do it, right? Unfortunately, or fortunately (depending on how you look at it) we are not robots. When it comes to our success in losing weight our brains have something to say about it.
Do any of my other Weight Watcher peeps out there have trouble staying consistent on your weight loss journey?? Most of my journey has been a series of going up and down a few pounds. I am grateful that, for the most part, I have stayed close to my 35 pound weight loss, but I keep getting kind of stuck there. Many times my success, or lack thereof, reflects my mood and motivation level.
What exactly is going on with your brain
when you are feeling depressed,
and what can you do about it?
In “The Upward Spiral”, neuroscientist Alex Korb says depression can feel like a downward spiral, pulling you into a vortex of sadness, fatigue, and apathy. In his book he goes into depth on the very intricate brain processes that cause depression and then he offers a practical approach to getting better. The book gives lots of ideas of things you can do every day to rewire your brain and create an upward spiral towards a happier, healthier life.
The truth is that there is not one big solution to depression, but there are many simple steps you can take to alter the brain activity and chemistry. Some are as easy as relaxing certain muscles to reduce anxiety, or getting more sunlight to improve your mood. Small steps in the right direction can have profound effects–giving you the power to become your best self as you literally reshape your brain, one small step at a time.
There is power in the first small step.
The downward spiral.
Have you even been overwhelmed with a task to the point that you just wanted ignore it? Of course you have. We all have. Imagine a big pile of dirty dishes. All the dirty dishes are piling up over the sink onto the counter-tops. Just looking at the pile can be overwhelming. You might look at it and think, “Ugh! I don’t even want to deal with that right now. It will take a long time and I am tired.” That thought alone does not mean you are depressed, of course, but for a person dealing with depression this may be how he/she feels about many things in life. The “downward spiral” of depression that Korb refers to is when one wrong thought, action, or habit sets off a series of negative thoughts, actions, and habits that leave you feeling more and more depressed. The habits become a well worn path in the brain making it easier to think/react that same way over time.
The Upward Spiral.
Now, imagine getting the warm soapy water going and getting out the towel. You unload the clean dishes from the dishwasher making room for the dirty ones. Once you take these couple of simple steps your mind triggers into a new mode. It moves from the standstill “I-can’t-do-it” mode to the “I-can-atleast-get-a-few-of-these-done” mode. Once that gear is switched it becomes very easy to imagine getting all of those dishes clean and once you do get them clean you can step back and feel really great about what you accomplished, which inspires you then to get more things clean. The upward spiral started with something simple… getting the warm soapy water started.
The pictures above were taken about six years ago when I did a post to make moms feel better. Personally, I was struggling with mental illness at the time that made any task seem overwhelming, but our kitchen was especially bad that day and I wanted to prove to myself that I could have a clean kitchen. Sometimes just seeing an “after” picture is the motivation you need to make the first step toward your goal, which is why using the “Connect” option on the Weight Watcher app is so helpful. On “Connect” there are always success pictures being shared from people who have effectively lost weight doing Weight Watchers and the pictures are very inspiring.
Which “first step” will you choose?
If you feel stuck in a depression rut there are many “first small steps” that you can make that will make a big difference. The good news is that whatever you choose it will be the right choice. Reversing the downward spiral of depression has less to do with what choice you make first and more to do with the fact that you made a choice at all. In the “Upward Spiral” book Korb says, this:
Wash one dish in the sink. Put on your shoes. Send out one work email. Do anything that is on your to-do list that needs to be checked off, even if it’s not anywhere near the top. It still needs to be done, and it keeps you moving forward. Once you start being productive, dopamine is released in the striatum and parts of the prefrontal cortex. Suddenly you’ll have more energy and motivation to do the things you really need to do. It’s perfectly fine to procrastinate a little; just try being more productive in your procrastination. Like William James, you can make your nervous system an ally instead of an enemy. You have the power to create good habits, and good habits have the power to reverse the course of depression.
Pick your next step. Try one of these “first steps” the next time you are feeling depression taking its toll:
- Take a deep breath. When you are anxious or overwhelmed start with this one. Breathe in slowly through your nose while counting slowly to six (or even eight). Pause for a couple seconds at the top of your inhalation and then exhale slowly through your nose for the same count. This calms down the brain’s stress response.
- Smile. No really. Do it. Right now. Relax the tension in your face and let the corners of your mouth drift up. Korb says that by smiling, “the complex and amazing process of biofeedback will jump into action.”
- Laugh. Even better than smiling, try laughing. Korb says, “Even if nothing is funny, just open your mouth and let out a “ha-ha-ha”. The brain doesn’t distinguish much between genuine laughter and fake laughter, and fake laughing can often lead to laughing at yourself for real.”
- Sit up straight. Straighten your back and shoulders. According to a German study, “people who stood with a confident posture, were more decisive. So if you want to be more decisive, take a decisive stance (literally).”
- Go outside. At least for a few minutes. Go for a walk, listen to some music, or just soak in the sun.
- Go for a walk. Exercise will give you more energy, improve your sleep, improve your appetite, improve your mood, boost your self-esteem, and make you mentally sharper. Exercising can be as simple as going for a walk and has MANY benefits beyond just losing a few pounds.
- Think of a happy memory. Write about it. Reflect on it. Allow yourself to enjoy the memory.
- Practice gratitude. Write a detailed thank-you letter to someone who has been especially kind to you whom you have never thanked. Or start a gratitude journal. A line in the book that I loved was this one: “You can’t control what you see, but you can control what you are looking for.” With gratitude, it is often the searching, the looking, the fishing for gratitude that activates that circuitry.
- Get around people. Downward spirals are more likely to happen when you are alone.
- Help someone. Is there someone around you that you can go out of your way to help? By seeing someone else happy it will improve your mood as well.
- Make a decision. Alex Korb PhD says, “As soon as you make a decision, however small, everything starts to feel more manageable.”
- Go for good enough. Worry is often triggered by wanting to make the perfect choice, but this can be paralyzing. Korb says, “… don’t try to make the most amazing dinner; start out by just making a good dinner.”
- Decide for something you want, not against something you don’t want. This one is my favorite of them all. Here is what Korb says in his book:
Focusing on potential negative outcomes makes decision making more difficult. Actively choosing a particular goal you want to pursue–rather than basing your decision on avoiding something you don’t want–forces you to focus on the positive, at least briefly. For example, instead of “I don’t want to do a bad job,” say, “I want to do a great job.” This type of positive thinking is more effective at changing your behavior.
Some of these ideas are so simple but can reap great reward. If you are feeling down pick one or two things from this list and see if it doesn’t get you started on your upward spiral. If you try some of these and they help you tell us about it. Drop us a comment below. We would love to hear from you! For me personally, when I was feeling grumpy on vacation I made a decision to focus on what I was doing that was healthy. One day when we were walking and I was feeling agitated (hot weather, hungry, tired, etc.) I let myself imagine all the good that walking was doing for my brain. The focused attention actually improved my mood, and it was my small change for the day that improved my day. If you want to learn more specifically about what your brain does during depression and what you can do about it reading this book will help. I have shared some of the basic concepts from this book, but Alex Korb goes into great detail about each part of the brain and how the different parts work together.
How do you know if you have depression?
Of course, everyone’s situation is unique, but according to the book there are a few things that are usually characteristic of depression. If you have five or more of the following symptoms nearly every day for two weeks, then you may have Major Depressive Disorder (but only a mental health professional can make an accurate diagnosis). If you have fewer symptoms, you may have low-level depression.
- Depressed mood, such as feeling sad or empty or even constantly irritable.
- Decreased interest or pleasure in all– or almost all– activities.
- Significant (and unintentional) weight loss, weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite.
- Insomnia or increased desire to sleep.
- Either restlessness or slowed behavior that can be observed by others.
- Fatigue or loss of energy.
- Feelings of worthlessness, or excessive or inappropriate guilt.
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, or making decisions.
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
For me, it was necessary to get outside help. I learned that what I was dealing with would be helped with medication. It is possible that simple choices can lead you to your “Upward Spiral” but if you find that you are working really hard to fight the depression and it is not going away it might be time to seek professional help. I just wanted to put that out there. Once you get the help you need these little steps listed above can become some of the maintenance tools to keep the brain running on the right track.