I received a great comment on my recent post Sorry, Frustration, But I Can’t Accept That Proposal. Amongst the many beautiful and encouraging words in that comment was an issue that has inspired me to take a closer look at my coping skills and why I have come to believe strongly in having the choice to stay above or fall below the line between momentary sadness and ongoing despair.
According to the symptoms for diagnosis, I suffer from clinical depression. However, I also suffer from crippling chronic pain and I view both the anxiety and depression symptoms as my body and mind trying to cope with both the pain and massive changes in quality of life. I was not suffering depression when I developed CRPS. In the previous post, I wrote “When nothing can be done to stop whatever is upsetting me, I am the only thing that can make me feel better. How? By choosing to. It’s just a choice, that’s all. The more that I am aware of the choice, the easier it is to let go of the feeling of desolation. It’s not always easy to see the choice, but it is always there.”
It is not uncommon to be met with defensiveness or even outrage when suggesting that depression is a choice – that’s exactly how I reacted when it was first suggested to me. Why? Because to most people, that means you are implying that it is as simple as any other choice, such as what to have for breakfast, or what colour socks to wear. When I say that choosing whether or not to give in to depression is possible, I certainly don’t mean that it’s easy to do.
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The brain is a super lazy, super, synaptic network. If it usually responds to certain stimuli (inc. thoughts) in a certain way, then it remembers those connections, strengthens them (like a bicep in a gym) and uses them as a default setting. Over time, if a person allows negative thoughts to be accepted and regarded as fact, the mind produces more and more of these thoughts because physical and chemical connections in the brain start to change so that the route from perception to depression is the fastest and easiest one for the synaptic pulses to take. This is called neuroplasticity and means the brain has physically changed in response to how it is being used. If that word seems too complicated, think of it as I do – my brain is more like malleable plasticine than dried clay. Neuroplasticity means that the human brain is never ‘set’. It is always growing cells and creating new pathways for information to travel along.
Depression can linger long after its instigator has passed and is a bit like a poisonous snake – the cure is in the venom. Along with helping to aid depression in taking a hold of one’s mind, I believe that neuroplasticity is also the answer to both overcoming the depressive thought patterns and creating ways of recognising and responding to stimuli that are less destructive and even constructive. By recognising their existence and practising positive reactions, we can build new connections and new pathways for information to take, so that when it lands in our consciousness, it is a clear perception, rather than one tainted by its having taken the same neural pathway and acquiring the stigma of so many upsetting thoughts or sensations before it.
It is the hardest thing in the world to let go of justified anger or sadness…but that, right there, is the challenge that anyone facing depression must take on in order to overcome it. Accepting that I can choose how I react to thoughts is the most difficult mental strategy I have encountered and has arisen from years of working through my own emotions, thought patterns and responses. I don’t claim to have everything figured out, I battle with depressive thoughts every day. When I say ‘battle’, I am referring to the fight to simply let them go, rather than trying to ‘fight them off’, as the world suggests. In a way, I fight not to fight. The more negative thoughts and energy that I am able to recognise and let go, the stronger I feel. In order to get from a wheelchair to limited walking and driving, I’ve had to let go of a lot of pre-conceived notions of who I am, what I can control, what can control me and what it means to have this human body.
If someone had said to me years ago that the secret to not being depressed is to simply choose, I would have punched them in the face. Like many, I was so convinced that “No one understands!!”. It takes a lot of time and exploration to find ways to understand your own mind and I am learning a bit more about mine with each obstacle that I face. Depression is an ugly, ugly beast and manifests differently in everyone because we all have our own worries and woes for the anxiety to brew its emotional cocktails with. This can make it feel like a hugely personal thing, as though nobody has ever felt that awful before. Often people believe there is a root cause for their suffering and if they can only find and alleviate it then they will be ok. In my own experience, finding the root cause doesn’t automatically turn off the anxiety process and stop the depression.
The way I see it, root causes are red herrings when it comes to overcoming chronic depression and/or anxiety. They are valuable, but recognising them isn’t a cure, there will always be something else to be sad or upset about. I know plenty of people who claim that they are nervous people, or depressive people, or even abusive people because of what has happened to them in their lives. They can recognise where they tipped from mental stability but simply accept that as an excuse for their current behaviour, rather than challenging themselves to let the issue go so that it no longer holds influence over their life.
Everything I write here is just my opinion and I love hearing yours! Have you suffered or do you suffer from depression? If so, how does what I’ve written here make you feel? Please feel free to add your comments – coping with anxiety and depression aren’t set in stone things, nobody is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I think the more discussion about the nature of it, the more awareness and acceptance we shall breed.
Love & Letting Go,
P.S. Depression is not all that different from addiction. It’s just the mind set in its way and causing physical effects that are not easily reversed. I bring this up because VicHealth has recently released its first positive anti-smoking campaign in 20 years. The gist? Every time you quit you get a little better at it. Never give up, giving up. As well as being a brilliant concept for an anti-smoking campaign, this perspective also applies to overcoming depression. By completely ripping them off, I give you this statement:
Every time you climb back up from a fall into depression you get a little better at it. Never give up getting up.