My wife and I were having a discussion about the current state of affairs in the United States and around the world. We follow the news on a daily basis. She was telling me that she was getting very depressed and feeling hopeless about the future. I first suggested that we disconnect. I suggested that we stop watching the news on TV and reading the newspaper. We also watch television programs that focus on current events. I suggested that we change our viewing habits. Her response was that she was not willing to do this and wanted to stay informed. This got me thinking about the tools available for people to manage their mood. Given the state of affairs in the United States and the world I am sure many people are feeling anxious and/or depressed.
Our mood is directly related to those things on which we focus. If you focus on those things that cause you emotional pain or sadness, it is logical to have feelings of depression and/or anxiety. It is important not to bury your feelings or deny them. Acknowledge your feelings and then work on strategies to manage or lessen the impact these feelings have on your ability to engage and enjoy your life. Feelings of hopelessness are a part of depression. Many people tend to think in catastrophic terms. Thinking about the worst possible outcome is not realistic and only adds to anxiety and depression. The outcome of any situation would be somewhere between the best and the worst. Also, we have no way of knowing what the outcome will be nor do we have control of it. Work on focusing on the present. Stay engaged in life.
Here are a few more suggestions for managing your mood:
Focus on the things that you have rather than the things you lack. We are all aware of things that we want that haven’t materialized in our lives. Focusing on the things you lack will only reinforce feelings of depression. I suggest that my clients maintain a gratitude list. Add things to it as you become aware of them.
Self-care is very important. Grooming and hygiene are important as well as eating healthy meals regularly. Do things that feed your soul. Listen to music, read a good book, get a massage, or get your hair and nails done. Do whatever makes you feel good about yourself. Stay active.
Lastly, Don’t isolate.
Lack of motivation is a key feature of depression. Follow these suggestions even though you may not feel up to it.
There was a study done several years ago to determine why certain people live to be over 100 years old. They looked at all factors including family history, diet, lifestyle, and geography.
There was one factor that was common to most of those studied. They had a purpose. They had a reason to wake up in the morning. I could be a job, caretaking, an interest that requires attention, or plans for the future.
Having a purpose or a goals goes a long way toward improving mood and self esteem. Find an interest and pursue it. Have a reason to get up in the morning. You may well live longer and actually want to accomplish this.
What a huge and universal topic to be tackled on a blog post. Man has been trying to find an answer to this question since the beginning of time. Numerous philosophers and psychologists have written volumes on this topic. This is the major reason people have turned to religion and metaphysics. How many sleepless nights have been caused by the search for the meaning of life?
“What is the purpose of my life?”
“Why was I born?”
I have come up with my own answers that simplify and truly work for me. They make life less of a mystery and far less scary. I thought I would share and I hope they might work for you.
1st the second question: Why was a born?
My birth is no more or less significant than the birth of any child that has ever been or is yet to be. My parents engaged in sexual intercourse. One of my mother’s eggs was fertilized and approximately 9 months later I was born. This is the reason I was born. It is that simple.
1st question: What is the purpose of my life?
I do not believe in some grand plan or inherent meaning of life. I believe each of us has value as a person and we make choices during our life. My life does not have meaning. I give meaning to my life. The meaning I give it depends on my values and beliefs and the choices I make. Therefore, life means what I decide it means. And the meaning I give it can and has changed over my lifetime.
Try this on and see if it works.
I have been writing my blog for a few years and I have rarely spoken about myself and my own struggles. Having started my own journey of recover nearly 30 years ago, I have a great deal of experience and knowledge about all the skills I have shared with my readers. I have also learned from all the people I have counseled over the last 20 years. I hope that some of you have benefited from my blog.
One thing I have to keep in mind is the phrase: progress not perfection. No one, including me, has ever done this perfectly. I am a work in progress like everyone else who is in the process of change and growth. I suffered from chronic depression and addictive behaviors for most of my life as well as poor self-esteem. Although I have experienced a tremendous improvement in the quality of my life, I also have my struggles. I sometimes find it difficult to apply all the coping skills I know. There times I have to work hard to focus on the things I need to and stay in the present.
I have my own philosophy of life: Life is to be enjoyed. I work every day to make that a reality. One of the ways I stay focused is by writing this blog. It has great value to my life. I hope it has value to yours.
I am certain you have heard of insight focused therapy. I imagine you know the phrase “hindsight is 20/20”. We seek to gain insight in order to understand our past and how it has affected us. And, somehow, by gaining insight we will change. We also tend to analyze our past actions or decisions and how they relate to the outcome or our current situation. We will likely say we made a mistake or say it was dumb or even that we were dumb to have done this or that.
The only value I see with hindsight is to see where we were as compared to where we are at that moment. With hindsight we have more information than we did when making a decision or taking an action. If we had all that information at the time we would have done something else. It wasn’t the mistake we may think it was. We make a choice based on the information we had at the time. When we view those things in hindsight we tend to make ourselves wrong and put ourselves in a negative light. That is never a useful exercise. This can be damaging to self image and self esteem.
Thinking of insight as a valuable tool to help us change our thinking for behavior may not be nearly as helpful as we might think. When I was in therapy I had the belief that if I only knew why I was the way I was and what made me that way, I could change and be happy. I figured that insight would be followed by change. I was so wrong. After a long time of seeking the “truth” I had hardly changed at all. I found quite the opposite. As I began to use healthier coping skills and was changing, I gained insight. I was able to see a comparison between the past and present and was able to understand things like never before. I believe that all the insight in the world won’t change thoughts or beliefs or behaviors. I think that challenging thoughts and beliefs what are not working is the path toward changing behaviors and improving the quality of our lives.
In summary: My verdict is that hindsight and insight are not all that valuable as a way to enable our change and growth as people.
We tend to look at certain events in our lives as important days. Those days that we consider to be life-changing such as graduations or weddings or the birth of a child are important days to us. Some think the day they met a significant person as being one of the most important days of their life. It is for me. For most of us there are numerous days that are significant and/or life changing. All of those things have already happened or have yet to happen at some future time in our lives. Most of the events that await us in the future are totally unknown to us today. How our lives will manifest remains a mystery.
Stories are written one word at a time. The words combine to create sentences that become part of a paragraph. One paragraph follows another and this ultimately results in a story. The author may have ideas about the content of the story but fills in the details as it is written. Life is similar in many respects. Lives are lived in minutes, hours, days, months, and years. We may have things we wish to manifest into reality. But we don’t know what our lives will look like until the story is written or our life unfolds in front of us and we experience it. Rarely do people’s lives look just as they had pictured them in the past.
This brings me to the point of this post and why today is the most important day of your life. Your past in done and is no longer a reality. It is the past. Past days have created the life you are experiencing today. We have an idea what we would like our life to look like in the future. But the future hasn’t arrived yet. All we have is the moment we are living in. All we can control is what we do now in the moment we are experiencing.
The decisions and the actions you take today lay the foundation for what your life will look like in coming days, weeks, months, and years. It is important to focus your attention on what you have in front of you and not dwell on either the past or the future. Have a plan or a goal. Those are valuable. What is most important is to put your time and energy into the steps you need to take to attain those goals. This is why today is so important. Today really is all you have. Tomorrow will once again be the most important day of your life.
It seems that most people are in search of happiness. Clients come into my office saying, “all I want is to be happy. What do I need to do in order to me happy”? I read on message boards how people just want to be happy. Look at many of the daytime talk shows and you can find them talking about seeking happiness. You can find literally hundreds of book promising to help you find happiness in your life.
I do not think that happiness is a reasonable or attainable goal. Before you stop reading, let me explain and you might even agree with me. I believe that happiness cannot be a constant state of mind and happens from time to time under special circumstances. I think we can work toward being in the state of mind to allow happiness. I want to be in a place emotionally that will allow me to experience happiness when those situations present themselves during the course of my life.
There are feelings that I like to have and feelings that I would rather not experience. If I want to experience the feelings I want I have to allow myself to experience those feelings I don’t want. I don’t get to choose. It is important to learn not to judge our feelings as either bad or good. There are no bad or good feelings. There are only feelings. Having and expressing our feelings is all part of experiencing life and being a human being.
Ultimately, my goal is to feel comfortable enough in my own skin to experience and work through my feelings. I cannot judge myself for the feelings I have. This way I can allow myself to experience happiness and joy in my life.
Most of us grow up exposed to the habits and beliefs of our families of origin. We learn from them the way to do things and the way to think about and see things. Most of our beliefs come directly from them. It is common to adopt those beliefs or rebel and do the opposite of what we were taught. Neither is the best approach to life. Most of us grow up limited in our exposure to the variety of options available to us. My experience with clients and people entering a recovery process is the common view of seeing things in black and white.
Black and white and all or nothing thinking can cause people problems and inhibit their ability to solve problems and succeed in life. Many of us go through life unaware of how limited we are by our inability to recognize all the choices we have and choices we never consider as options. We have the beliefs we learn as children and carry with us into adulthood. Many of those beliefs do not apply to our adult lives. We have many choices for how we interpret the world around us. Keep this in mind. Many things mean many different things to many different people.
Most people tend to do what they are in the habit of doing and what is most comfortable for them. If we have not be raised in an environment of exploration and being open to new ideas it is difficult to go out of our comfort zone. We have to learn to think outside the box and explore all possible option in order to make better decisions and have a more fulfilling life. It is important to avoid black and white thinking and be able to see all the shades of grey.
It is important to understand that our perception of reality becomes our reality. In many cases our perceptions have become distorted based on beliefs we developed early in life. Therefore, just because we perceive something to be true it might not be the case. Using the example of a person who is bitten by a dog; some people develop a fear of all dogs. Most dogs are not likely to bite us and we approach all dogs with the same fear. The fact is that only a small percentage of dog bite people so fearing all dogs is a perception not based in the truth.
Avoid thinking in absolutes or all or nothing. The concepts of always and never are invariably the result of faulty and distorted thinking. Also, it is not helpful to think that you should have done “this” or shouldn’t have done “that.” Regrets for previous actions are not helpful in improving mood and moving forward in our lives.
Identify the thoughts or beliefs that are faulty, erroneous, or self-destructive. Find alternative thoughts and beliefs. The next step I call “catch and correct.” Every time you “catch” yourself engaged in faulty thinking replace that thought with one that is more helpful. That way you are “correcting” your old patterns of thinking. This requires increased awareness of your thoughts and vigilance. It also required you to be persistent in your effort. This process will take time in order to change old automatic thinking to a new way of thinking. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping a journal to record your thoughts and feelings. This strategy works for depression, anxiety, other fears, and self-esteem issues.
Most of all be gentle and kind toward yourself. No one does it perfectly and neither will you.
If you only read self-help books or articles by many pop-psychologists, you would likely believe that changing how you think, feel, and behave is a relatively easy process once you decide to do so. Many people write in such a way that leads you to believe it should be as easy as deciding to change and instant change occurs. Deciding to change is only the first of many steps toward the attainment of lasting and permanent change. It will require a commitment of your time and effort to reach your desired goal.
The first thing you must understand is that most of your thoughts and behaviors are not done in a conscious manner. They are mostly automatic and are habits you have developed over time. We all have a set of beliefs that determine how we see things and, therefore, determine what we think and what we do. This ultimately determines how we feel. In making the changes that will ultimately improve our mood, self-esteem, and our lives we are changing habits. Habits take time and effort to change.
We all have this conversation going on in our heads (self talk) that determines our reactions to events. I suggest that you start a journal and write about how you experience life. This will help you to identify faulty or distorted thinking that negatively affects your life. The next step is to explore alternative thoughts and behaviors to replace those that do not work. Having someone to share your thoughts and feelings with as well as exploring alternatives is extremely helpful. The support and encouragement from a trusted relative, friend, or counselor increases the likelihood of a successful outcome.
I will continue to discuss the process for change in my next post.