Welcome to the Mouth of the Tiger

The inauguration has left millions of people feeling upset, enraged and demoralized. Protests are occurring world wide, and people and governments around the world (except probably in Russia) are feeling intense stress and concern. It is not an exaggeration to say that for the majority of people in the country and the world, yesterday’s inauguration was the start of a near state of emergency.

Personally, I have been feeling that. There is certainly a lot to worry about.

My own main focus tends to be health care. Every week I see people who are in desperate straits, including both pain and suffering and being suddenly unable to work, due to severe health problems. Since Obamacare came into effect, fewer of them come to my office suffering — or dying — from untreated medical conditions. Of course, the first thing he (you know who I mean – I can’t write that name) did yesterday was to sign an “executive order” undoing key protections that many of his fans need to be able to keep their own health care. (“Thanks for voting for me. Now die.”)

But on so many fronts, there is of course a lot that may happen about which millions of people are going to feel fear, anger, rage. These mental states of course only make things worse. Your body, emotions, and clarity of though are all compromised by intense feelings of fear, pain and rage.

This is not a good situation. What to do?

I am often comforted by an old saying: “the most important time to meditate is when you are in the mouth of the tiger.” I think that for the foreseeable future, this may be a useful thing to remember.

An earlier, very great president, Franklin Roosevelt, took office during a time of near-chaos, a time when people wondered if America would even be able to survive as a country. In the throes of the Great Depression, a third of the country out of work, protests, violence, national rage and despair mounting daily, he assumed leadership and reminded people in one of the great speeches of all time that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

When things are at their worst, you need to have the calmest spirit, the clearest head. It  of course seems like the thing you are least able to do. But this is where some basic skills in mindfulness meditation can be very useful.

If you are feeling the hot breath and the jaws of the tiger closing in, try this:

Take five minutes and sit down. Get comfortable.

Close your eyes.

Take a breath. Just focus on the breath.

Repeat.

Over the five minutes, try to get your breathing rate down to four to six breaths per minute. Count to six on inhaling, pause, then exhale to a count of eight. Pause and repeat.

(It is important to exhale longer than you inhale — it slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, gives a more peaceful feeling. Basically, if you need to rev up your energy you inhale longer and faster; if you need to calm down, exhale more.)

That’s it. For a start. For some more help with meditation, there is a set of recordings on this UCLA site that you might find helpful. (Click here.) Here is a nice set of meditation bells you might also enjoy:

Meditation gets more effective the more you do it. You are rewiring your brain every time you practice. It is a great daily practice to develop a more constant state of relaxed alertness. Calm. Clarity of thought.

If you are going to help with the resistance, or for facing any challenges in life, you first of all need to stay calm and think clearly.

Starting a New Year

New Year has always been my favorite holiday. It’s all about a fresh start. Setting new goals. Making plans. Wondering what will happen.

A big part of the excitement in facing a new year is that it’s a chance to be creative, to build something new in the world or in our lives. It might be a bit quixotic at times, imagining a spectacular new self or better life or more good times — after all, who knows what good or bad things will actually happen? But on the whole, it does seem healthier (if not always easier) to feel optimism about coming attractions than to worry about what great past has been forever lost.

I’m working on some writing projects and wanting to focus most of my bloggy energy on this blog. I’m closing another one, dealing with weight loss issues, and planning to write about that topic here.

A few things I’ve been thinking about during the past year that I want to learn more about, so will be writing about here:

– The value of what I’ve been in my mind calling “immersive focus.” Meaning, instead of trying to accomplish 20 amazing things at a time, and so being mediocre at or totally neglecting 18 of them, it’s important to focus on just one or two things. There have been some good books on this lately, and I’ve been finding this to be very helpful in my own life recently. I’ll write about this soon.

– My own primary “immersive focus” topic has been personal health care. I’ve been pretty fortunate to have basically a symptom free life, but have always struggled with some weight issues and for 20 years or so, diabetes. But new research and some great writers on the topic have proven quite useful. I’m learning lots, and will share some of this.

– More generally, there are lots of exciting new things to talk about in the broader area of what we might call “performance enhancement,” which is really the same general topic that was of interest to ancient philosophers, to classic American “self-help” geniuses like Benjamin Franklin, and more recently, researchers in “expert performance” such as Anders Ericcson and pop writers and podcasters like Tim Ferriss. I’ll be reviewing books, sharing useful tidbits, all in keeping with the “high performance self-help” theme of this blog.

– More along the lines of actual professional psychology, I recently enjoyed a great professional workshop by Dr. John Norcross, one of the leading researchers and writers in the field of psychology. He spoke about the newest research on the importance of good relationships between therapists and clients and how to achieve them, and how that helps people get better when in treatment for problems ranging from depression to anxiety to substance use or weight loss. He has published some very useful things on  the science of self-change, focusing on what the research says actually works. This is great stuff, and I’ll be sharing some insights.

– I’m writing a book on managing what I’ve been calling “hard diets,” which are in fact neither all that hard nor, strictly speaking, diets. If you want to make lasting changes in your health, your lifestyle, your general happiness levels, this stuff might be useful. I’ll be sharing as much of it as I can in this blog in the coming months and your input will be very much appreciated. Look for ideas and reading ideas from some of the best, state of the art researchers and writers on nutrition, diet, exercise like Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of a number of books on the health benefits of “nutritarian” diets.

(Note: having just deluged you with links, I want to reassure you that I’m only sharing stuff I like; I don’t get any kind of compensation for sending you off to Amazon or anywhere else. And as best I can, I only suggest good stuff, with good research backing when it’s there.)

This blog will pick up on some of the writing from my long-defunct one that I’d been thinking of updating, the “Big Weight Loss Project.” Old posts on that will stay there. I’m also going to finally get around to learning how to manage my Facebook “authors” page, and will share details as I get it organized.

Finally, I’ll keep sharing some stuff on self-help for depression, from my books on phobias, enhancing your social intelligence (the greatest “superpower” you can have), and even some stuff from my psychological thriller, Dark Analysis (under the pen name JT Gregg.) (For these links, yeah, I could theoretically get some cash if somebody would PLEASE buy a book or two… but let’s not whine.)

Keep in touch. Let me know what you might like to learn about.

Let’s make it our best year ever.

Just in time for the holidays: to feel better, help someone else!

I just stumbled across this. A new study shows a strong relationship between our ability to cope with stress and doing things to help others. Apparently, people who do things to help others, often little things in their daily lives, tend to manage stress and their own moods better.

It reminded me of good old George Bailey, in the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Who under immense stress, finds comfort (with the help of Clarence the angel) in the realization that the world is a better place for his having lived in it.

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Have a helpful day!

Don’t let them put the wrong brain in your head!

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Over the last few posts I’ve been sharing some ideas about ways to help yourself overcome depression. I’m going to share a lot more of these ideas. They are based on decades of research on effective treatments of depression and related conditions, as well as on many years of experience as both a psychologist and an explorer of my own moods, mind, and behavior. (They will eventually be the basis of my forthcoming book, The Five Stroke Depression Cure.)

But before going on, this might be a good time to discuss a what we might call a “commercial break.”

“Commercial breaks”

TV shows are often interrupted by commercial breaks, those few minutes (or many, many, many minutes!) of advertisements that you are expected to watch as the price of seeing the show.

Commercials are annoying, but they are also powerful. They influence us more than we realize.

Marketing researchers know that the mere fact of frequent exposure to a product, even if the ads annoy you, makes you more likely to think of, and buy, that product when you are in the store or shopping online.

More insidiously, commercials are powerful ways of convincing us of “what’s real.” Commercials are used during political campaigns to get us to accept fictional models of “reality,” to believe that perfectly nice leaders are “crooks,” that tyrants and idiots are the geniuses we’ve been waiting for, and to convince whole nations to go to war or vote against their own interests. We come to believe in the worlds presented in commercials, especially if we see the same messages over and over and over again.

The main concern I want to address is what I might call commercialized “breaks” or really, mental breakdowns. The media are full of ads that try to convince you that, to be frank, you are having a mental breakdown, that you are suffering from the dreaded “chemical imbalance” of depression.

Of course, if your unhappiness, anger, fatigue, and desire to strangle your cat is really due to such a “chemical imbalance,” it stands to reason that the only way to help you with this is to “ask your doctor” to give you some kind of medication.

Big Pharma spends millions every year to insert this “abnormal brain” idea into your head. To convince you that your brain is, in effect, something it isn’t. To convince you that your brain is “abnormal.”

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These are not entirely honest commercials. Depression is a complicated condition. Many things contribute to a depression — it is usually not a condition with a simple physical cause. Thinking habits and attitudes, childhood messages about your worth, as well as things such as traumas, losses, and fatigue, can contribute to a feeling that may or may even be a true clinical depression.

When we are depressed, we feel helpless. The very definition of depression, according to researcher Martin Seligman, was once described as the belief that “nothing I can do will make a difference.” Letting the multibillion dollar drug industry insert an image of a certain sort of “brain problem” into your head can be harmful. It may add to your feelings that you are helpless. You may become dependent, docile, believing that you are nothing without the meds they have. That you can’t make it on your own. What a great way to control you! (When you think about it, it’s the same technique that some abusive partners use.)

Big Pharma knows that depressed persons can be the easiest people to take advantage of. If they can convince you that you have an unbalanced, “abnormal” brain, you will be scared. Which will mean that if I’m selling you overpriced pharmaceuticals, I’ve got you right where I want you.

Because you will be desperate for my cure.

As a specialist in psychological disability, I’ve seen many people whose main psychological problem is sometimes that they have created an image of themselves as helpless. They don’t even try things to feel better anymore, don’t try to find a therapist, to change their lifestyle or exercise or read self-help books to feel better. They have settled into the slow death of passively waiting for others to provide the magical solutions to their malaise (via pills, illegal drugs, dependent relationships with parents or spouses, fairy godmothers, or disability payments).

A mental experiment

Just for fun, try to imagine the following paragraph being read out during a TV commercial for an antidepressant. Imagine it being read in that deep, serious, “caring” professional voice that always reads the drug side effects during drug ads:

Side effects of this medication may include believing that the only treatment for your condition is this medication. Other side effects can include a loss of confidence in your ability to recover on your own, a loss of motivation to try to help yourself, failure to make major life changes that you know are really overdue, and a tendency to see yourself as a permanently “sick” person or “mental patient.” All of which may cause depression to last longer and cut deeper into your soul.

What if there is a better way?

A way to learn to control your own moods, to write your own story? To have control of your own, perfectly normal and lovely and talented and creative brain?

Research has shown that medications are only a part (and not always a necessary part) of effective mental health treatment. Decades of research have shown that psychological treatments may be as effective or more effective.

As usual in this blog, this may be a decision you need to discuss with a doctor or therapist or loved one. But when you do so, discuss concerns and reservations honestly, and as assertively as you can. And remember to include in that discussion the fact that there are lots of things that you can do to manage depressions. Including dozens that I am virtually certain you don’t know about (nobody advertises “journaling” on prime time!)

Simple techniques such as the notebook tools I have just shared, can be powerful ways to treat a mood disorder. Psychotherapy, exercise, mindfulness meditation techniques, yoga, and healthy diets may also contribute a great deal toward your mental well-being. Solving “real life” problems such as stressful job situations, chronic exposure to abusive relationships, isolation, or a failure to express your truest values in your life, may also be effective.

As a last resort, watching less TV and even, in some cases, firing your doctor and finding a better one, may be more useful steps toward cure.

The Depression Notebook – continued

In the morning she scuffed her way to the kitchen and sat down with a fresh cup of coffee. It took a while for her to feel awake enough to look around, to survey the disaster. Somehow she’d cleaned up the sink full of dishes yesterday. Finally. It looked nicer. Her memory of the day was hazy, as usual. Brain fog, or something, she said under her breath.
She glanced at the table and saw the notebook, still sitting there under the damp towel. Only then did she remember — she’d written that list, the “what’s wrong?” list, the day before. What a slog through my collection of hells, she thought. She did not want to read it through, or think about the problems for a while.
She sipped the coffee and stared off into the distance. All the things going wrong…quite a list. Seemed a bit — just a bit — more manageable, at least, after doing that brain dump.
Then she remembered, there was another question. One was about what was wrong. What was the other one?
She refilled her coffee mug and sat back down. She opened the notebook to a new page. A fresh start. And again, as if a voice within whispered the words, she wrote at the top of the clean sheet, “What’s going well?”
She stared at the sheet for a long time. This was harder. Finally she wrote, “well, the coffee is hot.”
Smiled a bit. That was stupid.
“…and the dishes are done. The kitchen looks a bit cleaner.”
She sat a while longer, nothing else coming to mind. Then something did. Just a little thing. She wrote it down.
And another came to mind.
After a while she stopped. She’d filled half the page. There was a list there, which came from…somewhere. Things going well.
The stupid smile came back to her face. She decided to get up and shower and finish the cleaning. Something felt a bit better, anyway. Maybe not hugely better. But a bit.

Getting the mind out of the depressive track
Depression tends to involve a cycle of thinking and mood symptoms. They tend to fuel each other, much like a cat chasing, but then catching and biting on his own tail.
When you are depressed, you tend to filter out the good stuff. You are less able to remember the positives, the pleasant experiences. It’s harder to remember the many things that are going right, because you get so focused on what is going wrong.
It’s a form of tunnel vision. Only focusing on the bad parts.
I like to think of this as a sort of survival reflex gone rogue. In primitive times, we probably needed a way to cope with emergencies that involved laser-like focus on whatever was going wrong. You want to survive in a stone-age environment, you need to be aware of the falling tree, the attacking animal, the noise in the bushes. Everything else should be put on hold.
Which is fine for coping with an immediate, short-term emergency. It keeps you alive.
The problem is that in most of our lives, the sources of danger are not short term, and not physical threats that require an immediate response. Rather, they are simmering problems: a relationship under strain. A bill that you can’t pay this month. A chronic physical condition. Loneliness. Loss of a love.
Those problems are not acute, fix-it-this-second-or-die emergencies. Yet our brains treat them as if they were.
Meaning, we automatically focus only on these negative things. And so we forget about the rest of life. The good parts.
In short, our conscious awareness gets stuck in a toxic groove. All we see is the negative.
This in turn triggers our biology, and nasty things happen. Stress hormones, brain chemistry, a cascade of ick.
The advantage of making yourself shift focus
Several decades of research in depression has confirmed what some of the ancient philosophers taught about the healing effects of shifting your focus away from the ick. Often, the simple act of listing what is going well, of writing down things you are thinkful for, or even just forcing yourself to smile, can actually, believe it or now, help you feel better.
In effect, what you think and what you do to feel less depressed can be as effective (or even more effective) than taking a pill to treat your depression. These things literally do change your brain chemistry as effectively at times as antidepressants.

Thoughts and acts are medicine

Try this exercise a few times. It’s one of many ways of doing this. Just do it and see if it helps at all:

Write down a list of “things going right in my life today.”

Little things count. The coffee you like. Someone smiled at you. The sun came up.
Just see what happens. Not promising it will work. Just worth a try.