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.