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.

The problem with ruminating

Rumination Life can seem like a minefield sometimes. You look around, and everything may seem loaded with potential for catastrophe. But when  you’re depressed, the issue is that everything is already going sour. Dishes rotting in the sink, home never stays clean. You worry about the bills, about the state of the country and the world (whatever country – or maybe “world” –  you live in), about your family, about your health.

Every worry seems to trigger more gloom, more worry. And you think in terms of nothings: nothing ever gets better, there is nothing I can do, there is nothing good about me, about my life, about the future.

Traditional treatments for ruminating

For many decades, the standard treatment for this kind of condition was to sit with someone and talk on and on about how nothing was good. To say more, build up the picture, starting a counseling session with a rough sketch of your misery and having a completed massive oil painting of a mountain of crap completed by the end of the hour.

It turns out, that might not be the best way to feel better. While it can be very helpful to share your feelings and worries with a therapist or a friend, there is a risk that this can easily turn into unproductive rumination.

What is rumination?

What’s the difference between sharing, thinking things over, and ruminating? Generally, “ruminating” involves more of an endless, unresolved “looping” of your thinking in which you don’t ever solve anything. Instead of going over a concern for a few minutes or maybe in serious cases, for a few days, you end up spending what seems like an endless period of time.

This can be very damaging. A recent study by Jessica J. Genet and Matthias Siemer at the University of Miami, published in the journal “Emotion” in 2012, showed that ruminating over daily events will have a powerful effect on your mood. This was one of a number of studies that showed that ruminating often does much more harm than good.

How rumination hurts

Think for a second about what happens in your brain and body when you are reminded of a current worry or loss, a bad feeling, something you feel guilty or nervous about. Each time you think about that problem, two bad things can occur in your body and mind.

  • Your thinking triggers a physical “emergency”  response in your body. Stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol and so on, start to surge. As a result, all sorts of other unhealthy things can happen: blood pressure goes up; it’s harder to get the sleep and rest you need; digestion, energy levels, and so on are all affected. This is not good, especially if it becomes a chronic situation. If this lasts long enough, can even change your genetics, make you age faster!
  • The second problem is that the more you ruminate, the more you tend to make mental links from the current problem to a whole lot of other problems or concerns, either from your past or from what you imagine could happen in the future. Say you’re upset at something your mother, romantic partner or boss says. Ordinarily, this kind of thing can just be dealt with and it passes on. But if you start ruminating about it, you start to remember all sorts of other times when that person and you had a minor problem. Old disagreements, slights, injuries all start to get clumped together in the mental “network” you are building and strengthening by going over and over it in your head. Pretty soon, a perfectly normal relationship, with its share of everyday glitches, gets badly damaged.

People who ruminate about their problems may become more and more seriously depressed with time. They may damage their relationships, their health and their careers.

What to do?

There are a lot of ways that you can learn to manage everyday problems without falling into the rumination rat trap. This blog, the internet, and my upcoming book on depression all contain suggestions that may be helpful. As a start, just try to notice what you are doing and ask yourself, AM I tending to ruminate, churn, rehearse my concerns over and over in my head? If the answer is yes, and you decide that’s not okay, you’re already halfway home!

Two Ways of Thinking About A Depression

There are two main questions I tend to ask a client who tells me they are depressed:

1. What is your depression like?, and,

2. What is your depression about?

Many people don’t really notice the difference between the two, but the difference is pretty important. It might be helpful to become aware of the difference between the two questions.  

“What is your depression like?”

This a question about symptoms. In other words, how the depression feels to you. How it affects you. When a therapist asks what a depression is “like,” they are wondering things like:

  • Do you have a sad mood? Or a sort of flat mood? Do you feel like crying, or numb, or just preoccupied with the stresses in your life? 
  • Your general physical condition: do you sleep well, or are you tossing and turning? How’s your appetite? — Are you a comfort eater or have you been so not hungry that you’re losing weight? Do you feel more aches and pains, or antsy, or what?
  • Your general feelings about things in like: are you able to get enjoyment from your favorite people or things, or is everything kind of flat? Are you interested in the stuff you usually like — favorite books, TV shows, sports, hobbies, your kids? 
  • Your interpersonal life: Are you feeling support from people or kind of isolated, in your own little “bubble?” (The famous poet Sylvia Plath, who sadly did take her own life, compared some of her depressed isolation to living inside a glass “bell jar” with everyone else seeing to be outside the little jar that she was trapped in.)  Are you cranky with people? Arguing more?
  • Your thinking processes: Are you more negative, more pessimistic, more self-critical or guilty? Do you feel hope?
  • Your hold on life: Do you feel suicidal?

When you talk to a therapist or other health care provider, the answers to these questions will be used to help develop a formal DSM-IV diagnosis. How many of these do you have? 

What’s it all about?

The second question is usually what people really want to talk about: what their depression seems to be about.

For instance, what are the main “big problems” that may have helped trigger the depression? The stresses in life? Like the symptoms (above) of depression, the life problems that can trigger it can be pretty much anything:

  • Work or school stresses; job losses, failing classes, losing out on a valued position, school, job, etc.
  • Relationship problems: a breakup, a fight, a longstanding problem in a parent-child, romantic, or friendship situation that seems to be wearing you out, driving you crazy, or making you feel angry, afraid, isolated, lonely.
  • Situations like abuse, physical danger, and so on.
  • Problems with money or resources: everything from bills or money losses, to homelessness
  • Problems controlling deadly habits or addictions (alcohol, drugs, tobacco, food, etc.)
  • Other things; the list is huge. Even philosophical problems can fit in this list! (Like in a Woody Allen movie where a young boy is taken to the doctor with a depression because he can’t stop worrying that “the universe  is expanding.”)

It can be very helpful to keep track of both of these broad things: what your depression is LIKE and what it seems to be ABOUT. These two things have very different uses, though:

1. Reducing your syptoms

You keep of what your mood is LIKE so you can build your own personal “mood thermometer” or other psychological self-tests. This is critical if you want to learn to get control of the mood, using technnique-focused therapies such as cognitive-behavior therapy, mindfulness approaches, or so on.  Treatment via medications such as antidepressants are also going to target “symptom reduction.” The idea is that whatever a depression is “about,” it still helps to just get yourself feeling better.  (If you feel better, you are generally more able to deal effectively with the “real world problems” that trigger the depression. It may feel strange to fix the mood and the “problems causing it” separately, but it works!)

2. Tackling the “real life” causes

The “What is it ABOUT” questions are different: they are ways to help you start sorting out, and solving, some of the big problems in your life.

People often walk around with a zillion problems (or what SEEMs like a zillion problems!) flying through their minds. Because these things are NOT very well sorted or organized, this can make them feel even more stressed than the problems themselves do!

I’ve often found that the best way to get some sense of control over things is to start by making a list of at least the BIG issues on your mind.  

There are a lot of different ways to collect, sort, organize, and start to both solve, and take on dealing with these problems.  But one easy first step in getting organized, is to do something like the following exercise:

Just get some paper (or open a computer document.) Or just get a stick and write in the snow. Whatever….  

Write out, as fast as you can, a big list of your main worries. Do a sort of “brain dump”. Put anything and everything in the list. Anything from “I can’t pay my taxes” to “Suzie left me” to “I’m going to prison” to “I have a heart condition” to “I am out of cat food” or “I can’t decide what TV show to watch.” Whatever occurs to you. Put ‘em all down.

For now, just put the list aside and file it. But it’s part of your self-assessment and cure kit — I’ll walk more about what to do about it next time. 

Just don’t spend more time on it now than it takes to jot the stuff down. That is enough for a first step.

 

(Note: This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The 5-Stroke Depression Cure)