Does this sound familiar?
“I am determined to be successful with my recovery from depression and suicide ideation, and I’m making progress. However, some days the smallest thing will have me spiraling to another low. These days feel so painful and the trigger so minor, I’m afraid it will happen again, even when everything appears to be going well. The fear of this cycle is becoming a problem. Will it ever end?”
This is a great question regarding a very painful situation. Given your determination, YES, I believe it will end. However, it will require some work.
I specifically reference “your determination” above, because that is important. The cycles you’re experiencing are common. They are a reflection of the way our brains work, and therefore, it takes our conscious and deliberate effort to break them. But it can be done. The strength and courage that brought you this far, is proof you can make it the rest of the way.
How our Brains work
Simplifying my basic understanding of the brain… our brains work naturally and continuously (without our conscious effort) under the principles of self-protection and efficiency. Our brains are wired for survival – our greatest instinctive purpose on this earth. As a result, your brain is comfortable with the familiar and seeks short-term rewards. It is not organically wired to train for a marathon, seek a job promotion, or make those follow-up phone calls.
Our Mind, and how we use it In addition to our brains, we each have a mind. Our mind is our conscious and logical ability to think and plan, and requires our energy, our health, and our passion to drive it. Our mind is the tool we use to identify that long-term goal, that marathon I mention above, and develop a training schedule to achieve it. Your plans for recovery likely involve making changes in your life, maybe not the ones in my example, but you probably have a series of goals you’d like to meet and are developing a plan of action to get there. You are focused on a bright future… and you are using your mind to do that.
Understanding the battle within
Sometimes your mind and your brain compete. When you are depressed, tired, anxious, hungry, afraid, preoccupied, overwhelmed… what do you think will win?
That’s not a trick question. Your brain wins. No matter how you feel or how much energy you have, your brain works instinctively to keep you safe (it’s short-term, primitive definition of safe, not your long-term, goal-oriented definition of success).
Are you starting to see where your fear is coming from? Nothing’s broken, but your brain does not naturally align with your long-term desires. If you do nothing, you will continue to be a victim of that instinctive organ seeking only the comfort of the familiar. Its ability to drag you down will get stronger and your fear of this will continue to grow.
You can lead the charge! With your commitment to take control of your mind and drive the changes you want in your life, you can break the status quo and even create a new comfort zone for your brain as you begin to rewire it. With the understanding you now have and the determination you expressed in your question, you are more than half-way there. To help close the remaining gap, experiment with the tools I share below and find the combination that works for you.
Take Control Toolbox
1. Reality Checker
Depending on where you are within your recovery from depression, you may or may not recognize this common problem: to the depressed mind – things you believe to be true, are not always true. When fear begins to set in (you may feel your chest tighten or your temperature rise) take a moment to identify what thoughts you are having and write them down. Talking to someone you trust may often validate these thoughts and fears are unfounded. This is something you can bring to a support group as well. When talking to another, find comfort in their words and let your unfounded thoughts and fears go.
2. Written Reminders
You may likely have recurring fears. If you’ve written these down in the example above, when you’re feeling better, you can write personal reminders to support yourself. Write about your goals and why the fears you’re having are not valid. When they are valid, they are probably manageable and necessary. In this case, re-frame them in a worthwhile way to support the goals you are working to achieve. Finally, add a positive thought to replace the one you’re experiencing. Save these reminders to your phone or pin them to your wall. Read these notes when you are experiencing fear or at the beginning of another negative cycle.
3. Gratitude Journal
When you constantly remind your brain of everything you have to be grateful for, it will feel rewarded. A brain that’s cloaked in gratitude won’t be desperately looking for trouble to fix. Bonus points – your brain will begin to rewire itself to look for the positive. This becomes the familiar, its comfort zone. Every morning write down three things you are grateful for in the day to come, and every evening write down three things you were grateful for that day.I am grateful to be getting out of bed this morning. I am grateful I’ve committed to a one-mile walk today.I am grateful I have my friend, Deeatra, to call if my fears return.Struggling to find something positive? Reread what you wrote in the past and plagiarize your own work!
4. Action Plan
Develop a written plan of action. Take continuous action on your plan no matter how you feel about it (hint: start with something easy). Consistency will rewire your brain and lower the resistance you face over time.Get up at 7:00 (reward yourself with a big smile in the mirror and feel good stretch)Write in my gratitude journal (reward yourself with a deep comforting breath and smile)Make a healthy smoothie for breakfast (reward yourself by adding a teaspoon of antioxidant-rich cacao powder) Go for a one-mile walk. (reward yourself with a post-walk happy dance or some great tunes while you stroll)
5. Reward Positive Behavior
Reward your positive behavior – see the action plan above (I added some examples of positive rewards; the happy dance and cacao powder are my favorites!). Reminder – don’t focus on the results you may or may not be able to see yet. These may take some time. You can only control the steps you’re taking today, and these should be celebrated.
Don’t fight your brain, but acknowledge it, be grateful for it, and don’t be ruled by it. Meditation involves quieting your mind by taking a moment to non-judgmentally recognize and accept those negative thoughts and let them go.
7. Diet & Exercise
Remember, using your mind to outwit your brain and break those negative cycles requires your energy, focus, and passion. Start simply by committing to reasonable food choices on a regular basis, drink at least eight glasses of water a day, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park further from the door, and adopt a routine sleep schedule that gets you the rest you need. Also, create a manageable plan of action. Expecting too much from yourself can result in feelings of anxiety or of feeling overwhelmed. It’s taking consistent, positive steps that’s important, not the results. Focus on the action and those results will eventually come.
An important consideration on coping mechanisms…Mechanisms such as nicotine, alcohol, or risky behaviors are sometimes used to cope with negative thought cycles. Although these may work short-term, unfortunately they only mask the cycle, rather than break it. As a result the cycle grows stronger – 1) it’s being repeated, and 2) it’s being rewarded with addictive and temporarily satisfying behaviors.
To eliminate your fears, finding a method that solves the problem – breaks the cycle – rather than just masking it is crucial. * * *
The list above is my go-to list of ideas I’ve found to work. Once you select what works for you (or find an alternative approach), you can use these tools to interrupt those negative thought cycles. The more you practice them, the easier they will become. With repetition you will create positive thought cycles in your brain and say good-bye to that lingering fear.