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What helped me

“The old grey donkey, Eeyore stood by himself in a thistly corner of the Forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, ‘Why?’ and sometimes he thought, ‘Wherefore?’ and sometimes he thought, ‘Inasmuch as which?’ and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about.” A. A. Milne –From book Winnie the Pooh

“Now that all of your worry has proved to be such an unlucrative business, why not find a better job?” Hafiz — Sufi Poet

I come from a family of worriers. Growing up and all the way though my thirties, I thought that worry was a normal part of life. I worried about my grades in school, what people thought of me, would I make friends, get a decent job, get married, have a healthy baby, work hard enough, impress my boss? The list goes on. I just assumed that both worry and constant striving for perfect accomplishment are those things that all humans need to do to survive. I also grew up feeling like everyone always knew what I was thinking, and worried constantly that I was being judged.

It has been a slow, but powerful revelation for me that 1) I actually don’t need to worry and 2) I am not my thoughts, and 3) I don’t need to be perfect, I just need to be me. What a huge relief! Thoughts come and thoughts go, some good, some bad, most are repetitive, but they are not me. I have come to realize that there is no upside to worry and it doesn’t serve any purpose except to create more worry.

I have learned that there is much more to my essence than my thoughts. They are only a small part of who I am. The other huge revelation is that I don’t have to keep thinking the same thought over and over again. I can think it once, or twice or three times even, then let it go. When I do that, it loses its power over me. I can be the awareness behind the thought and notice the thoughts without getting caught up in them. What is even better is that I have learned that I can actually change my thoughts, and you can too. If you can be present to notice that thoughts are just thoughts and not real, you become empowered to choose whether to react to them or not and whether to keep thinking them or not. You can learn to think different, more positive and creative thoughts. Amazingly, this does not come from actively thinking or trying to think. A practical way for me to do this is to think of my brain as a radio. If I am obsessing over a negative thought about an in my worrying mode, I think about changing the channel to another station. I actually pretend there is a knob in my head by my ear and I click over to another channel. This really works for me. The new station can be one where I imagine pleasant music, where I shift from thinking to actually looking around and seeing and experiencing the beauty and magic around me, or just letting myself rest in stillness. For me, creativity and insight arise from the stillness and awareness that comes from this quiet place.

There was a time in my life, less than six months ago (okay 3 months ago) when I was so caught up in depression and negative thinking patterns that I could barely function. I even said to my husband one morning. “I don’t want to get out of bed, I would rather stay in bed all day and think negative thoughts.” Sounds crazy, and it is, but it shows the power negative thoughts can have on people. When you get stuck in a negative thinking pattern, you forget that you have a choice. Negative thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative thoughts have a way of gaining momentum and building upon each other and taking over your life. Once you are caught up in the spiral of negative thinking, it can be very difficult to climb back out. But the good news is that this can be reversed and I am living proof that this can happen. Taking action, making the shift from thinking of yourself as a victim of negative thinking to being proactive and developing healthful habits and rituals lays the foundation for optimism, a more positive outlook and feeling like you can affect change for the better. It has been shown scientifically that neurons that wire together fire together. Once the shift happens away from negative thoughts to more positive thoughts, a momentum builds that can reverse your path from the downward spiral to a more joyful and fulfilling life.

Treatment of depression often focuses on relieving acute suffering without taking the long view and providing tools and a foundation for creating a more positive healthful outlook that can help to protect against future episodes. To me, this is like to providing antibiotics for an infection without teaching healthful ways of strengthening the immune system, washing hands before cooking, exercise, healthy diet, etc.

Here are some tools and suggestions that I have learned along my journey that have helped me to make the shift away from negative thinking to a more joyful and positive sense of self. I hope they will help you too.

1) Develop a meditation practice. Even if it is just for 15 minutes per day, sit and just notice your thoughts. You don’t need to try to stop them. Just notice that they are there. When you notice them, you are not identified with them and they become more fluid and can come and go. Anyone can meditate and there is no such thing as being a good or bad meditator. If you can breathe and notice what you are thinking, you can meditate. You don’t need to stop your thoughts, just sit in quiet awareness and notice them. When you do this, you realize that you are not your thoughts, they just happen and you are watching them. It is from this quiet space that intuition and creativity arise. These things cannot come through by trying to think about them. They come in the spaces between the thoughts.

2) Learn to breathe. This is one of life’s most basic functions, yet it is easy to forget how to do it. Learn how to take full deep breaths into your belly. Let your belly expand and welcome the breath. This was difficult for me. I was always trying to keep my belly in, so letting it expand was a new concept for me.

3) Exercise. This is good for the body and brain and stimulates release of hormones that make you feel good. Why not? Find something you like to do and get out and do it 20-30 minutes a day.

4) Connect. Find ways to connect with people in more than superficial ways. Get involved with your community, cultivate friendships, reach out and really “be” with people, help them and support them. This will help you to realize that we are all at some level struggling with worry, judgement of ourselves and others and trying to prove ourselves and our worth. By connecting and sharing, a shift starts to happen where we support each other in this journey to find a more healthful balance between doing and being.

5) Get out in nature. Notice the trees and the flowers and wildlife. Just watch and take it all in without naming it or thinking about it too much. When I do this, colors become brighter and everything seems more alive.

6) Notice and observe negative thinking patterns in others. Don’t judge or try to change them, but by observing and becoming more aware of them, you can see how the thinking process can spiral. One negative thought can lead to another and another and then becomes a full cascade of thinking that is hard to stop and gain perspective again. You may be able to help someone who is going down this path by letting them know what you love and appreciate about them.

7) If there is something you always wanted to do, but have been afraid to do it, take the risk, go for it. If you don’t at least try, you may have regrets later. If you try and it doesn’t work out, you will definitely have learned something that will help the next time you want to take a risk and try something new.

 Find something you like to do that is creative and stretches your brain in a new and different way from your normal activities. It may take some trial and error before you find what this is for you. It may be music, art, collecting coins, or making paper airplanes. For me, it is collecting shells and sea glass and making jewelry to give to my friends and family.

None of this stuff is new, we just need to be reminded again and again. Twenty-five hundred years ago Buddha described the noble 8 fold path. The first step on the path is Wise (right) view, to understand suffering, to understand the end of suffering and to learn the path out of suffering. Changing our thoughts is the first step in this journey.

The author is marine educator and mom who has suffered and recovered from depression. She shares her story at www.outofthewell.com in an effort to cultivate more compassion, kindness and awareness of depression and provide resources for people who are working to find their way out of the well of depression and into wellness.

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