Preventing the Spiral Down of Depression During These Difficult Times

Some Things That Help Me When I Feel a Dark Cloud Over My Head

“There is peace even in the storm.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh

Image by Lynn Greyling from Pixabay

Most recently, I’ve been waking up in a state of anxiety about the world. This became a daily reality when the pandemic first hit a little over two years ago and my hometown of New York City, two thousand miles away, quickly became the epicenter, with friends losing loved ones and my mom losing thirteen of her neighbors. With the availability of the vaccine and a reduction in covid cases, it seemed that we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And then things got worse — higher covid infections, increased violence in the US, growing division between neighbors and friends and, then, the invasion of Ukraine.

And yet, I notice that myself and those around me are still able to experience moments of joy when good things happen, as well as continue to enjoy a sense of humor. This is a sign that we are not clinically depressed. But, there is a dark and heavy cloud that returns for many of us between those moments of happiness. This puts us at risk of spiraling down into the abyss of a very real depression. And, for some, this has already happened.

Here are some statistical facts about depression in 2022:

• Millions of adults will experience depression at some point 50% of depressed adults also have anxiety.

• The World Health Organization says depression and anxiety have increased by 25% worldwide due to the pandemic.

• Preliminary findings show an increase of depression since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Covid has caused two years of increased social isolation — and has impacted all adults, but has been particularly impactful on older adults’ mental health, especially since older adults have experienced the most isolation of any other group throughout the pandemic. In addition, many have had to deal with multiple losses, including loss of loved ones, economic loss, or loss of the ability to follow our passion and do what we enjoy. Many of us have experienced the loss of friends and colleagues due to divisions within our country, based on very divisive politics and beliefs about Covid and vaccines. The existential fear, as well as compassion for the pain of those caught in war zones, has significantly added to the increase of stress and, even, of trauma.

Stopping the Downward Inner Spiral

There are several strategies that I’ve discovered to be helpful for myself in order to shake that feeling of a dark cloud over my head, whenever it pops up, as well as to give myself the energy and enthusiasm to do whatever I can to bring more peace into the world and to help others who are suffering.

Author of The Power of the Pause,Terry Hershey, wrote in a recent blog what I feel has been the most powerful piece of advice during this time of chaos and instability. In it, he reminds us to refocus our attention from the “bigger” world to the “smaller” world in order to create inner peace and to be more effective in creating peace in the world.

“When we see only the ‘bigger world’ we tend to focus only (and see only) the muddled and topsy-turvy and crazy and chaotic and hopeless, first and foremost….Seeing and engaging with the world right in front of me — doesn’t deny pain or cruelty or injustice. What it does do, is to remind me that there is a world (right in front of me) where I can bring myself, to choose, and to give, and to try, and to care, regardless of the outcome….And when I stop… in order to see the world right in front of me, I realize that it doesn’t matter what I expect from life, but what life expects from me.”

I frequently repeat his words to myself in order to avoid feeling utterly powerless and full of despair. By bringing ourselves back to the present and the world right in front of us, we can make a difference in our own families and our communities. Then, from there, we can go out into the wider world, making a difference from our little corner through volunteering for our communities or to send medical aid to places in need, such as Ukraine, donating to organizations helping that are helping those in need near or far, and political involvement to make our voices heard. It is what life is asking of us, right now — to “be peace,” as Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, and to bring peace and assistance to those in greater need than ourselves. We may not feel that we, as one person, can have a great effect, but through small acts of kindness, peacefulness and kindness ripples out into the world. This is a powerful ways of creating a more peaceful world. By noticing our distress, we can be motivated, but by wallowing in our despair, we lose our power to help anyone, including ourselves.

Creating Peace Within Ourselves

1. Elicit the Relaxation Response

It’s important to practice relaxation, regularly, in order to cope with stress, prevent discouragement and depression, and to have the energy and clarity of thought to move forward with creativity and enthusiasm. When we practice stillness, we reduce the stress hormones: cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. A reduction of these chemicals puts our body into the relaxation response, and thereby, completely interrupts the stress response. Here are some ways to practice stillness:

• Take breaks throughout your day to three slow breaths, inhaling to the count of five, and exhaling slowly, to the count of six.

• Silently repeat a mantra while taking slow breaths.

Thich Nhat Hanh, recommended this mantra:

Breathing in: “Peace in oneself.”

Breathing out: “Peace in the world.”

• Practice mindfulness meditation. Try this:

Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. There’s nothing to change, nothing to control. Just notice the feeling of your breath as it comes in and as it goes back out. Your mind will want to jump to other thoughts. Simply notice your thoughts and label them, such as, “Oh, that’s a thought about work. Oh, there’s a thought about what I’m going to cook for dinner.” Whatever thought comes to mind, label it and tell yourself that you’ll have plenty of time to think about that later. Then bring your attention back to your breath. This will happen over and over, but just keep bringing yourself back to your breath. Try it for five minutes and build up to twenty minutes.

• Use a guided meditation. There are many online meditations.

Here’s a free one from my website: Guided meditation for Inner Peace, Joy, and Vitality.

  • Listen to relaxing music.

2. Practice an Attitude of Gratitude

Having an attitude of gratitude has been found to increase optimism, motivation to make positive changes, and inner peace and calm, by reducing stress and physical pain. Researcher, Dr. Robert Emmons at the University of California-Davis, showed in his extensive research about the effects of gratitude on our emotional and physical wellbeing, that people who make a practice of feeling gratitude feel physically healthier and have a more optimistic perspective. However, in this world consisting of the constant message, “You are not enough,” it’s easy to forget that we are enough and that we have so much power that, together, we can spark a light that’s so bright that every dark corner would be lit. Because of this, Emmons found that the feeling of gratitude is something that needs to be cultivated daily through conscious effort. Making this a daily practice, increases our gratitude and, thereby, improves our mood. It gets us to focus on the fact that, while there’s stress in our lives and the world, there are also many things that make life worth living.

• Try this:

Write a daily list of five things, large or small, that you feel grateful for right now.

3. Be Creative

When I worked in a nursing home in the Bronx, I had a client who was very depressed. Even with medication, the depression lingered. One day, I invited her to meet me at a weekly art class in the building. She resisted, at first, stating “I can’t even draw a straight line.”

“I bet you won’t need to draw a straight line for this class,” I countered.

She finally agreed to meet me there and discovered, over the course of that first class, that, not only did she love to paint, but she was actually very good at it. She continued attending the weekly classes, and she announced within a few weeks that her artwork was going to be shown in an art gallery exhibit. She also no longer needed my therapy services, as her depression lifted completely.

You don’t have to be an artist. You don’t have to be any good at anything creative to benefit from doing it. Just do it. Try several different ways to be creative and see what you enjoy the most. Here are some things to try:

• Draw.

• Paint.

• Play with clay.

• Sing.

• Dance.

• Play a musical instrument.

• Write a poem.

• Write your story.

• Cook a gourmet meal.

The list of creative adventures is endless.

4. Move Your Body!

Our bodies are meant to be moved and doing so reduces stress and pain and elevates our mood and our problem-solving abilities. There are many safe ways to exercise (but, of course, first check with your medical practitioner if you’ve been sedentary and are about to start a new exercise program). Here are some ways to get your move on:

• Walk.

• Do Tai-Chi.

• Take a yoga class.

• Take a water aerobics class.

• Do chair exercises.

  • Take a dance class.

5. Commune with Nature

This is one of the most powerful ways of shifting our mood and giving us a different perspective. Here are some ways to commune with nature:

• Talk a walk in a park or near a lake, river, or ocean.

• Plant a garden or some indoor plants.

• Stroke or talk to a pet.

  • Even looking out of the window at nature or looking at a photo of nature has a calming and mood elevating effect.

6. Connect with Others

I spoke a bit earlier in this blog about the negative effect of social isolation that has taken its toll, especially over the past two years. Since isolation leads to increased stress and a decline in mood, one way remedy anxiety and depression is by connecting with like-minded and positive people. Social connection has the powerful effect of improving our mood and our cognitive sharpness. Here are some ways to connect:

• Join a community center, a group, or a club. Covid has gifted us with the ability to connect with groups near and far, virtually.

• Take a class.

• Exercise with other people.

• Join a dance class.

• Call a friend or relative just to talk.

  • Reminisce with other people.

7. Laugh Daily

I’m certainly grateful for comedians and laughter during this stressful time. I make it a point to listen, watch, or read something funny every day. It helps me to bring brightness into my own life, so that I can be better at helping others. Humor immediately produces feelings of joy, hope, confidence, inner peace, and social connection. At the same time, it reduces stress and helps us to attain an optimistic perspective of our own life.

• Look for humor in stressful situations. Often the most effective humor is that which finds a way to laugh at the stressful situations, themselves, or by laughing at ourselves when we’re stressed. This decreases the intensity of the situation.

• Watch a funny movie.

• Listen to or watch a comedian on a podcast.

• Read a funny story.

  • Share a joke with someone.

8. Become a “Glass Half Full” Person

Practice substituting positive thoughts for negative ones or find ways to reframe situations.

I recently had a discussion with my ninety-three-year-old mom about how to be “glass half full” about the war in Ukraine. We ended up talking about the amazing resilience of the Ukrainian people, all of the outpouring of love and support for Ukraine — musicians creating and recording music for Ukraine to raise money and spirits, the humor of the Ukrainian soldiers in the midst of this fight, and the dogs helping to sniff out bombs. Focusing on these positive aspects helped us to feel inspired. I began to feel more empowered to find ways that I could be of service to the Ukrainian people, in my own communities, and in my own life. By feeling moved by the resilience of a people, it can help us to connect to our own resilience.

Bringing Light into the World — Acts of Kindness Never Go Unrewarded

Often, the quickest most effective way out of depression is by helping someone else, opening our heart with compassion, and by being generous in our actions. Dr. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, learned from his experience as a prisoner of two concentration camps during the Holocaust that those people who were the most resilient in this intensely horrific situation were those who found meaning by helping their fellow prisoners, giving of themselves, even if all they had to offer was a crumb.

The one common denominator that I have found in working with older adults, young adults, veterans, people from all walks of life, is that we crave a sense of purpose, even at age 99. Once we feel a sense of purpose and meaning, the depression dissipates. Generosity and compassion help us to have that meaning and purpose. And the University of California researcher, Dr. Sonya Lyubomorsky, found that generosity of spirit can be more effective than taking an antidepressant for increasing our feeling of well-being, eliciting a more positive mood, and increasing our feeling of self-worth, as well as improving our ability to learn, our memory, our sleep, and our health. The benefits to our own health, as well as to the health of our society, by acting out of generosity, giving of ourselves and our time, are immeasurable.

In fact, generosity is so beneficial that it even helps those who are simply observing acts of kindness! Participants of a study in which they viewed videos of Mother Teresa helping people had an increase of Immunoglobin-A, our natural immune-boosting cells. This is called the Mother Teresa effect.

• One question to ask ourselves every day that can help us to focus on helping others, rather than getting stuck in our feelings of disappointment, fear, and lack:

“What can I do to bring more light into the world?”

• Be generous and compassionate by making a financial donation to a worthy cause.

• Volunteer at a nursing home, a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen. Join an organization that creates care packages of food, clothing, or medical supplies to send to people in need in other parts of the world. There are so many opportunities and ways to volunteer and so many who will benefit from your help.

• Do a good deed for a neighbor.

• Make someone who is feeling blue laugh.

• Lend your ear or a shoulder to someone in need. Pick up the phone and check on a friend, neighbor, or family member whom you haven’t heard from in a while and who might be struggling.

• Make it a point to practice one random act of kindness every day. It can be as small as a smile or a kind word or it can be an action, like helping someone carry a heavy load.

• Share your art. You never know what your artwork, your music, or your writing may heal or inspire in another.

We are certainly living in uncertain and difficult times. But, even when things appear bleak, we can be a light in the darkness by fostering our own inner peace and by being peace in the world through compassion and generosity. It’s easy to get lost in the feeling that we can’t make a difference, but the ripple effect of our peace and our kindness is real. And, as it’s said, it only takes one candle to light the darkness.

You can read similar blogs by Dr. Mara and listen to her internet radio show. Now also on Apple Podcasts.

Check out Dr. Mara’s internationally best-selling book, The Passionate Life: Creating Vitality & Joy at Any Age, now available on Audible!

And be sure to follow her on Facebook!

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