Proactively building happy and healthy minds.
Over the past weeks my life has been turned upside down (or perhaps finally the right way up depending upon perspective……). A few years ago the situation may have in fact led me into a very dark place where suicidal ideation becomes a consideration. Yet, despite the extreme situation, I find myself feeling extremely grateful for my life and the opportunities ahead. Happy, most definitely not, but life does feel hopeful and promising in whatever direction it takes. Almost feels ‘wrong’ to feel this way in some respects as I’m isolated from my wife and children whom I love deeply. But I’m far far away from peering over the edge into the darkness.
I strongly believe this has a lot to do with actually feeling grateful for being in my current situation, for example;
I am able to speak with and spend time with my children and wife. They send me gorgeous pictures and videos.
I have a safe place to live with all the basics I need.
I have healthy food to cook and enjoy.
I have solid support from my employer.
I have support from colleagues and close friends. Including even one whom has been able to persuade her friends to donate work clothes for me!
I have good quality affordable and accessible physical and mental healthcare and can afford to purchase any prescribed medications due to the Australian Pharmaceutical benefits scheme.
I have been able to access material support in the form of styling and free clothing from a Govt supported not for profit agency
The area I’m living in may not be ‘fancy’, but it is welcoming and generally safe (if you don’t take risks).
I can walk to the beach in 2 minutes.
I can ‘do’ anything I wish each day providing it’s legal!
But most of all, I wake up each morning and breathe.
There are many many more examples I could cite and that is, I guess, the point here. I’m thinking spontaneously of these positive things and not of the things which I’m unhappy about. They of course exist, I acknowledge them and allow perspective to guide my actions. Classic cognitive behavioral therapeutic approach.
A few years ago now, I was lucky to be invited to attend a presentation at work by a Hugh van Cuylenburg whom had set up an agency called The Resilence Project. https://theresilienceproject.com.au/about/ if you haven’t come across this previously I’d highly recommend doing so. They attend Australian schools and workplaces and have even had great success working with some Australian Rules Football clubs. The details are all in the link above. But I believe it’s worth outlining the following;
Gratitude is being thankful and expressing appreciation for what one has — as opposed to focusing on the lack of something, or emphasising the ‘wants’ that society and consumerism can project onto us. Research shows that practicing gratitude rewires our brains to overcome the negativity bias (which can lead to anxiety and depression) and see the world for what we are thankful for. It is also shown to broaden thinking, and increase physical health through improved sleep and attitude to exercise.
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings from their perspective. Research shows that practicing empathy such as performing acts of kindness, taps into our brain’s ‘mirror neurons’, builds compassion and our behaviour becomes more social and community-based. “Brain imaging data shows that being kind to others registers in the brain as more like eating chocolate than like fulfilling an obligation to do what’s right (e.g., eating brussel sprouts).” It’s also shown that “80% of our happiness is derived from friendship, loving relationships, spirituality, health, and work fulfillment.”
Mindfulness is about practising a moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment — with curiosity, and without judgement. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, yoga, flow-states and daily activities such as cooking. Thousands of studies have proven benefits include reduced stress, reduced rumination, increased memory, increased cognitive function and physical health benefits through improved immunity.
Sometimes it’s the case that understanding and believing in something isn’t quite enough to have as much of a beneficial effect as it should. An example might be that a person might really want to be able to ride a bicycle up a 1000m mountain, knows that they need to practice and exercise, but then struggles to complete the exercises required and as a result whilst is able to get some of the way up, don’t quite reach the top and feels a little despondent as a result. The feelings of lowered self esteem as a result then affect further the motivation to exercise and the top of the mountain seems to get higher and higher. It’s well known that once you start to exercise, after the initial struggles of the first few sessions, that you begin to enjoy and feel the benefits. Which in turn allows the improved release of positive feeling hormones such as endorphin.
So it is the case with many other areas of life I believe, especially so with Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfullness. It may take a few weeks or even months to start to feel the effects, but once you do start, those effects themselves provide the motivation to continue. Again knowing this and putting into practice could be difficult initially, so I looked into what might help start the process.
Reversing the Vicious Cycle.
Medication such as antidepressants can help change your energy level and improve sleep. (Discuss with your doctor and don’t give up after trying different sorts, some might suit you and others not. It took me 5 different types before the ‘right’ one was discovered).
Tackling your list of tasks and responsibilities, but doing it in a realistic and achievable way, so that you set yourself up to succeed.
You might find that a ‘Happiness Calendar’ useful; https://www.actionforhappiness.org/. Gives you daily prompts and ideas, here’s January’s;
other suggestions might be;
Soaking in the bathtub
Collecting things (coins, shells, bicycles (but maybe not the 24 I had at one point!)
Going for a day trip
Going to see a comedy at the theatre or movies
Going to the beach
Playing a team sport or game.
Having a barbecue at the park
Going for a walk, jog, ride or hike
Listening to uplifting music
Try some of them out and evaluate how you feel before and after the activity. Chances are, you’ll find that you’ll feel a little better. The important thing is to persist — keeping your activity levels up is the first step to breaking out of that vicious cycle! The second step is to look at how thinking patterns contribute to the vicious cycle of depression.
At the same time you might also wish to start practicing how you might improve, Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness (GEM) in yourself. There are various means of doing this, some suit more than others, but it’s worth persisting to find the strategies that work best for yourself.
I find that these strategies help me practice the GEM principles.
You can ask yourself or those you’re close with these questions. They are a great way to facilitate positive conversations as your family shares a meal either in the morning, afternoon or evening or at a time that works best.
Gratitude GEM questions;
- What were three things that went well for you today?
- Who is someone you feel really grateful for today? Tell us why.
- What is it about our home that makes it our home/special family place?
- What is something you are looking forward to tomorrow?
Empathy GEM questions;
- Who is someone you know who may be experiencing some difficulty currently? What could we do for them as a family?
- Remember someone who has done something kind for you recently. What did they do for you?
- Say something kind to someone in your home.
Mindfulness GEM questions
- How did you practice mindfulness today? These are things like meditation, puzzles, spot the difference, colouring.
- What mindfulness activity are you going to do tomorrow?
- What is your favourite mindfulness activity?
- How do you feel after you do a mindfulness activity?
You’ll need to document your answers each day somehow, this can be something as simple as a cheap notebook, through to ‘Resilience Diaries’ or even downloading an app. https://theresilienceproject.com.au/the-resilience-project-app/ Whatever works best for yourself. It’s critical to keep these diaries as this is the key to help break down those negative automatic thoughts. Reviewing and reflecting upon your answers over a period of time, you might start to see a shift in your perspective and hence a change in your own behaviours.
For a long time I continued this myself, documenting daily my answers to these questions and whilst this eventually dropped off my daily radar, I do feel as if there’s some kind of Neuro-pathway that I’ve been able to develop that remains and subsequently believe that my resilience even in the face of desperate situations has been improved.
I have recently restarted my diary keeping as I do recognize the importance of this work and like with exercise, after a few weeks, it’s getting easier.