25 years ago, following the birth of my second baby, I plunged into a depression that blind-sided me. I simply didn’t see it coming.
At first, I thought I was just overtired due to the demands of night-feeding and having two very small children. However, before long, I had changed from a capable young woman, to someone who could barely cope with the demands of day-to-day living.
Finally, realising something was very wrong, I went to my GP and told him I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. His response was to write me out a prescription for antidepressants. Simply put, the pills didn’t work. In fact they made things a lot worse as I now began experiencing some nasty side-effects in addition to the original symptoms of the depression.
The whole experience sent me to the edge of despair and, in my darkest moments, I asked myself a question that would change the course of both my personal and my professional life. The question was:
‘How did this happen?‘
I became sad, reclusive and introspective. I lived in a house next door to a pub and I came to really dislike that pub. I projected all my internal misery onto the pub. I disliked the building, it’s size and shape and how it overlooked the garden.
But one day, something happened which changed everything.
With the children having an afternoon nap, I walked into the garden and sat on a little swing seat placed up against the pub wall. With the pub to the back of me, I was now looking directly at my house, my home.
What I saw was a pretty old English cottage with window boxes and hanging baskets bursting with flowers. In front, on the gravel, sat my dog Bumble, looking quizzically at me with one eye as he rested in the sunshine. To the right, a fountain splashed away, and beneath my feet was soft, newly-mown grass.
In that moment, it occurred to me that I had been focusing my attention in the wrong direction. Nothing in my world needed to change much. But I really needed to change the way I viewed my world. It was an ‘aha’ moment.
There’s a story of a bank clerk who was placing money in the safe underneath the bank. Suddenly the door to the vault slammed shut. The clerk turned the door handle and gave the heavy door a strong hard push. The door did not budge. He tried putting his shoulder to the door. He tried kicking the door. Nothing happened. He grew tired and hours passed. In the end he started banging and shouting for help.
The manager heard the commotion and went down stairs. He turned the handle and opened the door.
The door opened inwards.
The definition of insanity often attribute to Einstein, is ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’
Yet, how many people keep pushing at an inward-opening door and wondering why they are not breaking through or making progress. Isn’t it time to try something different?
In my search to discover the truth about depression and our response to it as a society, I embarked on a journey which would have many twists and turns but would find me, some years later, as a qualified psychotherapist.
In that work, I would often invite a client to come and sit in my chair for a while and tell me what they notice about the room we are working in. The reply is often ‘It looks different from here. I hadn’t noticed that picture or that chair’. They might say the room looks brighter or even bigger.
The truth is, the room has not changed at all. They have simply changed their view of the room and are now able to see it from a different angle.
I might also suggest they close their eyes and imagine a mug or a cup. In their imagination, they can, if they wish, float over the mug and look down inside it or under the mug and look up at it. They might also imagine being inside the mug and looking out over the rim or send the mug further away to make it seem smaller and less significant.
Our powerful human minds can shift our world-view and change perspective in an instant. We have a choice be on the ‘inside looking out’ or ‘the outside looking’ in at our lives. We are unique in having this amazing mental capacity.
Yet how many of us allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our problems and our emotions, so that we are blinded to our choices?
Here are some useful strategies for change. There are many ways to view the world and many ways to view the challenges you may face. Just because you think something, does not mean it is true. We are all a product of the society in which we find our self; our culture, family, peer group and life experience.
1. Stay calm
When we are overwhelmed by a situation or a large emotion, judgement and perception are clouded. Emotional hijacking can send us into the back or white thinking style which connects us to our older mammalian brain.
2. Breathe stress away
When we slow our breathing down, we calm our body and mind too. This allows the rational left hemisphere of the brain to see our situation with greater clarity which enhances our judgment, perception and problem solving skills.
3. Take responsibility
No one can make you unhappy without your permission. You have to allow that to happen. If your life is not as you want it to be, don’t blame other people, your partner, the government, the stars or fate.
4. Notice choices
When you are too close to a problem, it’s impossible to see clearly or be aware of context, just like when you stand too close to a picture to see the whole thing. Try taking a ‘psychological step back’ and notice all the possibilities and all your choices. Remember, you always have a choice. It’s often a good idea to talk to someone else who is impartial. They are not emotionally connected to the issue and so will hopefully see with greater clarity. This is one of the main reasons talking therapy is a good idea and can lead to an ‘aha’ moment.
5. Get proactive
Once you’ve considered your choices, you will feel better when you have decided to take action, even if, paradoxically, that decision is that no action is needed. Often problems change and evolve with time. Life moves on. Regularly review the situation to see if anything has changed.
6. Push at the edge
So many people are reigned in by fear. They fear loss, change and new experiences and can find themselves paralysed. The big fear which holds most people back is that they will not be able to cope.
The only way to deal with those fears is to confront them and watch them grow smaller as a result. An ‘aha’ moment can come when you realise the shadow is always larger than the bear.
7. Do something different
Einstein probably didn’t say it, but it is an excellent saying anyway. The definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If what you’ve been trying so far hasn’t produced the result you want, it’s time to review and consider your choice of response.
8. Embrace failure
Things go wrong when you try out new strategies. But it’s ok to fail. In fact, if you’re not failing regularly, you’re simply not extending yourself. When you are at the edge of your comfort zone, you are in new territory and that’s when you’re stretching and growing. Reframe failure as ‘feedback’.
Say what you see. How do you read the above word?
Your moment of insight could happen today. Today could be the day when you choose to see things differently. The world around you, your personal circumstances may not change but you could begin to see with new eyes or tell your story in a different way.
I eventually had to choose to take responsibility for my own happiness. How did you choose to see the word above?
I saw ‘HAPPINESS IS NOW HERE’. I hope you did too.
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