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A Lifestyle Lesson for Depression

During a bout of depression, you forget about all your hopes and dreams and it’s next to impossible to remember who you are.

And this is by design.

Depression is your body’s way of erasing your desire.

To me, it’s more helpful and more accurate to call depression what it actually is: a cluster of bouts of depressed stress.

Major depression doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it takes so long to accumulate that when most people are wrangled in the reigns of depression, they can’t remember the last time they were happy. That’s because it took them a while to get so down.

Depressed stress is just as it sounds: a response to stress in the nervous system that has been depressed, dampened, and shut down.

Shutting down, or immobilization, is the body’s last resort to try to save your life. But to understand how this happens, we need to step back a little more and talk about the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus nerve.

You may remember our friend, the vagus nerve, from Monday’s post.

Basically, the vagus nerve is the manager of the stress response. It surveys your situation and automatically, instinctually, and unconsciously determines how you need to respond out of three options.

Ideally, you’d notice your distress (FEEL), express the corresponding desire to a supportive someone (SHARE), and get your needs met (ACT).

This is called a state of social engagement, and I talk more about that process in my TEDx talk here. Social engagement is what keeps our body and mind integrated and heathy. This is the best option, but sometimes it’s not an option.

So instead, the vagus nerve will make you activated and mobilized. In this case, your heart and breath rates will increase, you’ll feel energized in your body, and you’ll be super amped up. Even then, if you’re able to FEEL the distress, SHARE the desire, and ACT on the need, you’ll still be a-okay because the energy from your body will get discharged and reset your nervous system.

But, if social engagement and mobilization won’t work to resolve your situation, the body just shuts the whole process down. You’ll become immobilized. You won’t be able to feel the distress, which means you won’t know your desire, which means you also can’t get your needs met.

During big overwhelming situations, this will save your life because it’ll keep you from making the situation worse.

But this also saves your life if you grow up in an environment will little overwhelming situations – like having to squelch your anger over and over because you know it’ll make your mom feel badly.

Unfortunately, if this happens to us enough times, our body will learn to default to immobilization over and over. At some point, it becomes embedded into our default mode network and unconsciously takes over our day-to-day decision-making without our consent.

This is what people typically call depression.

And as you can see, depression is actually what happens in the nervous system when we can feel our distress, share our desire, and act to get our needs met.

This model automatically reveals the remedy to depressed stress: Feel our distress, share our desire, and act to get our needs met.

If you struggle with depressed stress, this can be tough to do. But the work is certainly worth it.

Here are three lifestyle practices to help you.

SEE: Reconnect with your body.

Your body knows when it’s in distress. When I say distress, it doesn’t have to be something bad. It just means that it detects stress, which is any change in any dimension of your life that requires you to respond.

Reconnecting to your body is definitely the hardest part of rewiring our brain out of depressed stress, but it’s also the most important.

Chronic episodes of depressed stress literally disconnect the part of our brain that feels sensation with the part of our brain that can make us aware of it. To reconnect these parts of our brain, we need to practice interoception, which is our ability to perceive what’s going on inside our body.

Here’s a moving meditation that can help you see your distress.

1. Stand with both feet flat on the ground, feet about hip width apart, arms at your side.

2. Take a breath in, swing your arms out in front of you and above your head as you rise to your tip toes. Then exhale, return your arms to your sides and come back down to flat feet. Repeat this three times.

3. Take another step out so your feet are a little wider and then reach your arms out into a T. Inhale and on your exhale, twist your body to your right so your left arm comes forward and your right arm reaches behind you. Inhale, come back to center. Exhale, twist to the opposite side. Repeat this three times for each side.

4. March in place to a count of ten, lifting your knees as high as you can and pumping your arms each time. Continue to breathe.

5. Stand flat footed, place both hands on your chest, close your eyes, and notice the sensations in your body for 30 seconds.

As you practice this moving meditation over and over again, your brain will literally rewire to connect you more to the sensations of your body.

STOP: Don’t ignore your needs.

If you need to eat, eat. If you need to pee, pee. If you need to rest, rest. If you need to brush your teeth, brush your teeth. If you need space from your kids, get space from your kids. If you need to take off a day from work, take off a day from work.

You get the picture.

Many of us talk ourselves out of our needs, which means we’re also talking ourselves out of our distress. When we do this, the body shuts all the needs because it knows they won’t be met.

The less you neglect your needs, the less your body will need to numb them.

START: Be honest about what you want and then do it.

Your desires are divine. They were given to you for a reason, and you are meant to follow them.

I’m not talking about the impulsive consumerism contagion we all have that tells us we need to buy clothes and easy-buttons.

I’m taking about that inkling you’ve had for a while to take a trip by yourself. Or the idea you have to work from home by running a doggy day care. Or the whispers you feel to hire a financial advisor.

Those little nudges were designed for you to feel, share, and act upon. The more you do, the less you’ll need depression to stop you from doing it.

MAGIC MANTRA: My desires matter.

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