Category Archives: effects of …

The flesh is weak … and the spirit ain’t helping much

Sunday morning III’m trying to get (a little more) organized. But it’s not working out very well.

I use a program with my mail reader that lets me tag individual messages. I tag email messages with Projects and Keywords and Due Dates and Alerts. I can sort messages into folders so I know what’s due today, tomorrow, and next week. Problem is, it doesn’t help much. I’ve got a bunch of past due actions for emails and I rarely look at what’s coming up because I’m too busy trying (and usually failing) to get done what’s due today.

I use a task manager app which syncs my laptop, desktop, and phone. I can see what I have to do today while sitting on the toilet. Problem is, it doesn’t help much. I add tasks and due dates but I ignore some of them.

Phone calls are the worst. I hate phone calls. Most of the time I’ll let my phone go to voice mail so I don’t have to talk to anyone. In fact, I owe a return call to a friend from Friday early afternoon and it’s early Sunday morning. And I know what it’s about and it’s fairly urgent! I just don’t want to talk.

I know I should eat better and less. For lunch yesterday I had left over ribs and backed potato. I took 2 ribs and about 1/3 of a freakin’ humongous potato. Then I go back for seconds. I tell my daughter I’m getting just one more rib but I come back with 2 more ribs and another 1/3 of the freakin’ humongous potato. Then I am disgusted with myself when I look in the mirror and watch my belt shrinking past the first hole.

I know I should get to the gym. I even bought some knew clothes and promised myself I’d start going when they arrived. I’ve been to the gym once in the last week. It’s so much work to get dressed and get to the gym and then I need to take a shower after which is even more work. It would be so much easier if I had an exercise machine in the house. Oh, wait. I do!

I tell myself I’m just going to watch one episode of “The Unit” on TV. But I end up watching two, then three, then four. All the while I’m watching the clock and realizing that the day is slipping by and all I’ve done is eat 4 ribs and 2/3 of a freakin’ humongous potato.

I know I shouldn’t drink so much. I know that I feel better when I don’t drink. But I’m about to go refill my glass with bourbon.

There’s a changed perception of time with depression which I’ve talked about and that has something to do with this. And there’s a physical component to my lack of motivation. But I can’t wait for things to get better. I can’t wait for my depression to go away. I need coping strategies now! I don’t feel that they are sufficient, but here’s what I’m doing to cope:

  1. I’m telling people that I need to conserve my energy so I’m not taking on new responsibilities.
  2. I’m telling people to remind me of things when I’m not getting them done. I really don’t mind. And I really don’t mind but few people are doing this.
  3. I’m trying to be gentle with myself and not critical or nasty when I don’t do things. Yes, the laundry has piled up again and the kitchen needs cleaning and I forgot to water the plants. But that’s ok. I’ll get to all these tasks (hopefully before the plants die and we get fruit flies and I run out of clean t-shirts).
  4. I’m still keeping to-do lists. Even though it doesn’t seem to help much, I still tag my email messages and add items to my task manager and keep the calendar items for what gets cleaned when (although it is hidden). I’m hoping that after enough time, these things will begin to help and become habits.
  5. I’m taking time to play with my daughter even when I “should” be working because I’ve put things off all week and need to get things done by Monday.
  6. I’m trying to get out of the house more in order to work. There are far fewer distractions and TVs out there. But there are few comfortable seats and most places cost money (even a few dollars for a coffee every day adds up).

I really hope I get better at this. And soon! I don’t see myself recovering from depression and getting back to a “normal” life. So, it would help if my coping skills improved a bit.

The power of negative thinking

the power of negative thinkingMaybe it was the influence of my father, maybe it’s genetic. I’m sure my depression has something to do with it. Can you really blame me? I’ve been proven right over and over and over. Anymore, I barely have to start thinking about something and from deep inside I hear those two little words screamed at me

“YOU CAN’T!!!!!” (The number of exclamation points usually varies between 2 and 6.)

Usually it’s more self deprecating: “You’d never be able to do that.” “You don’t have the energy.” “You’ll never finish it so why start.” “It’s impossible.” “You don’t have the energy or time or money or support or ability or skills or …”

It simply amazes to no end how people get so much done in a day. I always have things come up unexpectedly or things take longer than I thought or something is good on TV or … or … or … and I don’t get anything done! Most of the time contemplating writing a blog post is daunting not to mention the articles, stories, plays, and books I “want” to write. It’s more that I “say I want” to or I “want to think that I want” to. I mean a man has to have some goals, right? The more unachievable they are the better. You’ll never disappoint.

Sustained energy is a real problem for me. I went through a time not too long ago — for many months — when I literally could not get out of bed. My body felt like lead. I couldn’t even roll over. Sometimes I’d get up around 3pm and watch some TV then go back to sleep. And believe me, this was SOUND sleep. Dreaming sleep.

Sometimes the thought of being happy — the thought of wanting to be happy — makes me sick to my stomach. I wear my depression as a badge of honor. I’m starting to begin to realize that. Why do I not want to be happy? Why do I worry, when I’m about to meet someone, that I’ll smile too wide and they will think I’m happy. God forbid! I’m depressed. I’m sullen. I’m introverted. I’m facing life as it really is and not in some fantastical utopia surrounded by baubles and tweets and new shoes and 6-pack abs and … Come on, people. The world is in a shit load of trouble and your only concern at the moment is saving 10% on designer underwear? (Remind me to tell you about my bubble theory — link to be added when I actually write that post. So, don’t hold your breath.)

I’m so negative about everything. Just now I was thinking to myself (as if I could think to anyone else) that this will never become a blog post. I’ll never finish it.

My wife talks about my negativity, not my depression. I used to think that the latter causes the former and so it’s out of my hands until my depression is cured. It’s an unfortunate side effect. You know, like dry mouth, constipation, dizziness, drowsiness, sleeplessness, breast swelling, tumors, tremors, bruising, … But right now, while I’m writing these words, I’m thinking that maybe my negativity could be having an effect on my depression. Just a thought.

And I’m instantly recoiling in horror from what that means. This merely sounds like more work to me! I don’t get to cry, “Woe is I” (grammatically, that IS correct).

Now, I’m back to thinking I’ll probably trashing this whole post. God, this is going to be a lot of work. But I don’t think I’m totally in the wrong. I do think that this whole positive psychology is going way over board. I CANNOT do ANYTHING I want. I cannot have a baby. I cannot become an astronaut. I cannot become president (In all reality, that is. I mean I AM eligible but I have about 8 friends and none of them are millionaires.) I cannot be a singer in a rock and roll band. The aphorisms that float around the internet and on chiropractors’ and dentists’ walls are emetics. The “American Dream” as it is touted around these days is a lie. I have restrictions and limitations and liabilities that logically and factually preclude certain outcomes from ever taking place. We need to be living within our realm of possibilities.

But I digress. Please excuse the tirade.

What I need are some successes in my bat utility belt to use as weapons in my war against the axis powers of negativity, defeatism, and I-can’t-ism. And I need them soon. A long standing precedent has been set and it’s going to take a lot to override it. Negative thinking is a very powerful thing because it’s insidious. It moves in and kicks out everyone else, bolts the door,and stockpiles weapons to an extent that makes those brethren down in Waco green with envy.

What have been your experiences in overturning the precedent of negative thinking?

How Stress Affects the Body – Infographic

Chronic stress and its effects on the body

chronic stressChronic stress. It’s unavoidable these days. Traffic jams. Financial uncertainty. Go-go-go work mentality. Even kids are stressed — swim team, soccer practice, music practice, chess club, karate. It’s go-go-go even for them. And when we’re not in stressful situations, we’re coach potatoes watching TV or surfing the internet or eating fast food.

Stress has well-understood effects on the body. Animals can experience stress—nothing shouts stress like a hungry lion chasing you in order to eat you. And it is exactly this stress which gives the fleeing zebra a fighting chance. Short term stress actually improves performance. Take the zebra, for example. In order to survive, the zebra needs energy in its muscles. Fast! So, its heart rate and blood pressure increase. Blood gets rerouted from the stomach so digestion stops as does cell repair, ovulation, the immune system, and growth. And this is all fine and good for the zebra who must run for a few minutes and then can stop and rest and get its body back to normal.

But chronic stress means that our bodies are stressed much more often and for longer periods of time. So think about the physiological effects mentioned above occurring very often. If your body is constantly mobilizing energy (even when no lion is chasing you) then it can’t store energy and your muscles get weak and your risk for diabetes increases. If your blood pressure increases everyday driving home from work through rush-hour traffic, you get heart disease and atherosclerosis. If you eat under stress—on the run or at your desk while working—your digestion is interrupted and you are more at risk for colitis or an ulcer. Chronic stress reduces the effectiveness of cell repair and your immune system making you more vulnerable for infectious diseases.

Again, for a short time, stress is beneficial. I remember in high school, when I had an essay test, I would sit there and do nothing for about 20 minutes. Then I’d start working. I found that I worked better under a little bit of stress due to the time pressure. Back then, I didn’t know why, but the reason I performed better was that, under short-term stress, the hippocampus (which is involved with memory) works better. Also, the brain releases more dopamine and more oxygen and glucose are delivered to the brain. In short, your entire brain works better and it feels good!

But long-term stress has the opposite effect. Less glucose gets to the brain. Neurons in the hippocampus don’t function as well and can’t communicate with each other. Neurogenesis (the process of making of new neurons) occurs in the hippocampus and this process slows down. With enough stress, neurons in the hippocampus and the frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved with making decisions and controlling our emotions) will actually die. Less dopamine is released which which may be linked with depression. To make matters worse, the amygdala (the part of the brain involved with fear and anxiety)  actually gets bigger and so our fear response gets heightened.

This stuff is scary! It also explains a lot of what is going on with me. Stress reduction is critical and necessary for so many of us but how do we do this? One answer is meditation. See this post for a short list of some of the benefits of meditation that counteract the effects of chronic stress. I’ll be writing more on meditation in the next few posts so stay tuned.

And if you want to get started with or back into meditation, check out the Psychology Of Me Store for some meditation supplies.

Effects of meditation

effects of meditationMeditation comes in a lot of different flavors: guided, transcendental, zen, vipassana, insight, just to name a few. I’ve practiced off and on for about 7 years and I’ve tried several different methods. I’ve meditated alone and with others. I’ve focused on my breath, worked to control my breath, recited things like The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, and focused on solving visual math problems like how to construct polygons with just a compass and straightedge (I actually did figure it out, in my head, for a hexagon). But what does mediation do for you? What are the physical, psychological, and physiological effects of meditation?

The reason I recited the sutras of Patañjali is because these aphorisms are an ancient answer to our question — what does mediation do? According to the sutras, meditation:

  • allows us to attain habitual inward-mindedness and overcome sickness, languor, doubt, heedlessness, sloth, dissipation, false vision, pain, and depression
  • gives us a state of utmost lucidity and clarity of the inner-being
  • results in our acquisition of great vitality, gladness, unexcelled joy, perfection of the body, contact with the deity, the relaxation of tension, and the fitness of the mind for concentration

In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom Rick Hanson describes what meditation does in terms of brain structure and neuroscience. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the gateway into all the other major systems of your body — endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, and nervous. Mental activity can directly influence the ANS to a greater degree than any other system. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is a part of the ANS. Stimulating the PNS calms, soothes, and heals your body, brain, and mind. From a physiological and psychological point of view, meditation has the following affects on the body:

  • increases gray matter in the brain and improves attention, compassion, and empathy
  • lifts mood to offset depression
  • strengthens the immune system
  • helps physical ailments including cardiovascular disease, asthma, type II diabetes, PMS, and chronic pain
  • helps psychological conditions including insomnia, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders

Of course, these benefits are not quickly realized. Meditation is by no means a “quick fix.” The sutras, themselves, state that the meditation practice must be “cultivated properly and for a long time uninterruptedly.” But you must agree that the benefits are worthy of our time and effort. Like eating right and exercising, I don’t know why I can’t always find the time to meditate. It’s not always easy to calm my mind but when I can, even a little, the feeling is amazing. Perhaps that’s part of the “problem.” I love being in the meditative state so much that I don’t want to come out of it and get back to the external world.

But, like exercise, meditation is one of those things that needs to be done even when nothing seems to be gained by it. It’s the long-term practice that pays. The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience and make up many times over the time spent. Let’s get some time “on the cushion” and reap the rewards, shall we?

Effects of depression: Long term memory

effects of depressionMemory is a wily thing. The effects of depression add a whole ‘nother level to its wiliness.

We all have explicit memory and implicit memory. Explicit memory is recalling what I had for breakfast or what it felt like to watch my daughter perform her violin recital. Implicit memory does its work behind the scenes and underneath our conscious awareness. It shapes our minds based on our lived experiences — our expectations, relationships and emotions.

Rather than retrieving a memory in its totality all at once, our brains rebuild implicit and explicit memories from their key features. This gives our brains much more storage capacity but it also allows for memories to get “corrupted.” Just imagine recalling a past event with a friend. You probably wouldn’t be surprised if your memories differ rather significantly. They differ because you are not bringing into awareness a total description of the event but rather are recreating the event from the key features plus other things that are on your mind at the same time. So, if I’m feeling undervalued at work when I recall placing third in a 4th grade spelling bee, I may bias that memory away from feelings of pride for my achievement and toward feelings of regret that I missed an easy word or feelings of resentment towards the girl who won first place but wasn’t had smart as I was (in my opinion).

But it doesn’t end there. When that memory is put back into storage it’s not put back exactly as it was before. My current feelings are stored with it so now the memory has been fundamentally changed, biased towards a more negative recollection the next time. Can you see the downward spiral possible? Each time the memory is recalled there is the potential for it to be made more and more negative.

Depression makes this process even more devastating. The intensity of the negative bias is heightened during a depression because there is very little positive thinking during these times.

There is another aspect to the negative feedback loop. When we recall a memory that has had this negative bias applied to it over and over, it tends to darken our mood even if we were thinking positively at the time. This all but assures that a further negative bias is applied.

A long lasting depression can taint a lot of memories. And this tainting doesn’t go away when the depression ends. It’s still there encoded in our brain structure. Perhaps this is partly why depressive episodes repeat themselves. When every memory that comes up has negativity associated with it, it’s no wonder the depression returns.

Of course, this mechanism also points to a way of counteracting the accumulated negative bias with the “power of positive thinking.” By purposefully focusing on positive emotions and perspectives while recalling memories we can slowly shift the bias away from the negative and toward the positive. We can heal ourselves synapse by synapse.

Effects of depression: 4 hour days

SnailThere are days, I must admit, when I really don’t do much of anything. Unless you count sleeping and watching TV as “doing” anything. But there are days — and these are, thankfully, becoming more and more frequent — when I am focused and able to get things done. This makes me feel very good about myself. That is, until I stand back and evaluate how much I got done. Invariably it seems to be a rather modest amount of work; an amount that someone else could have probably gotten done before lunch. Perhaps even before the morning coffee break!

What’s going on here?

I’ll admit that when I try to do a lot of different things I’m not very efficient. I’m not a good task-switcher. Winding down from one task and then winding up on the next — figuring out where I was and what I was doing and why — sucks up huge amounts of time. But even when I’ve been focused on one or two tasks for the day I still have this feeling that someone else could have accomplished a lot more.

To make things worse, this means that a lot of obvious things are left undone: laundry, dishes, cleaning, &c. And this tends to make me look lazy. “But, honestly, today I really, really wasn’t lazy! I didn’t watch TV at all!” That’s a hard sell sometimes.

Here’s what I think is going on — it’s one of the effects of depression. We all know that our perception of time is not consistent: “time flies when you’re having fun” and “a watched pot never boils.” But there’s more to it than a purely subjective experience of time. Perception of the passage of time can be affected in people with disruption of the frontal cortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia, and cerebellum. 1, 2 The hippocampus and basal ganglia are part of the limbic system (some also consider parts of the cortex, too) and depression affects the limbic system.

The effect here can be illustrated by a version of “the twin paradox” I recall seeing in a TV show about the theory of relativity. In this thought experiment, one of the twins flies to a black hole and orbits just this side of the event horizon. The other twin stays at home and they are in video communication with each other (it is a thought experiment, after all). To the twin on earth, the twin near the black hole is moving in slow motion. To the twin near the black hole, the twin on earth is moving at super-speed. The disparity is due to the difference in the gravitational fields experienced by each.

I imagine that’s how it is with me. I’m not saying that someone watching me work would see me work in slow motion but when I pause to think of a word for a second or two, it might be three or four of “their seconds.” My quick break to look (for the fifth time today) for something to eat in the empty refrigerator (because I don’t have “time” to go to the store) may be minutes to them. Time passes more slowly for me relative to them and so, in their world, I don’t get as much done because I don’t have as much time.

The twin paradox is very fitting because what slows down the one twin is an increased gravitation field in which the twin would feel very, very heavy and is weighed down. So, I could say that depression is like living near a black hole. There are so many levels on which that analogy works.

Notes:

  1. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/135/3/656.short
  2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027826260400274X