Antidote For Depression
Ayurveda says that depression is part of a kapha dosha imbalance. Kapha dosha tends to be heavy, dull and slow-moving, so when Kapha becomes out of balance, we exhibit an overload of these qualities.
Focusing on problems, becoming discouraged, and losing hope are behaviors we present when we are depressed. These behaviors may also perpetuate and deepen the depression. The key word is “behaviors”; if we can (unconsciously) behave our way into sadness, we can (consciously) behave our way into happiness as well.
Practicing gratitude is one strategic behavior that can counteract depressed behaviors; it can get us moving, lighten our hearts, reconnect us with others, and reignite our hope.
In this article I am addressing the very complex issue of depression with broad brush strokes. I am not a doctor, nor do I hold an MA in social work. The following strategies work for me, and in that spirit, I share them with you.
Want To Be Happy? Be Grateful
Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Catholic Benedictine monk whose MA is in fine arts and Phd/post-doctoral study are in experimental psychology. He has also studied Zen Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Sufism. He founded the Center For Spiritual Studies, which brings together these great belief systems.
He says, “In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”
His TEDtalk is worth a listen. It’s called, “Want to be Happy? Be Grateful”.
The Difference Gratitude Makes
Psychological research shows that people who practice gratitude consistently tend to be happier. They have stronger immune systems, report less physical pain, and have lower blood pressure. They have reduced risk of coronary heart disease, and if they do get heart disease, they live longer than pessimistic, less-grateful patients.
Grateful people tend to exercise more and feel refreshed after sleeping. This, of course, is a cycle that perpetuates feeling healthy, content, and grateful.
People who intentionally practice gratitude report a more positive outlook, they feel more alert and alive, and they find more pleasure in their daily lives. They are more compassionate, forgiving, and generous. They report feeling less isolation and loneliness. Instead, they report close relationships with supportive others.
How Our Brains And Hearts Work Together
David Paterson, PhD, from Oxford University, studies the connection between our hearts and our brains, which work together to produce emotions. He has proven that the heart (especially the right ventricle) actually contains neurons, which partner with the neurons in our brains. When the brain perceives a threat, it sends signals to the heart through the sympathetic nervous system, which then throws us into an unhealthy stress response called “fight or flight”. Our hearts beat faster and other uncomfortable symptoms arise (perspiration, hyperventilation, cessation of digestion, etc.). If this acute stress response isn’t relieved (through fighting or fleeing) it becomes chronic, and ultimately creates an overload which can result in the negative thoughts, discouragement, and loss of hope that are the hallmarks of depression.
Negative Emotions Are Hard On Our Health
When we experience intense rage, our risk for heart attack increases five times, and our risk for stroke increases three times. Intense grief also raises these risks; 21 times the day after the loss, and remaining at 6 times for weeks afterward. In one study, 35% of those with PTSD developed insulin resistance within 2 years of the trauma, and also experienced higher rates of metabolic syndrome (a combination of heart disease, blood pressure, obesity, and high blood sugar levels).
Positive Emotions Can Heal Us
When the brain perceives that we are content, it sends signals to the heart through our parasympathetic nervous system, which soothes and relaxes us. This reverses the stress response symptoms described above, and returns us to physical homeostasis and emotional well-being. In a study of 1500 people at increased risk for coronary artery disease, those who reported feeling optimistic and grateful in their daily lives had a 1/3 reduction in coronary events like heart attack. The group with the highest coronary risk showed up to 50% risk reduction, even when other factors like smoking and diabetes were taken into account.
Focusing on the positive pays great benefits. We cannot feel sad and hopeless while simultaneously feeling truly grateful for the events and people in our lives The two simply cannot coexist. So, which will win? The one we feed the most.
Gratitude is like a muscle. We need to work it and practice it (with intention and consistency) for it to grow strong.
Some Ways To Increase Gratitude
Keep a written gratitude journal, reviewing your day each evening, and challenging yourself to not repeat what you’ve already written in previous entries. You’ll find that you begin to be on the watch for positive things in your daily life.
Try this writing prompt when considering any aspect of your life: “What have I received from this (situation, person)?”, “What was the lesson?”, “What have I given (opportunities to share talents and gifts)?”, and “What troubles or challenges have I caused (to myself or others)?”
Be in your body, fully. Use your senses. Be more present. Really see the clouds, deeply hear the music, fully taste the food, enjoy the breeze on your skin. Doing this will enhance your appreciation for your life.
Commit to being more grateful. Speak your commitment aloud. Tell someone else your intention to bring more gratitude into your life. Write it down. Put up images or quotations that remind you of your commitment to be grateful.
Speak up in the moment. Tell people what you appreciate about them. Tell them what they bring to your life that makes you grateful they are in it. Write notes of thanks and gratitude (a handwritten note is a precious commodity these days).
Overload equals stress. Stress easily becomes overwhelm. Overwhelm can kill our hope. Lack of hope leads to depression (and vise verse, in a vicious cycle). Begin to identify areas in life that feel heavy and out of balance. Notice when you postpone the “important” because you feel pressured by the “urgent”. The act of noticing will start shifting you in a more positive direction. Taking steps to adjust and rebalance will change the trajectory, over time.
The Value of Saying Grace
Regardless of our spiritual practice or tradition we can speak our gratitude — for a meal, for a situation, for an opportunity, for a friendship, or for a challenge. We can memorize traditional prayers or chants, or use our own words to connect, with gratitude, to our Higher Power or Higher Self.
Behave Like a Grateful Person
We can use words like “fortunate”, “blessed”, “abundance”. We can talk about how good people have been to us, and how much we value their role in our lives.
In AA they say, “Fake it until you make it”, and it actually works! It’s not phony to give someone the gift of a smile, to say thank you, or to tell people you love them more often. We can find opportunities to make the effort. People will mirror back what we send out, and we will have improved their day as well as our own as the contagious ripples flow out into the world.
Piggybacking on this “ripple” effect, remember that one secret to happiness is to make everyone around us as happy as possible. It feels great, enhances our attitude, and the positive energy we send out will return to us in kind.
Watch Your Thoughts
It’s harder than it sounds, and worth the effort. Developing the habit of monitoring thoughts allows us to choose grateful ones before the others take hold. Considering the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits, how can we justify choosing otherwise?
Practicing gratitude may begin as an exercise. Over time, it can become a part of us. Instead of trying to grateful occasionally, we can become truly grateful people.
The Bhagavad Gita says, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.”