Many of us will unfortunately suffer depression at some time in our life. The ending of a relationship, being made redundant, severe illness, these are the kinds of events that can throw us off balance, robbing us of our self-esteem, motivation, and enjoyment of life.

A friend of mine who is a psychiatric nurse said recently that she had concluded that empowerment is often more effective than anti-depressants. I believe this to be true. So, I want to share with you the resilience model that I used in the hope it may also be of benefit to someone-else.

In the late 90s I became deeply depressed. I felt physically and mentally exhausted and the world became a small, dark place flooded only with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness. I was having suicidal thoughts. Yet within 2 months I had managed to turn this around, though it was the hardest thing I have ever done.

Previously, I had read about a workshop entitled “Strategies for Balancing a Complicated Life”, led by Dr. Marjorie Blanchard. In this workshop she introduced participants to a resilience model based on research on stress survivors (psychologically resilient people) and research on peak happiness experiences. The same ingredients were significant in both cases that is:

Perspective, Autonomy, Connectedness, Tone.

Though designed for a corporate workplace setting, over the years I modified and added to those ideas to be more generally relevant. This tool was the keystone of my recovery from depression.

PERSPECTIVE

The definition of perspective according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “a particular way of regarding something”, “an understanding of the relative importance of things”.

It is guaranteed that in the closed world of depression our thinking/feeling life will be out of balance, and we will not be seeing things in perspective. Taking a bigger picture view can help us keep things in context.

One way to do this is through finding our life direction, mission, or purpose – something deeply meaningful and of great value that can help us weather the down times. For me, it was trying to get a sense of where my life was going, and I looked to my core values for guidance before asking myself “what do I really want for my life?”.

Victor Frankl, a Viennese professor of Neurology and Psychiatry who survived the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp subsequently wrote in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, that he believed this to be man’s greatest need, greatest desire.
He also observed that the single most important factor in who survived, and who did not in the camp, was attitude.

Looking For the Positives

The attitude of looking for the positives was a vital factor in my recovery. I came to the view that everything that happens, even trauma, is an opportunity for growth and the need to search relentlessly for those opportunities. I continually asked myself “What can I learn from this situation? What can it teach me?” It may be hard to believe in silver linings when depressed, but this is a simple and effective tool to use.

A friend of mine had to experience homelessness, estrangement from family, major illness, inability to find work, and poverty, to eventually shift her thinking away from black and white, judgmental thinking to becoming a more understanding, caring and compassionate person.

Some positives we can only discover after the event, so it’s important to stay open to the possibility. There are countless examples of people whose trauma has triggered a major change in life direction in a positive way. In Australia two high profile examples are Rosie Batty and Grace Tame who have respectively made domestic violence and sexual abuse national conversations.

Believing in ourselves and our possibility is also relevant here. We may have reached a low point where the outlook is bleak but examples from the natural worlds can encourage and give hope. Think of the caterpillar that becomes the chrysalis in dark, limiting confinement and then emerges as the wonder of the butterfly. It says we are meant to ultimately live in beauty and freedom and that transformation can happen through dark times.

A great human example was famous ex-cricketer Shane Warne. He once told how he had been absolutely shattered as a teenager when he was rejected for the AFL. It had been his life dream. But “you have a choice” he said, “you can either become a victim and blame everyone, or you can use that loss to become more determined to achieve”. Working hard to perfect his bowling skills, he certainly did, ultimately being named as one of the top 5 sportsmen in the world!

Acceptance and Commitment

This was another aspect of perspective that was instrumental in my recovery. Firstly, accepting the situation (loss and depression) but then immediately asking the question “So what can I do to help myself?”

I realized I had more resource tools that were right for me, gathered over decades of personal growth and healing work, than anyone I could possibly go to, and I decided now was the time to truly test them. I also had to accept that when I found myself in a very dark place, sometimes I just had to go to bed, and I would sleep as if drugged. It was as if my being had to knock me out for a while. But there would always be some point in the day when I felt just that little bit better, and I committed to seizing that moment to do something, however small, to help myself.

Resilience to me doesn’t necessarily mean being unaffected, but rather that after each relapse you pick yourself up and try again. The important thing is to keep nudging forward.

Gratitude

Gratitude is a very healing and strengthening emotion. Even in depression there will always be something to be grateful for. I felt gratitude for the resources I had and for the opportunities in my life that had exposed me to those resources. And even with the ending of a close relationship or the passing of a loved partner, we can be grateful for the time we had with that person and the good things we experienced.

Grateful in registering life and existence as an incredible gift; valuing being born human with all its extraordinary abilities and living on this amazing, beautiful, and bountiful planet Earth, a rarity in the cosmos.Re-linking to these things in times of major stress helped me deal with day-to-day challenges.

AUTONOMY

Autonomy is about being in charge of your life, being self-determining, a sense of having choices. It is here you can create a toolkit of resources to help you in stressful times and to help maintain balance ongoingly in your life.

Everyone will be in different situations, and everyone will be open and responsive to different methods so it’s important to find what you are drawn to and what works for you. For me it was the attraction to right brain techniques, which include things like bodywork, movement, creative arts, personal imagery, creative visualisation, meditative states, intuition, and connectivity.

As depression is a form of ‘stuckness’ – the mind is stuck in habitual, repetitive, negative patterns – we need to create fluidity and space in the mind to loosen structure and facilitate positive change. I used flushing techniques like free flow writing, ‘gibberish meditation’, shaking meditation, and Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation to clear the mind and energy pathways.

The mind and body are connected so negative mental patterns can play out into the body in the form of patterns of tension. When we begin to free up these holding patterns through physical shaking or witnessing, we also begin to release the related patterns in the mind.

I found Free flow writing especially beneficial, but it takes commitment. Every day for at least a month I wrote whatever came into my mind for half an hour when I woke up in the morning. It’s a ‘stream of consciousness’ kind of long handwriting where you empty your thoughts in the moment, without judgment or censorship. As no-one else would read it, I just let it flow – the important thing is just to keep the pen moving! I found some of the writing trivial, but it can also be healing, insightful and profound.

Julia Cameron in her bestselling book The Artist’s Way uses something similar in her Morning Pages exercise towards creative freedom and inner growth.

Positive Affirmation

Another positive pattern I created was to say something to myself before bed, and then straight after waking up to reinforce it. There are many affirmations you can do and its especially useful to make one up for yourself too.

In my depression, listening to the book Conversations with God also helped to remind me of my purpose, and who I truly am beyond my everyday persona. It was very affirming. The book is about God talking with someone at a very low point in their life. He discusses a range of relevant topics with fresh viewpoints, tough love, and a sense of humour. I hope you try it.

CONNECTEDNESS

Connecting with others, talking to others, are important thing to do when you are down: being prepared to be vulnerable where appropriate and practicing respectful communication of innermost thoughts and feelings. Expressing these things through communicating can mean that, ultimately, there are no loose ends, nothing more to be said. Subsequently there is less likelihood of ‘living in the past’ with regrets.

Selecting a few close friends or family members who are caring, understanding and supportive can be critical in helping us deal with major stresses in our lives.

After about a month of struggling with my depression I began to see a glimmer of light, and at this stage I was able to consider being part of a group. I felt very vulnerable, but two things that helped me enormously were a gentle, nurturing yoga class that soothed and uplifted my bruised spirit, and joining a small choir that focused on songs about the ocean.

There has been a lot of research on the benefits of choirs for mental health. As well as being uplifting, singing stimulates the production of oxytocin which is important for bonding and a sense of belonging and connectedness.

Connecting with the Environment

Connecting more deeply to nature, whether it’s sitting by the ocean or gazing at a starry sky also helps, allowing us to find peace and balance and a greater sense of wellbeing. Dr Blanchard in her original workshop stressed too the importance of a nurturing home environment where a person feels ’at home’.

Connecting with the Breath

I found that regular breath work released stress and helped me find a place of inner quietness and calm. Using a simple practice, at least half a dozen times a day, just stopping completely, then taking a slow deep breath in through the nose, down to the belly and out through the mouth. On the out breath totally letting go throughout the whole being.

Every morning I used The Three Breath Entry – relaxing the body on the first outbreath, then emptying the mind, then letting go of everything on the third. This was followed by 6 breaths using alternate nostril breathing – pressing against one side of the nose and breathing through the other – and then taking 6 slow deep breaths through both nostrils. Finally, I’d just spent a few minutes focusing on sounds, in my body, in the space I was in and then the world outside.

There are lots of other breathing techniques you can try to see which one will be best for you such as the 4, 7, 8 (in 4 breaths, hold 7 breaths, out 8 breaths) and the square breathing method (in for 3, hold for 3, out for 3, hold for 3).

Connecting with Self

Connecting with our natural self, our true nature, is a significant factor that can take us away from depression. There are many pressures to conform in modern society that may take us away from who we truly are – our natural inclinations, abilities, and possibility both as an individual and a human being. I have concluded that perhaps the greatest pain someone can suffer is being separated from their true nature.

Japan has been a country with very strong traditions and pressures to conform. Today there is a social crisis with an increasing number of young people being unable and unwilling to function withing those limitations. Many feel a sense of shame and ostracize themselves. In one case a man had lived in his bedroom for 20 years.

If you are open to Astrology this can be a good place to begin to explore ‘Who am I?’ as you try to find and reconnect with your own nature and qualities.

Dance and Movement Therapy was also an important part of my healing and connecting with self. In western culture we tend to worship the rational mind, but science now realises that we function best when we draw on the capacities of both hemispheres of the brain.

I believe we experience and learn things with our whole being, not just the head! So, including the body as we strive to change can aid our progress. The form of dance and movement explorations I used were very much about self-discovery, connectedness, empowerment, and the bigger picture of life.

Separation

A word on separation. Sometimes we can become too bonded to another person making it difficult for us to be true to ourselves, or to let go of a relationship which is no longer working. I found the following simple exercises helpful:
Imagine you are walking up a pathway towards your goal in life (however you see that). Along the way you meet the person you are needing to separate from and you say “If I can help you let me know, but otherwise I’ll see you later” and then you keep walking away and up the path.

Another separation technique is to image strings connecting you to the other person, and then visualise taking a pair of scissors and cutting the strings.

TONE

Tone refers to our physical health and fitness and incorporates diet, exercise, sleep, and things like not smoking and limiting intake of alcohol. Scientific research has expanded enormously in these areas and found strong links between physical and mental health.

We are hearing a lot nowadays about the gut microbiome, the community of microbes that live in our gut, and how toxins from the gut can travel via the vagus nerve into the brain itself, significantly affecting mood.

Some activities that we thought occurred exclusively in the brain have now been proven otherwise. For example, 90% of Serotonin (the Happy Hormone) is actually produced in the gut.

The health of the gut microbiome depends to a large degree on microbial diversity so eating a wide range of wholesome foods is highly beneficial. Healthy gut bacteria love prebiotics like fibre so eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is also a good idea. I have found that eating a fermented food like sauerkraut (a natural probiotic) daily has had a very positive impact on my health.

The ‘stress survivors’ took care of their physical fitness, as well as maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. Exercise can be anything from regular walks to workouts at the gym to dancing. Yoga and Pilates are also popular choices these days.

Scientific research has shown that exercise directly affects brain health, sending more oxygen to cells and stimulating the production of BDNF, a growth factor that builds more connections between cells. And it improves mood. I remember decades ago going to dance classes sometimes feeling a bit low and being positive, energized and almost jubilant by the end of the class!

A word on sleep. Many of us suffer from poor quality and inadequate sleep which has been shown to have a detrimental effect on mental function and mood. Our modern way of life has a lot to answer for! There are some good sleep meditations and relaxations around, also keeping the bedroom totally dark, getting rid of electronic devices from the room (and not sitting at the computer for at least half an hour before bed) can all help toward better sleep.

Finally, I come back to acceptance and commitment. The degree of depression you are experiencing will impact what you are able to do. Deep depression can mean loss of interest in food and inability to exercise because of exhaustion. Sleep can happen but be unrefreshing. So, this I had to accept in the earlier period of my depression and not berate myself but commit to doing something positive as I felt more able.

You will find your own pace. Be kind to yourself, patient and persevere. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Guest Blogger  Maggie Poole-Johnson, Stress Therapist

Spend some time with our mindful well-being meditations – Breath and Relaxations, Gratitude, Sleep, and Loving Kindness here …AL

ITS IMPORTANT to note that this blog is not a replacement for professional assistance. There are many professionals offering their services and organisations such as Beyond Blue, Head Space, Psyche Central just waiting to support you.