Depression is a systemic experience that occurs in your body. It happens to all kinds of people; rich, poor, male, female, successful, underachievers, overachievers, it does not discriminate. Depression causes changes in your hormones and in your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). In plain terms, it is a set of feelings or sensations in your body.
When you feel depressed, the problem is the way that you feel. If I ask you to recall a time that you were really depressed, you would have physical sensations that showed up immediately with the memory. Perhaps a knot in your chest, a tightness in your throat, a sinking pit in your tummy, tension in your back…there would be a feeling state.
Thoughts keep feelings alive
At the moment that something terrible happens, say you just found out your dog got hit by a car, there would be first a sensation, then a thought. Your insides move back, your belly drops or tightens then, “I’m devastated. He was my best friend.” The sensations are physical precursors or vibrations. Your nervous system is taking information in and communicating vibrationally to create a sensation.
The sensations in your body are sent up to your brain where they get processed by the linguistic areas of your brain. Once processed linguistically the sensations transform into thoughts or stories. At this point, you have had a sensation followed by an associated thought and a story.
In depression, the sensations elicit thoughts and stories that are then associated with negative emotions such as grief, shame, guilt or sadness. Unfortunately, through association, the thoughts keep the sensations/feelings alive. Thinking about a negative sensation, story or emotion is like plucking a guitar string; it gets the vibration to happen again and again.
The same thing happens in your body when the news is good. First, a good feeling, lightness, expansion, fluttering, then a thought about that feeling, “I’m so happy.” There is a direct line of association between the sensation and the emotional content of the stories. When the negative sensations and stories get stuck in the nervous system on a vibrational feedback loop, it creates an experience called depression.
Old associations haunting you
Recurrent thoughts are hard to change because their stimulation is not conscious. The negative sensations and thoughts of depression are a function of a protective nervous system. They are an automatic association with a previous negative experience. The negative experience could have been last week or last decade, depending on the intensity of emotion you felt at the time it happened. Unconsciously, experiences from the past affect your thoughts today.
The stimulus could be anything from location to scent, sounds, facial expressions, taste, you name it, just something associated with a previous negative experience. This is important because you can get stimulated into negative thoughts without the presence of any real threat, it’s just an association.
Knowing that your brain works through association is important because sometimes, your negative thoughts are outdated, no longer applicable or unfounded given the current situation.
The recurrent thought is a protective reaction or habitual response from your nervous system. It is intended to protect you from reexperiencing a previous negative event. However, because the response is habitual, it is worth questioning.
A habit is something that you have done so many times that you now do it without conscious awareness. You don’t think about it and you don’t question it. It is an assumption. If you don’t already know this, assuming is dangerous territory – always check your facts.
So How do You Stop Feeling Depressed?
You are not picking the feelings and thoughts that enter your body-mind. Who would choose to think day in and day out, “Today I am going to feel a clutter of lethargy and shame?” It is not chosen, your nervous system has learned it over time.
The feelings come from your nervous system. More specifically they come from your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS controls things that happen automatically like sweating, digestion, heart rate and breathing. It picks up information from your environment and uses it to inform decisions about creating homeostasis or balance in your body.
When you want to get rid of something that is happening automatically in your body, you can begin by influencing your ANS.
Influencing automatic reactions
In the case of depression, you start with the feeling. The feeling arose out of your unconscious mind. Witness the feeling in your body. Witness does not mean think about. Witnessing is a wordless state. Create as much awareness as you can as to where and how you feel. What qualities does the feeling have? Tension, density, texture, colour, images, whatever is there, notice it.
The ways that you take in the world around you, inform your ANS. While it may seem obvious to some, others might benefit from remembering that sensation arises from 5 senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Use all the senses that show up when noticing how you feel. You want to become as conscious as possible about the feeling.
Pay Attention to Sensation
Paying attention to sensation creates a shift in perspective. You want to consciously cultivate the sensation rather than allowing it to happen unconsciously. That in itself is a shift. Conscious awareness engages different areas of the brain and allows your nervous system to gather more information for processing and integration.
Often, simply noticing the sensation of depression will be enough to create a shift in your perception. Noticing the sensation interrupts the automatic association with thoughts. Elimination of thought allows the sensation to be fully explored without assumption.
You may notice associations that arise in relation to the sensation but, be careful not to get caught in stories about why you feel this way. The benefit or change comes from exploring how you feel right now in this situation.
When awareness is not enough
Awareness is a good starting point but when that is not enough, how do you exert further influence on your ANS? I can think of 4 ways that you can alter the functioning of your ANS. The first 3 are holistic routes. The 4th is pharmaceutical. If you have suicidal ideation or are past the point of being motivated to use the first three, please consult your doctor or a licensed psychiatrist to explore pharmaceutical options.
Three ways to influence the ANS
Breath – the quick fix
Through breath, you can learn to create balance in the ANS. The ANS is divided into the Parasympathetic, (Rest and Recuperate) and Sympathetic, (Fight, Flight, Freeze) branches. Your inhalation cultivates a Sympathetic response while exhalation creates a Parasympathetic response.
There are many different breathing exercises that can facilitate a balanced state in the ANS. The two methods that have been researched most are 5 Second Breathing and Square Breathing.
Five Second Breathing
Inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds. Do this for at least 1 full minute or 6 cycles, longer if you can maintain focus and, have the time.
Four-count inhalation followed by 4 counts holding breath then, 4 counts exhalation followed by 4 counts holding breath. You want to repeat the cycle at least 4 times, longer if you can maintain focus and, have the time.
As you notice the sensations of depression, you will likely find many of them in your gut. The brain and nervous system are intimately connected with your digestive tract. They talk all the time. When your digestion is poor, you will have yucky sensations in your gut. The yucky sensations in your gut can easily trigger negative thoughts associated with the sensation.
You probably know of at least one kid who gets an upset stomach when they are afraid of separating from their parents or when they know that they won’t do well on today’s math test. It works both ways. Life affects your tummy and what you put in your tummy can affect how you experience life.
In order to influence your digestion, you need to eat healthily. The results of this will be slower and harder to pinpoint. However, changing the way that your body processes and absorbs nutrition will not only alter sensation, it will also alter chemical components that influence your ANS. This is what Ayurveda, TCM and Naturopathy are concerned with, influencing your whole body wellness by what you put into it.
For fine details, please contact a licensed professional. In the meantime, acknowledge that if you eat crap you will feel like crap. Your gut will send out negative sensations. When those sensations correlate with negative emotional states, you are likely to find yourself caught in negative stories.
Do these things to improve digestion:
- Make choices that lead you to eat a diet that is high in whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods.
- Make meal plans and grocery lists, cook, use recipes, eat homemade food.
- Avoid sugar to skip the cycle of sugar high, crash, sugar high, crash…
- Remember that your brain is 60% fat. Eat healthy fats from vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. Avoid hydrogenated fats and trans fats found in pre-packaged, processed foods.
Poor sleep habits affect your Sympathetic and Parasympathetic tones resulting in an overall decreased health in the activity of the ANS. This can be a tough one for people who feel depressed. Depression often coincides with poor sleep habits; you can’t fall to sleep, can’t stay asleep, or you fall to sleep way too late and then have trouble getting up.
Regardless of which category of sleep problems you may or may not fit into, feeling tired and feeling depressed are highly correlated. It’s that feeling thing again. The sensations are just too close and one can trigger the other.
Do these things to improve your sleep:
- Train your brain to sleep by developing bedtime rituals (hygiene, journaling, reading, meditating…)
- Support the natural circadian rhythms by slowing down in the evening and dimming lights to reflect what the earth does naturally.
- Avoid screen time for 2 hours before sleeping. If you must be on a screen, turn down the brightness.
- Make your room really dark or use a sleep mask.
- Commit to a fairly consistent sleep schedule.
Your nervous system learned to pay close attention to things that resemble a particularly tough experience in your life. For some people that experience is readily remembered, for some, it is many small experiences and for others, it is not yet apparent what has triggered their sensitivity. Learning happens at different speeds depending on the obstacles that are present.
If you have depression, your nervous system can unlearn it. Be consistent with exploring the sensation and using breath to alter it, eat well, sleep well and above all else, be compassionate if the changes do not occur as fast as you want them to.
One problem with the common understanding of depression is that people think depression is an “I am” statement. It is common to say and believe, “I am depressed.”
There is a difference between saying “I am depressed” and “I feel depressed.” Depression is a feeling. It may be a very strong and recurrent feeling but it is a feeling. People are much more than what they feel at any particular moment.
Even when there is a diagnosis of depression or dysthymia, high functioning long-term depression, there are moments when the feeling of depression is absent. Feelings come and go, some last longer than others but none are definitive. Depressed is not an all-encompassing characteristic. “I am depressed” is wrong because depressed is how you may feel at a given point in time. It is not who you are.