Faith, Doubt, and Small Change

Any small change we make to treat depression has to be an act of faith because built into depression is doubt in its cure.

change
Faith Without Doubt

Before a Qigong/Tai Chi practice session last Thursday, the instructor asked me if I had other spiritual practices. I mentioned that I meditate daily and participate in a mindfulness discussion group on Saturday mornings. 

He said that he had been reading an article about one of the world’s major religious figures and was trying to understand the difference between faith and faith without doubt.

Though I couldn’t put the difference into words on the spot, it’s something that the authors of the original mindfulness manual had addressed as well.

The next day I took a shot at an answer. The instructor had done enough research on the work of Roger Jahnke to muster the faith he needed to give Integral Qigong and Tai Chi a try. As he practiced it, he experienced the benefits of the movements for himself. By the time he decided to train so that he could teach the technique, he had arrived at faith without doubt.

Doubt Without Faith

In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb writes, “The big problem with the downward spiral of depression is that it doesn’t just get you down, it keeps you down. All the life changes that could help your depression just seem too difficult. Exercise would help, but you don’t feel like exercising. Getting a good night’s sleep would help, but you’ve got insomnia. Doing something fun with friends would help, but nothing seems fun, and you don’t feel like bothering people.”

I’ve written about my own seasonal tendency toward a downward spiral in “Depression’s Early Warning System” and “Help to Make it Through the Night.” My sleep cycle gets out of whack, I perceive simple exercise to be much more daunting than it actually is, and I’m less inclined to socialize.

Habit and Neuroscience

Two things keep me doing what’s good for me in the absence of tangible reward. Habit and neuroscience. I’ve made a conscious effort to form habits around sleep, taking walks, and scheduling social connection because neuroscience tells me how and why they’re so beneficial.   

Korb’s neuroscience does a good job calling out the culprits of depression. “The prefrontal cortex worries too much, and the emotional limbic system is too reactive. The insula makes things feel worse, and the anterior cingulate isn’t helping by focusing on the negative. On top of that, the prefrontal cortex has a hard time inhibiting the bad habits of the dorsal striatum and nucleus accumbens. Depression is so hard to overcome because each circuit pulls the others downward.” 

Ironically, it’s understanding why what I’m doing isn’t making me feel better that helps me stick with it…until I feel better.  

The Upward Spiral

Korb writes, “It turns out that positive life changes actually cause positive neural changes—in the brain’s electrical activity, its chemical composition, even its ability to produce new neurons. These brain changes alter the tuning of your brain’s circuitry and lead to further positive life changes. For example, exercise changes the electrical activity in your brain during sleep, which then reduces anxiety, improves mood, and gives you more energy to exercise. Similarly, expressing gratitude activates serotonin production, which improves your mood and allows you to overcome bad habits, giving you more to be grateful for. Any tiny change can be just the push your brain needs to start spiraling upward.”

Ten Minute Exercise

In the Upward Spiral section of the book, Korb offers enough scientific information on the effects of each small change (or well-being practice) to give you faith in trying it.

Since most can be achieved with little effort, read through these small changes and decide which you’d like to try first.

Choose a Small Change  

The circuits that allow us to plan and solve problems when we’re not depressed are the same ones that lead to anxiety and worry when we are. The simple act of making a decision, any decision, makes things begin to feel more manageable.

None of these small changes are silver bullets for depression, so there’s no need to worry about choosing the perfect small change to make. 

Soak Up Some Sun 

Getting at least a few minutes of mid-day sunshine helps boost the production of serotonin, which improves willpower, motivation, and mood. It also improves the release of melatonin, which helps regulate your circadian rhythm and improves sleep, which improves just about everything.   

When I mentioned my seasonal (winter) malaise to a friend, he loaned me his light therapy lamp, and the tiny amount of faith I had in it based on hearsay from folks who use them overrode the doubt I had in trying it. I needed only enough willpower to carry it home, set it up, and plug it in. I noticed enough improvement in my energy and sleep cycle to give me faith to buy my own. Stay tuned.

Move Your Body

I have faith without doubt that moving my body is my most effective tool for battling depression. It helps with energy levels, makes decision making easier, reduces stress, and I’ll be devoting a separate post to the laundry list of other well-being benefits soon.  

Notice that I didn’t use the word exercise. I do a few minutes of push-ups, sit-ups, and stretches every morning that I consider exercise, but, perhaps based on how much my gym clothes stank when I’d forget to bring them home to launder on weekends, I still think of exercise as a duty rather than a pleasure. 

By contrast, for most of the year, I enjoy my daily outdoor walks, which is a way to get exercise without thinking of it as exercise. Only when it’s cold and rainy do I think of walking as exercise. 

Over the last several months, I’ve also added Qigong/Tai Chi to move different parts of my body than I move during my walks.

Sleep

I wrote about the importance of (and tips for) sleeping better in “7 Shocking Links Between Sleep and Depression.” 

Breathe

This one is so basic that you don’t have to decide to do it. But, if you decide to breathe to alter energy and mood, remember that breathing slowly and lengthening exhales reduces anxiety. Sharper inhales and faster breathing increase energy.

Biofeedback

I had one of my biggest a-ha/duh moments when Korb explained that while we might need a biofeedback device to understand our respiration, heart-rate, etc. our brain doesn’t. Monitoring these things is literally what our brain does for a living. A-ha! Duh!

Given that, here are some biofeedback techniques he recommends.  

Splashing cold water on your face quickly calms you down. 

Want to improve your mood? Try singing along with your favorite playlist, smiling, or laughing. The brain doesn’t distinguish between real and fake laughter. (I guess that explains how the laugh tracks on old sitcoms tricked me into thinking that the shows were actually funny.)

Wearing sunglasses can prevent squinting, which keeps our brow from furrowing, which tricks our brain into thinking we’re slightly upset. (I suspect that this has to be balanced with getting enough sunlight.) Other tips include relaxing your jaw if you store tension there, or clenching and deliberately relaxing muscles.

Spend Time with Others

Though I can and do meditate and practice Qigong/Tai Chi on my own, there’s a benefit to spending time with other people. This reduces pain, anxiety, and stress, and improves mood.

Conversations with friends and family are great, but if you’re really not up for it, scheduling time to engage in a shared weekly activity with others is small change. 

If all you’re up for is surfing the web or drinking a cup of coffee, doing it at a library or coffee shop can be beneficial.  

Gratitude

According to Korb, one of the best things about gratitude is that the more hopeless you feel, the better it works. It also greases those social dopamine circuits to make interactions with others more pleasant.

 My two favorite techniques for working with gratitude are three good things and finding silver linings.

Other Small Change

Developing positive habits or breaking negative ones is also helpful, but I’ll save some habit tips and tricks for another post.

And seeing a therapist can help you pinpoint areas to work and a wider range of therapies when the small changes aren’t enough.    

Bonus Exercise:

Alex Korb’s TedX Talk “Simple Steps for Strengthening Your Brain’s Circuits of Resilience” clocks in at under 10 minutes.

Depression’s Early Warning System

“Depression is not who you are–it involves a conditioned habit that your brain has learned and that your brain can unlearn.”–Elisha Goldstein, Uncovering Happiness

depression sloth
Five Hindrances to Mental Health

The authors of the original mindfulness manual suggested five mental hindrances (temporary mind states that hindered mental health) long before the idea of mental disorders existed in the West.

The five they came up with were addiction to sense pleasures, hatred or ill will, restlessness and worry, doubt, and the one I find most challenging during the shortest days of the year: sloth and torpor.

Sloth and Torpor

Sloth is the reluctance to work or make an effort. 

Torpor is a state of physical or mental inactivity, sluggishness or apathy.

Since I first began practicing mindfulness of the hindrances, I’ve paid a lot of attention to what brings them on.  

The Hindrance Protocol

Simply put, the protocol for working with the hindrances is to notice when they’re present and when they’re not present, notice how they arise and how they disappear, and, as a serious stretch goal, how once they disappear, they don’t arise again (at least not as often) in the future.

In Uncovering Happiness, Elisha Goldstein writes about the depression loop in much the same way. “The first step in uncovering happiness and experiencing freedom from the depression loop is learning how to objectively see the loop in action instead of getting lost in it.”

He compares a depression loop to a traffic circle fed by four access points: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors.  

When Sloth and Torpor are Present

One way that sloth and torpor might serve as an on-ramp for a depression loop is through my reluctance to make the effort to follow my usual wellness regimen (sloth) out of apathy (torpor). 

Given the vital role exercise plays in promoting well-being, I set a daily intention of walking 10,000 steps, which I track with my pedometer.

Here’s how that intention is impacted when sloth and torpor are present.

Physical sensations: There’s a physical sensation of being weighed down. It’s like I’m carrying a child on my shoulders so they can watch a parade, only I’m not getting the positive reinforcement of their enthusiastic responses to the spectacle. 

Thoughts: I do mental simulations of various rainy walking routes, all of them have negative features like mud or submerged sidewalks. I imagine water seeping in through my shoes, deep puddles at corners that I can’t get around without risking my life by stepping out into traffic. Before I can mentally map a route of sufficient distance, the obstacles become insurmountable and the simulation ceases. The physical and psychological benefits seem entirely hypothetical.

Emotions: The voice in my head is judging me, calling me lazy and weak, lacking in character and grit. It feels shameful.  

Behaviors: I’m more likely to check the radar and weather forecast looking for an opportunity to reschedule the activity.

When Sloth and Torpor Are Absent

Behaviors: I check the weather, put on the appropriate clothing, and step outside.

Thoughts: No advance route planning is necessary unless there’s a specific errand to run. 

Emotions: General amusement at squirrel, bird, or crow activity, positivity resonance from seeing fellow pedestrians and dogs.  

Physical sensations: It feels good to be moving. 

How Not Yet Arisen, Sloth and Torpor Arise

Behaviors: Lack of a solid stretch of sleep the night before. This can turn into a cycle if I give in to taking a nap to “catch up” on my sleep.

Physical Sensations: An early production of melatonin due to the muted daylight and early sunset produces a weighty sluggishness.

Thoughts: Traditionally, two kinds of thought are associated with the onset of sloth and torpor. One occurs when there are unresolved conflicts in my life that I contemplate but never work through. This is the same kind of dead-end thinking as unsuccessfully simulating a walking route. It eats up energy, but there’s no renewal from a sense of accomplishment. It’s spinning my wheels.

The second kind would be continually looping back to rationalizations like, “But I’m too tired” or “I’ll do it later.”

Overestimation of the effort required to put on rain gear is another contributing thought.

Emotions: Free-floating resentment or frustration about the shortness of daylight, cloud cover of an already weak sun, a vague sense of injustice about it raining too many days in a row, or before my clothes actually dry from the previous day’s walk.

How Once Arisen, Sloth and Torpor are Abandoned

Thoughts: A rationalization process goes on where I bargain with myself to merely dress for the weather and step outside without a commitment to meet my step count. It also helps if there’s someplace I need to be or an errand I need to run. Then I can combine the task with that objective. 

Emotions: My partner is on the same page as I am as far as walking for fitness goes. It helps to arrange a time when we can walk together to engage in agreeable conversation and take our minds off the weather. 

Behaviors: Setting a time to walk, dressing for the weather, and stepping out the door.

Physical Sensations: Usually some pleasant sensations will kick in if I can manage to get in motion. They may not be as pleasant as they usually are, but once I’m out and moving I acclimate to the damp and/or cold. Once begun, it’s easier to complete the steps, or at least get a decent number, than to return and get out of the rain gear.

How Once Abandoned, Sloth and Torpor Do Not Arise Again

Okay, I’m still struggling with sloth and torpor. I haven’t kicked it, but the more aware I am of the thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors that accompany the hindrance, the more quickly I begin to engage with one of the strategies to overcome it. Writing this post is actually a strong, positive step in strengthening an early warning system before my habitual reactions can take hold.

Ten Minute Exercise

Goldstein recommends keeping a diary of depression cues. Since both the hindrances and depression loops become more challenging once they set habitual reactions in motion, it’s helpful to practice noting our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and behaviors, and selecting appropriate coping strategies in advance when we’re not under their distorting influence.

1. Set an alarm on your phone, computer or other timer to ping you two or more times a day when you’ll be free to pause for a minute or two (or five. You can divide the ten minutes by the number of pings accordingly.)

2. Take a few breaths to check in with yourself and write a brief description of your current thoughts, emotions, any physical sensations that you notice, and the behavior you were engaged in at the time you were pinged.

3. Note whether any hindrances or depression cues are present, absent, or arising.

4. Keep this document with you so that you can add thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors that coincide with hindrances and depression cues.

Starting and keeping such a document will help you recognize that a hindrance that seems permanent (once you’re inside it) is actually changing all the time. Developing curiosity about those changes gives you greater freedom when they arise.

How to Win a Political Argument

“You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.”–Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

My First Brexit-Style Referendum  

It was the first election year that I sort of kind of understood what was happening. I had enjoyed the theatricality of the conventions. I couldn’t follow what the nominee was saying, but the crowd kept interrupting with standing ovations so it must have been good. The balloons looked amazing on our new TV. I had just wrapped up my first Brexit-style referendum campaign.

YES! LET THE RABBIT EAT TRIX!

NO! TRIX ARE FOR KIDS

I was chairman of the YES! campaign in my third-grade classroom. 

Victory was intoxicating!

An Accidental Donkey

For Halloween that year, my mother asked if my brother and I would like to trick-or-treat as an elephant and donkey. I liked the idea, but only if I could be the donkey. To my surprise, my brother didn’t argue.

I was eager to do for my family’s favorite candidate what I had done for the Trix rabbit.

I was proud to dress as the symbol of the Republican Party. I would be the GOP DONKEY!

Why You Can’t Win an Argument  

Dale Carnegie explains that if you shoot someone’s argument full of holes and prove that they’re delusional, you’ll feel fine, but they’ll feel stupid, ashamed, and resentful.

For example, just before I set out on my Halloween mission, I thanked my brother for allowing me to represent the Republicans.

“Donkeys are Democrats,” he said.

“No, they’re not!” I objected. 

That political argument went on for a while. You know who lost. 

I felt stupid, ashamed, and resentful.

My New Tribe

My costume choice may have been a letdown to the tribe of my nuclear family, but when we started knocking on doors, I saw Blue. 

We lived on Chicago’s south side. Ours was the only Republican family on the block. Our neighbors were delighted by my costume and eagerly gave me candy.

One of them jokingly asked, “Should we really feed the elephant?”

I was torn. My brother hadn’t forced me to be the donkey. He hadn’t really rubbed it in. My first decision as a Chicago Democratic Party power broker was magnanimity toward my political opponent.

“Sure, I guess.”  

My Thanksgiving Tribe

There may be a genetic component to following in the footsteps of my father’s political tribe. But, my mother’s parents and extended family were Democrats. Maybe the donkey gene had influenced my decision.

Whatever the genetics, as I graduated from the kid table to the grown-up table at Thanksgiving gatherings, I observed three things in the adult conversations.

  1. Discussing political views made for some entertaining (and increasingly inebriated) conversation. 
  2. I doubt that they ever changed anyone’s vote.
  3. At the end of the evening, we were all still family.

Sadly, for many families, that’s no longer the case.

Losing Your Tribe

In September, I attended a Better Angels Skills Workshop, which offers techniques to “have constructive, non-polarizing conversations” with people who disagree politically.

The facilitators asked why people had come to the workshop. Some had moved cross country to follow a spouse or a job. Their new neighbors thought differently than their old ones. Some were carefully vetting holiday invitations on the chance a certain in-law might be there. Others felt alienated by their co-workers.

I was looking for techniques to calm the stress and anger that arose when my own tribes spoke as if their political opposites were monsters.  

Setting the Tone

I like that the first guideline for a constructive conversation is to let the person know that your goal is to understand their perspective. To the extent that core beliefs are genetically influenced, they are as difficult to change as race or gender preference.

The second is to acknowledge your own political stance. This allows your conversation partner to know their audience so they won’t feel ambushed. 

Because of my Purple upbringing, I’m seldom in lockstep with either tribe, so it was easy for me to acknowledge something critical about my side and offer something positive about the other side.

The guideline I found clunky was asking permission to pose questions. The handout suggests the phrases, “Can I ask you something about politics and your views on something?” and “Can I ask you what people in your part of the country are saying about what’s going on in Washington these days?” The first one sounds unnatural to me; the second sounds too close to “you people.”           

Active Listening 

I’m a big fan of paraphrasing people’s answers and giving them the chance to clear up misunderstandings. This forces me to listen carefully without forming a response. Paraphrasing thoughts challenges me to consider what was said. And, it gives each party the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings. Additionally, I can attempt to de-escalate inflammatory word choices.

Listening for core beliefs is central to learning what makes people tick. Political views reveal how people feel about individual vs. collective freedom, the roles of the federal and local government, the strengths and weaknesses of the economic system, religious beliefs, patriotism vs. globalism. 

Speaking Skills

My second favorite skill (after the paraphrase) is the follow-up question. After a view has been stated, paraphrased, and acknowledged, ask how the person came to hold the belief.

Examples:

I’m interested in how you came to belive in single-payer healthcare.

How did you come to see the federal government as more the problem than the solution?

The workshop suggests using “I” statements (I think, I feel, as I see it) to avoid stating opinions as facts. This is a good way to avoid saying things like, “it’s just common sense.”

It wasn’t that challenging to find areas of agreement when roll playing Blue gun control talking points with a Red conversation partner. We both agreed that mass shootings occurring at the current rate were unacceptable.

If a view differs from yours, ask how the person came to form that view. This helps humanize political opinions and gets people off their talking points. My partner shared the story of an elderly friend who lived alone in a rural setting far from her neighbors. She had purchased a handgun and taken safety courses for her self-protection. She was concerned about overregulation taking that protection away.

Handling Difficult Moments

My practice sessions were so amicable that I didn’t get the chance to test drive the recommendations for handling difficult moments.  

The handout recommends refocusing on one topic when someone jumps from issue to issue. Instead of answering baiting questions or provocative statements, gently restating or rephrasing your viewpoint. Agreeing to disagree. Finding a low-key way to end the conversation is still my go-to strategy if the other person starts to get upset. Move on to another topic where you agree. That’s the way our Thanksgiving conversations usually ended.

How to Influence People

In his post “Why Facts Don’t Change Minds,” James Clear writes:

“Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe. If they abandon their beliefs, they run the risk of losing social ties. You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.

“The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially.”

Ten Minute Exercise

While the exercises from the workshop can be done in ten minutes with a partner, they must be done face to face. The workshop cautions against trying to employ these skills online. Without facial expression and tone of voice, it’s very easy to take words out of context. But, we can practice our response to polarizing ideas on our own.

1. Set a timer for ten minutes.

2. Write down a political talking point that brings up resistance in you.

Examples: 

Talking Point: We need to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Talking Point: We need Medicare for All.

3. Write down a core belief that the statement conflicts with:

Examples: 

Talking Point: We need to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Conflicting Core Belief: I believe that healthcare is a basic human right. 

Blue: We need Medicare for All.

Conflicting Core Belief: I don’t trust the federal government to get healthcare right.

4. Briefly describe an experience from your life that helped shape your belief.

Examples: 

Core Belief: I believe that healthcare is a basic human right.

Story: When my mother took ill, my father ate through all of his retirement savings and eventually went bankrupt.

Core Belief: I don’t trust my family’s health to the federal government. 

Story: I wanted to start my own business, but there were so many regulations that had to be met I couldn’t afford to do it.

5. Write down something challenging about your own position.

Talking Point: We need to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Challenge: Of course, many of the changes have become entrenched now making the bureaucracy hard to untangle. 

Talking Point: We need Medicare for All.

Challenge: When Obama tried to do healthcare, he couldn’t find enough support for a public option in his own party, let alone gaining Republican support.

Brighter Outlooks for Pessimists

Pessimist

I’m sharing my experience with a ten minute daily habit that’s been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in pessimists. 

Predicting a Brighter Future

As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, “Life feels reactive, but it is actually predictive. All day long, you are making your best guess of how to act given what you’ve just seen and what has worked for you in the past. You are endlessly predicting what will happen in the next moment. Our behavior is heavily dependent on these predictions. Put another way, our behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves.”

It would be depressing if our well-being were dependent on what happens to us, which often is beyond our control. But, with practice, we can get better at controlling how we interpret what happens. This exercise from Greater Good in Action shows us how.

List Five Good Things

To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

Here are five things I find enjoyable, enriching, and or worthwhile about this exercise. 

1. I find that listing things that are going well helps me appreciate them again in the moment. 

“Enjoyed dropping in on the Day of the Dead art exhibit at Guardino Gallery.”

2. It primes me to look for and recognize the good in things I might otherwise take for granted.

“Washed new underwear and socks. Look forward to wearing them!”

3. It prompts me to pursue the good when opportunities arise. 

“Signed up for a Social Gathering Meetup on Saturday.”

4. What is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile in the moment is relative, and highly scalable.

“Not feeling well because of debilitating allergies. Scrambled eggs and English muffins was comforting breakfast.”

5. Through repetition and neuroplasticity, repeating these instructions changes the brain.

“I’m noticing that this exercise is helping me recognize and reframe frustrating situations more quickly.” 

Describe the Situation

Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

Focusing on the “most recent” event brings attention to fresh circumstances instead of rehashing old ones. Writing the event down translates it from feelings and negative self talk (which I seldom question) into words (which I constantly question). The ten minute time limit and brief description prevent me from going on a rant.

“I was frustrated that none of the friends who said they were interested in joining me for Paranormal Pub at the Kennedy School showed up. I kept looking at the door to see if they’d arrive. It made it difficult for me to relax.”

List Three Positives

Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

1. Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.

2. You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.

3. Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.

Three things I like about these examples:

1. The running to catch the bus example encourages creative thinking and having a sense of humor about oneself.

“I can be autonomous in choosing something I want to do and let others choose for themselves.”

2. The recognition that there’ll be another bus acknowledges how we benefit from each others’ contributions.  

“It’s nice that Kennedy School puts these programs on as an opportunity for community.”

3. Taking the “ten year” view works with larger setbacks. It’s unlikely we’ll remember small ones even one week from now.     

There will be another opportunity to get together.”

Ten Minute Exercise

Finding Silver Linings

Ten minutes daily for three weeks

1. To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

2. Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

3. In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

4. Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

a. Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.

b. You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.

c. Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.

Bonus Track

Listen to the “How to Find Your Silver Linings” episode from the Science of Happiness podcast.