Depression Books That Read Your Mind

The Hilarious World of Depression podcast recently asked listeners to recommend books that get depression right. The results were far from depressing.

 

Depression Books
I Didn’t Know I was Depressed

When I picked up a copy of Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, depression was the last thing on my mind. The reviews focused on the sexier ethical and societal implications of changing one’s true personality through drug use.

I was working in advertising and writing plays at the time. Writing a Pygmalion-like social satire about a designer drug that could create a six- or seven-figure income personality seemed worthwhile.

A peculiar side-effect of reading the book was my first exposure to depression screening questions. I had always chalked up my moods and variable stamina to artistic temperament and allergies. Here, I learned that my collection of lifelong symptoms went by another name: clinical depression.

Prozac wasn’t the answer. But before picking up a book about the history of depression and its treatment, it never occurred to me that there was a question.

How Reading These Books Can Help

The novels, memoirs, and non-fiction works below helped The Hilarious World of Depression listeners (affectionately known as THWoD-balls) practice self love and get serious about treatment. They also offered hope, helped readers process their childhood, teenage years, motherhood, understand what loved ones with depression were going through, and gave them language to describe their experience.

Ten Minute Exercise

The podcast episode “Jenny Lawson and Books That Get Depression Right” runs 35 minutes, and includes the names and locations of the listeners (which I won’t attempt here due to the hazards of phonetic misspelling). I categorized and condensed their recommendations for an episode summary that can be read in less than ten minutes. 

1. Use these thumbnail recommendations to find a book that speaks to your situation or that of a loved one.

2. Put a hold on that book at your local library or order a copy if you prefer to own books.

3. See if the book offers any helpful ideas or insights.

Spoiler Alert: I’m going with The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb 

Anxious Childhood

Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life by Amanda Stern and First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson

“Both of these books talk about the authors’ experiences as highly anxious children, and reading them helped me connect events from my childhood to my anxiety, rather than how it felt and how I viewed it for so many years, which is that I wasn’t brave enough, or strong enough, or capable enough, or whatever it is that I wasn’t ______ enough to go through them on my own.” 

Struggles of Young Adulthood

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“One of the quotes from the book reads, ‘So this is my life, and I want you to know that I’m both happy and sad, and I’m still trying to figure out how that can be.'”

What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan

“Fagan’s book can help us talk more realistically about the pressures that affect an eighteen-year-old’s mental health, and maybe help concerned adults spot problems sooner.”

Empty by K. M. Walton

“The book really portrays a young adult’s mind going through multiple things. Dell the main character has to deal with anxiety, depression, an abusive mother, bullying at school, suicidal thoughts, and her constant battle with her body weight and image.”

Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America by Elizabeth Wurtzel

“I read it first when I was in high school and my sister was experiencing depression, and I wanted to try to understand what she was going through… A few years later, I started experiencing depression, and I went back to Prozac Nation. And as I re-read it, I kept thinking, how does she know what’s going on in my mind?” 

Motherhood Blues

She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

“I love that it addresses a huge misconception about depression, which is that depression equals a bad parent whose children grow up to ultimately resent them. This book shows a child who grows up to adore their parent and to write a book about their happy and perfect childhood, and how proud they are of their parent.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple

“As a new mom it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or like the life that you thought it was going to be isn’t exactly what you turned out to have, and that desperation to get it back can lead to some pretty severe depression.”

Case Histories and Science

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison

“Most of this book is an academic study of suicide from cultural, neurological, and other perspectives, but what made it resonate with me was Jamison’s inclusion of personal narratives, including her own struggle with bipolar disorder and suicidality. On top of being an established academic, Jamison is a terrific writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading what she had to say.”

The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb 

“The recommendations suggested in the book are nothing you haven’t heard before, but it actually tells you how they work, which will most likely inspire you to persevere.”

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

“One passage sticks out to me that I think about a lot. He talks to a woman who says, ‘You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness and that now you’re seeing truly.'” 

An Illustrated Favorite

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

“One of the first times when I felt so seen that I almost thought she had been living with me and had been documenting my life.”

Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two Online

Biblical

The Bible (The Psalms of David)

“God called David a man after his own heart, which helped me to no end when I thought about the struggles that David faced, and the fact that God still loved and cherished him, and saw him, and accepted him as flawed, and still the man that David was supposed to be. And perhaps that God in his wisdom and love and struggles looking at his own creation might go through the same.”

Finding the Right Words

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

“Something about this book nails exactly what it’s like to live with these unwelcome little guests of anxiety and depression in your mind day to day. If I wasn’t nodding in agreement along with the way that Matt explains things, I was grabbing a highlighter to mark them because he explained them in a way that I had never thought of.”

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

“Intended as a kind of antidote to modern life and the way that that can contribute to making us all unhappy.”

“Depression isn’t funny, but we are. Jenny reminds us that humor can be found in difficult times… Finding real talk like hers helps to empower self love and strengthens us to stand up for folks with brain illnesses… We find common ground in her writings, and that creates dialogue. Jenny Lawson brings the monsters out from under our beds.”

“You do a good job of rinsing your sorrow out with joy.”

Welcome to My Planet by Shannon Olson

“She totally nails how there doesn’t have to be anything exactly wrong in order to suffer from depression. The main character, also called Shannon, has decent people in her life, good things around her, but those people and those things can’t fix everything.”

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron

“One thing that resonated with me was Styron’s complaint about the word depression to describe depression… ‘Brainstorm… has unfortunately been preempted to describe intellectual inspiration, but something along these lines is needed. Told that someone’s mood disorder has evolved into a storm, a veritable howling tempest in the brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else, even the uninformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard reaction.'”

Recognizing Emotions

Can recognizing emotions really help you handle the troubling ones more effectively? Fortunately, or not, I recently had a chance to put this theory to the test.

Recognizing IRS
Where’s my money?
A Taxing Moment

When I checked the mail a return address triggered tightening in my face, shoulders, jaw, and chest: the crude outline of an eagle with a scale of justice for claws above the letters IRS. It was addressed to my partner, but because I had prepared her taxes and she was out of town visiting her family, I opened it to see if it contained something urgent.

The IRS and I had come to different conclusions about the tax owed. And they hadn’t written to say, “You accidentally overpaid.”

I felt…bad.

Shifting Blame…

My knee-jerk remedy for feeling bad is to find someone or something to blame.

My partner works with a financial advisor. Maybe she should hire a tax professional, too.

It’s Turbo Tax’s fault for designing software that requires an operating system that their QuickBooks accounting software won’t run on! 

Turbo Tax touts free online tax preparation, but they tried to up-sell me by over $100 when I entered a deduction for internet service that I use for my small business (and more than their small business software). As a former advertising professional, I have a visceral negative reaction to bait and switch.

That tax law that made the form easier for most Americans? I had to download and fill in more forms than I’ve ever used before.

Those IRS instructions (if line 13 is greater than line 12, add line 7 to line 14 and subtract line 11) are written for computers not humans.

…Doesn’t Work

Blaming my partner, or Turbo Tax, or Congress, or the IRS made me feel wronged, but it didn’t make me feel better.

Blaming others for my feelings may restore self-esteem, but empowering others to make me feel bad robs me of agency. 

Besides, I had offered to do the taxes.

I had chosen not to buy another computer or install and reinstall operating systems to use Turbo Tax software.  

I had chosen not to pay the up-sell to use online Turbo Tax.

Some of the people I voted into office have contributed to the tax code being what it is today.

Taking responsibility for my decisions made me responsible for my feelings, but it didn’t make me feel better. Good thing I remembered something else I could try.

What’s in a Name? 

Here’s the most exciting paragraph I read in Elisha Goldstein’s Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion

The amygdala’s job is to interpret the data we gather through our senses. When subjects label an emotion, brain activity shifts from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for analyzing data and making decisions based on that analysis.

Okay, the words amygdala and prefrontal cortex don’t excite many people the way they excite me. So, let’s watch them in action. 

I hear a loud bang.

The amygdala interprets the sense data as unpleasant and energizes the body.

How I respond depends on what happens in the next moment.

Re-Cognizing Experience

To cognize means to perceive, know, or become aware of. The prefix re- means once more, afresh, or anew.

By perceiving; knowing; or becoming aware of emotion once more; afresh; or anew, we give ourselves the opportunity to analyze what is actually happening.

In response to the bang, deciding what to do next depends on whether I label the sensation as fear (based on the concept gunshot) or surprise (based on the concept firecracker).

The label helps determine what happens next. Fear: get the hell out of there or lay low. Surprise: get back to what I was doing.

Labeling the Emotion

I tried labeling the unpleasant physical sensations that arose from the tax letter as feeling incompetent (this label may also apply to the thought I am incompetent, but experience tells me that’s not always true). In one way or another, I have always been able to cope with taxes, mostly getting the numbers to work. The feeling of not being able to figure them out, of ceding independence to tax preparation software or a service is a blow to self-esteem. 

Another label might be feeling untrustworthy. I have taken on the responsibility of doing taxes within the relationship. My partner trusts me with the job. I know that I have a strong identification with being trustworthy. It’s a blow to feel that I can’t be trusted.

Label Analysis

While my experiential history with taxes played a role in activating my physical response, it didn’t apply to my current situation.  

I wasn’t afraid of dealing with my partner wailing and breaking down in tears of frustration. I wasn’t afraid of being thrown in prison for tax evasion or slapped with massive back taxes: things I associate with audits (though my own audit didn’t result in either). I wasn’t concerned about losing all my computer data while shuffling back and forth between operating systems.

I only needed to respond to this situation.  

Determining Action

Once I had labeled my emotion, I could analyze the situation and decide what to do. I apologized to my partner for the error and returned to the worksheets to see whether I could determine the discrepancy. 

Was it something I had missed? I could learn from my mistake.

Was it something they had missed? I could draft a letter explaining their error. 

Was it something I couldn’t figure out? I could acknowledge that I needed help preparing taxes without beating myself up about it.

Realization

In the end, I realized where I’d slipped up on the tax calculation. 

I also realized how recognizing emotions can prove beneficial.

The negative physical sensations had mostly subsided by the time I revisited the taxes. I was fairly clear-headed about something that had initially been emotionally charged.

Ten Minute Exercise

The original mindfulness manual advocates setting time aside to simply recognize whether a mood is present or not.

Elisha Goldstein applies that practice to depression treatment. Just as various roads lead you into a traffic circle, the depression loop has four entrance points: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors. Any one of these can lead you into the depression loop…

The first step in uncovering happiness and experiencing freedom from the depression loop is learning how to objectively see this loop in action instead of getting lost in it.

1. Take three minutes to identify emotions that coincide with the onset of a depressive episode. 

Goldstein offers some ideas: anxiety, sadness, irritability, impatience, moodiness, fear, emptiness, hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, shame, grief, anger, despair.

In my tax situation, I might label my initial physical sensations as anxiety (initial response), irritability (initial response), pessimism (incompetence at handling taxes going forward), shame (of being untrustworthy), anger (blaming others, then myself).

2. Take three minutes during the day, when you’re not engaged in activity that requires your full attention (either at intervals or all at once) to check in with your bodily sensations and notice whether they’re generally:

Pleasant and calm.

Pleasant and aroused. 

Unpleasant and calm.

Unpleasant and aroused.

Note whether the emotions on your list are present or absent.

I’d classify my initial sensations when noticing the IRS logo as unpleasant and aroused.  

3. Take three minutes to review your day (evening) or previous day (morning) and note which emotions (on the list or otherwise) you experienced.  

4. Use the final minute to place your hand on your heart out of gratitude for the absence of troubling emotions or out of resolve to take self-compassionate action when they are present. You can then choose a well-being practice that seems appropriate to try.

Intrinsic Treasure

I never thought a podcast conversation about one of my favorite movies, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, would lead to a post on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation or the toll that the extrinsic can take on one’s mental health.

intrinsic
Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation

An article in Verywell Mind says “extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding; essentially, performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward.”

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre revolves around gold prospecting, an activity that few would engage in except for the potential reward. So, how could a movie about something I have no intrinsic interest in become one of my all-time favorite films?

Intrinsically Motivated Podcast 

I’ll let the hosts of the Unspooled podcast explain: “Paul Scheer is a lifelong movie buff, but he’s never seen many of the all time greats. On Unspooled, his team-up with film critic Amy Nicholson, he’s remedying that by watching the AFI’s (American Film Institute’s) top 100 movies of all time, to find out what makes classics like Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver so special.”

AMY: This film is terrific and nasty and dark and brutal and funny and strange. I loved this movie so much.

PAUL: I was kind of blown away by the film because it really is a dark character study. I mean, Humphrey Bogart’s character in this, I think, reminded me in many ways of a character like we saw in Taxi Driver: this person going mad and we’re along for this journey, and you understand it on some level.

Art Versus Commercial Potential

The Treasure of Sierra Madre would never have been made into a film if Humphrey Bogart hadn’t relished the challenge of playing the unsympathetic central character or possessed the star power to pick his next project.

Amy shares some studio notes on the source novel appraising its potential as a film. 

AMY: There’s no question that a very powerful picture could be made from this. What is the box office appeal would be the question… A fine product would result, but personally I doubt whether this subject could be sold to the women in audiences…

In some respects, the novel is reminiscent of Greed… and Greed was lauded as an artistic success, but it is not artistic success we are after but rather box office possibilities. And for this reason, we cannot recommend this novel.

Gold Digging Gone Wrong

Amy summarizes the the plot of the John Huston film starring Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs: Fred C. Dobbs is a broke panhandler in Mexico. He makes a friend, who’s Tim Holt playing a character named Bob Curtin, and the two of them come into just enough money to convince an old-timey gold-digging genius to teach them how to dig for gold. The three of them set out, find gold, and the finding of the gold becomes a disaster.

The Problem with Extrinsic Motivation

AMY: It’s about this idea that as soon as you get a little bit of something you always want more, which is so fundamental in human nature that we get a lecture about it at the beginning, just to sort of set up what this film is about. 

Dobbs and Curtin meet the veteran prospector Howard (Walter Huston) in a flop house sharing stories with his fellow patrons.

FLOPHOUSE PATRON: $5,000 is a lot of money.

HOWARD: Mmm. Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add $10,000 more. Ten you’d want to get twenty-five, twenty-five you’d want to get fifty, fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

DOBBS: It wouldn’t be that way with me. I swear it wouldn’t. I’d take only what I set out to get. Even if there’s still a half a million dollars worth lying around waiting to be picked up.

HOWARD: I’ve dug in Alaska and Canada and Colorado. I was with the crowd in the British Honduras, where I’d made my fare back home… and almost enough over to cure me of the fever I’d caught. Dug in California and Australia. All over the world, practically. Yeah. I know what gold does to men’s souls.

Paul observes that this film’s portrayal of prospecting is a parallel for addiction. Dobbs who’s never known wealth is sure that he can handle it. Howard, who’s been there, knows that he can’t trust himself.

What Gold Can Buy

AMY: I think one of the things that just really separates Bogart’s character from everybody else is that when they talk about what they’re going to do with money. They’re all forward thinking. One of them’s like, “I’m gonna build a shop, I’m gonna retire.” The other one’s like, “I want a peach orchard.” They have a goal in mind. And all Bogart wants is a good suit and he wants a good meal. He wants something immediate. He’s just a man with no forward thought. He’s only about immediate pleasures.

DOBBS: First off, I’m going to a Turkish bath to sweat and soak…till I get all the grime and dirt out of my system. Then I’m going to a haberdasher and gonna get myself a brand-new set of duds. Dozen of everything. Then I’m going to a swell cafe…order everything on the bill o’ fare and if it ain’t just right… or maybe even if it is, I’m gonna bawl the waiter out… and make him take the whole thing back.

Projecting Your Values on Others

Another problem with never knowing when you have enough is assuming others see the world as you do. This leads to unease when Howard asks Dobbs to go into town for provisions. 

DOBBS: (sarcastically to himself) They’re running short of provisions, Dobbsie, how about you going to the village? Who does Howard think he is, ordering me around?

HOWARD: What’s that Dobbs?

DOBBS: Nothing.

HOWARD: Better look out. It’s a bad sign when a guy start’s talking to himself. 

DOBB: Yeah? Well, who else am I going to talk to? Certainly not you or Curtin. Fine partners you two are.

HOWARD: Got something up your nose? Blow it out. It will do you good. 

DOBB: Don’t get the idea you two are putting anything over on me. 

HOWARD: Take it easy, Dobbs.

DOBBS: I know what your game is. 

HOWARD: Well, you know more than I do. 

DOBBS: Why am I elected to go to the village? Why me instead of you and Curtin? Oh, don’t think I don’t see through that? You two have thrown together against me. The two days I’d be gone would give you plenty of time to discover where my goods are, wouldn’t it? 

HOWARD: Got any fear along those lines, why don’t you take your goods along with you?

DOBBS: And run the risk of having them taken from me by bandits?

HOWARD: (humorous) If you was to run into bandits, you’d be out of luck anyway. They’d kill you for the shoes on your feet. 

DOBBS: Oh, so that’s it. Everything’s clear now. You’re hoping bandits’ll get me. That would save you a lot of trouble, wouldn’t it? And your consciences wouldn’t bother you none neither.

AMY: I love that scene because it shows how determined he is to spin everything into a negative. There’s no solution in the world when you are Dobbs.

A Personal Hell

Later in the film, when extrinsically motivated Dobbs betrays his partners before (he imagines) his partners betray him, he struggles with the voice inside him that tells him what he’s done is wrong. 

DOBBS: Conscience. What a thing. If you believe you’ve got a conscience, it’ll pester you to death. But if you don’t believe you’ve got one…what can it do to you? Makes me sick all this talking and fussing about nonsense.

AMY: Huston films it with Humphrey Bogart in front of a fire and these flames are just in front of his face like he is satan. It’s a straight up, “You are in hell now. This hell of your own creation.”

The Treasure in the Title

The only mention of treasure in the film comes from a letter by a character who’s not in the movie. It’s written by the wife of a fellow American prospector James Cody (Bruce Bennett) who follows Curtin back to camp when he goes for provisions. Cody joins the trio in fighting off bandits, but dies in the process. Curtin reads the letter they find in the dead man’s pocket.

CURTIN: “You say if you do not make a real find this time you’ll never go again. I cannot begin to tell you how my heart rejoices at those words, if you really mean them…” 

“Now I feel free to tell you. I’ve never thought any material treasure no matter how great, is worth the pain of these long separations… Of course, I’m hoping that you will at last strike it rich. It is high time for luck to start smiling upon you. But just in case she doesn’t, remember we’ve already found life’s real treasure.”

Four Minute Exercise

One of my favorite moments in Bogart’s performance occurs when he suggests to Curtin that they steal the old man’s goods. Curtin won’t play along, but he’s left in an impossible situation.

Watch this excerpt from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s far from a downer. It ends with one of the most famous laughs in movie history.

Stumbling Toward Post Traumatic Growth

I often run into the phrase Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, I hadn’t heard of its flipside, Post Traumatic Growth, until I stumbled into experiencing it myself!

Growth
The Adversity of Breaking Up

A close colleague recently met with me to sever our relationship.

It wasn’t out of the blue. It came after a flurry of emotionally charged emails that I did my best (unsuccessfully) to answer.

I accepted their decision without any animosity. Although the reasons were legitimate, we’d known each other for a few years, and we’d been friends, so the separation still stung.

Body Trouble

I’m used to letting people go. Co-workers I’ve befriended leave for other jobs, neighbors move to other cities, people join and leave groups I belong to. I’ve left jobs, neighborhoods, and groups, too.

A few hours after our parting, I was with my partner enjoying a screening of The Haunting, a favorite slow-burn supernatural thriller that I’ve loved since childhood. I was mostly absorbed in the movie. But, that enjoyment was occasionally hijacked by distress signals my body demanded I address.

Apparently, I hadn’t fully processed the event. It had lodged in my body as a wound. A fancy Greek word for wound is trauma.

The Lessons of Trauma

Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, explains how, if we’re not careful, what we learn from trauma can negatively impact all aspects of our life.

When people feel helpless in one area of life, they not only give up in that one area; they often “overlearn” the lesson and apply it to other situations. They become convinced that one dead-end path must be proof that all possible paths are dead ends. A setback at work might lead to despondency about one’s relationship, or a rift with a friend might discourage us from trying to form bonds with our colleagues, and so on.

Post Traumatic Growth

Fortunately, the same book introduced me to the term Post Traumatic Growth, a phenomenon that Richard Tedeschi and his colleagues at UNC Charlotte have been studying for a couple of decades. What kind of growth comes from a brush with adversity?

Mr. Achor writes:

Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in, their social relationships.

ABCDs of Growth

To help us stack the deck for growth, Mr. Achor discusses the ABCD approach. It stands for:

Adversity.

Belief.

Consequences.

Disputation.

The acronym might have been new to me, but the wisdom behind it, is older than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Adversity

The adversity part in this model is an event that we cannot change.

My colleague’s decision to discontinue our relationship would be an example.

There’s a certain subjectivity even to labeling an event as adverse, so it might be useful to think of it as an event that we experience as a wound.

Belief

According to Mr. Achor:

Belief is our reaction to the event; why we thought it happened and what we think it means for the future. Is it a problem that is only temporary and local in nature or do we think it is permanent and pervasive? Are there ready solutions, or do we think it is unsolvable?

While I had to accept my colleague’s decision, I had the presence of mind to ask for their reasons. This allowed me to evaluate a specific set of opinions instead of imagining everything that I might have said or done wrong. The latter would have been more likely to send me on a downward spiral.

Consequences

Because of the explanation, and the legitimate differences of opinion it revealed, I didn’t believe the problem was permanent or pervasive.

I apologized for the emotional pain I had contributed to, but because it hadn’t been intentional I wasn’t wracked with extreme guilt or self loathing.

I found myself in the weird position of cognitive and emotional self-acceptance accompanied by a bodily experience of a major depressive episode!

Because I hadn’t learned helplessness, I knew enough to add additional social events to my calendar to replace the ones I would be giving up. That was the logical thing to do. But, I also had to heal my wounded body.

Disputation

Mr. Achor writes:

Disputation involves first telling ourselves that our belief is just that—a belief, not fact—and then challenging (or disputing) it.

In a training session I’d done with a professional cuddler, we had discussed how the naturally calming effects of oxytocin might make a cuddle session the ideal setting for processing a traumatic experience.

How we remember events is malleable. So, taking a troubling memory out for an airing in an environment of calm, acceptance, and trust (all side effects of oxytocin) might significantly change the future feeling tone associated with that memory.

Scheduling conflicts prevented me from booking a session with that cuddler before I had the opportunity to attend a group cuddle session (where my body’s panicky “beliefs” could be calmed). I immediately followed that by conversing with someone familiar with the relationship dynamics between me and my colleague.

My body calmed, and reassurance by a third party that I had made mistakes, but not out of maliciousness, helped calm my mind.

Unintentional Alignment

In retrospect, it’s surprising how my experience aligns with the kind of growth that Shawn Achor described in his book.

The trauma strengthened my confidence in my mindfulness practice, which some people consider spiritual. I had greater compassion for my colleague, recognizing that it must have been hard on them, too. I took the opportunity to be more open than I usually am, which helped me move a couple acquaintanceships toward friendships. I added social events to my calendar to replace the ones that I would no longer be attending, and began building relationships with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

In terms of lessons learned, I recognized that because writing and editing sharpens my critical sense, it’s sometimes challenging to turn off my fault-finding habit in areas where it doesn’t serve me. My being less critical may prevent others from deciding to sever relations in the future.

Ten Minute Exercise

Though we can’t heal wounds in ten minutes, we can practice disputing beliefs that can lead to learned helplessness.

1. Set a timer for two minutes. Write down beliefs about an adverse event in your life that have not led to personal growth.

2. Set a timer for six minutes. Write a disputation of one belief.

Ask questions like:

  • What is the evidence for this belief?
  • Does the evidence support only one conclusion?
  • How might a skilled defense attorney argue for another interpretation of events more favorable to their client?
  • Would we let a close friend or loved one get away with this reasoning?

3. Set a timer for two minutes. Check to see whether a disputed belief might lead to:

  • Increases in spirituality
  • Compassion for others.
  • Openness.
  • Enhanced personal strength.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Improved social relationships.

Additional options. Though it takes more than ten minutes, The Work of Byron Katie discussed in “One Belief at a Time” offers a very helpful framework for disputation. The One-Belief-at-a-Time and Judge Your Neighbor worksheets are available here under downloads.