“We tend to see success as an event versus this series of small steps that are taken day after day, or a series of choice points that are made over and over.” – Eric Zimmer
Eric Zimmer, host of The One You Feed podcast recently posted a mini-episode entitled “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps.” He covers principles that he uses in his Transformation Program. Mr. Zimmer has personal experience with cultivating positive habits to overcome addiction, but the importance of consistency and small steps applies to depression, too.
Mistakenly Seeing Success as an Event
One sunny day on my way from the parking lot to my advertising job, I noticed an unfamiliar sense of well-being. I felt that the fog of my depression had lifted. The birds were singing, sunshine warmed my cheeks and a gentle breeze caressed its heat away. The meds had kicked in.
I thought my depression was cured. I saw this as the end of my journey, not a place to begin.
“It’s so easy,” says Mr. Zimmer, “to overestimate one defining moment but underestimate how important it is to keep making small improvements. In the beginning, and day by day, there’s not a huge difference between making a choice that’s a little bit better or a little bit worse. But, if you follow that over a period of time, big gains or big losses occur.”
That mistake cost me: in weight gain, rage, relationships, withdrawal, and years of cyclical misery.
Treating the Effect Instead of the Cause
I didn’t understand (nor did the medical community at the time) that an “imbalance” in my brain chemistry was an effect of depression, not the cause. No one was thinking of the brain as an organ that was constantly forming new neural connections based on our experience. Doctors didn’t associate a chemical imbalance in those same neural pathways as the physical manifestation of consistently taking small steps reinforcing depression-producing habit patterns.
No one told me that fine-tuning my brain chemistry without addressing the mental and behavioral habits that created it was comparable to:
- Sticking my hand in a fire.
- Anesthetizing my hand to numb the pain.
- Sticking my hand in the fire again.
“What we’re after,” says Mr. Zimmer, “is continuing to make small changes in the direction of what matters to us.”
What mattered to me at the time was beating depression with as little effort (taking a pill) as possible.
“The problem that a lot of us have is when we don’t see success quickly we tend to give up,” Mr. Zimmer continues. “We hear about the value of meditation, so we might meditate a few times and suddenly we don’t feel different, our life isn’t different, and so we stop. Or, we hear deep breathing sounds like it could really help me with my anxiety. So, we try and take a couple deep breaths a couple times, we don’t see any big difference, we stop.”
I had read enough about the new (at the time) class of antidepressants to overcome my doubt and put in the minimal effort for me to take them for three weeks. The drug manufacturer’s narrative was simple to accept. Depressed brains were vacuuming up serotonin too quickly. “Normal” (happy) brains allowed serotonin to hand around longer. The drug helped the serotonin hang around.
I had also dabbled with meditation and breath work, but not even Jon Kabat-Zinn could provide a simple enough narrative to assuage my doubts in them.
Science Versus the Supernatural
It’s a shame that the people who taught me gratitude and compassion also taught me about Noah’s Ark. The parents who taught me to take deep breaths and count to ten when I was angry also told me that Santa Claus visited every child on the planet in one night.
Donald Hebb’s 1949 assertion that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” might have been a less confusing teaching meme than “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was, in any case, my reality.
With each set of neurons firing to produce a baby step that kept me vertical, neurons wired together and I remembered how to walk. The same thing happened when I associated a winged creature with the sound created when b-i-r-d is pronounced, and later wiring the neurons associating the letters with the sound.
It took time for the science to catch up, but, thanks to brain scans, we now know that consistent meditation, even in small doses, can grow the brain region associated with mood regulation and shrinks the region associated with volatile mood swings.
The science of intentional breathing is so effective at engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and easing anxiety that the US Military teaches it.
And it turns out that consistent small steps wiring together the neurons associated with social connection, cooperation, compassion, generosity, and gratitude all build a brain’s sense of balance and even contribute to longevity.
Self Compassion and Acceptance
“In the same way that we realize that small steps lead us toward a good thing,” reminds Mr. Zimmer, “we also realize that a couple of steps that aren’t taken, or a couple of steps in the wrong direction do not spell disaster. It just means we take the next step as soon as we can.”
As I noted in the post “Shame, Blame, and Self-Acceptance,” recovering from our stumbles begins with our admission that we’re not perfect. We never will be nor do we need to be. There’s no reason to blame ourselves or be ashamed of our lapses.
Even the manufacturers of my antidepressant included instructions for what to do when I accidentally skipped or doubled up on my dosage.
If I had accepted that taking an antidepressant was the beginning of my journey from depression to well-being and not the end, I could have lived many more depression-free or at least depression-resistant years. But nobody’s perfect.
Ten Minute Exercise
Listen to Mr. Zimmer’s mini episode (just shy of 10 minutes at 9:48) “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps“
Extra credit: subscribe to The One You Feed podcast.