I’m thrilled to announce I got my first guest writer here on “A Peculiar Mind”!
Alex Morgan, UK, is a Psychology Graduate with a Post-grad Certificate in Counselling and a life-long interest in self-improvement.
Before I talk about the changes I have made to my life, it’s important to know what kind of position I was in before. I’ve suffered with serious Depression and Anxiety since I was 14 years old, and probably longer than that now I think about it. Until I hit 40, I was trapped in the same cycle of half-hearted self-help plans and depressive spirals.
There was a time when I was longing for a relationship that made me miserable, drinking straight spirits every night, watching endless cartoon and pornography, wasting my life watching other bitter people complain about their own limitations. I wasn’t suicidal because I was terrified of dying but it was certainly not “living” as I now understand the word. It certainly wouldn’t have bothered me had I accidentally failed to wake up one day. One of my friends literally drank himself to death a few years before and I wondered whether he was the smart one.
Suddenly, days after my 40th birthday, something changed: I realised on all levels that I was contributing to my own suffering. This isn’t an easy thing to realise because the only thing I felt I had left were my excuses. Thinking “It’s not my fault I can’t have a career or relationships…” relieved some of my self-blame but in doing so it made me bitter. Worse than that, it left me feeling unable to change.
I made 5 changes to the way I thought about the world before making any changes to my behaviour:
The first thing I did was to FORGIVE MYSELF any and all past failures. This is absolutely vital because your brain is an amazing tool. It is spectacular at problem solving but misused it can actively make us more unhappy. One thing I learned to be aware of is that sometimes I would dwell on a past failure or setback and repeatedly relive the experience. I determined to be strict with myself and to look into the past ONLY to recover useful information that would help my present or future.
The second vital thing I did was to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for my own happiness. Sure, I can hear people thinking that happiness is outside of our control but stay with me. In large part, there are ways to focus your attention in ways that make you happier. It’s not perfect. I’m not suggesting you just think yourself happier. Just do your best to improve your life and avoid blaming others or your past as much as possible… even when it is true. One example is sick-days: I habitually played up to illness or low mood days to get out of doing things I didn’t want to do. Now, I read the signs and rebel against them, going into work and doing the best job I can manage because that feeling of toughness and responsibility feeds our sense of pride.
The third, and possibly most controversial change I made was to forget about complex Moral problems. My morality had to change because I had been using it as a crutch to avoid difficult decisions. Instead of over-thinking every little thing, which had prevented me taking any part in the world, I decided that: IF SOMETHING GIVES YOU PRIDE, DO IT MORE and IF SOMETHING MAKES YOU FEEL SHAME, DO IT LESS.
The fourth change is accepting folk wisdom passed down by my mother: “IF YOU ALWAYS DO WHAT YOU’VE ALWAYS DONE, YOU’LL ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU ALWAYS GOT!” and it’s true. If the role you’ve been playing has been bringing you nothing but pain, why continue with it? You’re not a character in a B-movie. You don’t have to always act the same throughout your life. Honestly, if acting meek and sleeping all day gets you bullied more and even more tired than when you started, you’re doing something wrong. Most people aren’t sadistic bullies but regular people testing one another constantly to see who will push back. If you never do, as I never did, they will keep pushing and pushing until you snap or break.
The fifth change was to realise how urgent was the need for change. If you were given a diagnosis that said you would be disabled and dead if you ate peanuts again… would you slowly withdrawn peanuts from your diet or realise the urgency and stamp the rule of “NO PEANUTS!” on the inside of your eyelids? You are in nothing less than the fight for your life! You are being attacked by a black dog that wants to tear you limb from limb. What are you going to do about it. TAKE THIS ILLNESS AS SERIOUSLY AND URGENTLY AS YOU WOULD AN ANGRY DOG!
The Behavioural Changes I made were far simpler and easier to follow once I had understood the above Mental Changes. Some of these may or may not apply to everyone. I’m not even sure which of them I needed and which just helped me along but doing them all at once really helped.
Exercise: Yes I know we get sick of hearing about how exercise cures Depression and we all know it’s more complicated than that. But it certainly doesn’t hurt. I do long walks in nature, high-intensity cardio and weights. I stretch regularly and do simple Qigong which is like Tai Chi. Building muscle doesn’t mean looking like He-man. It takes extreme levels of specific diet and super-heavy weights to look that way. Just know that having a healthy musculature can contribute to positive mood and confidence.
Diet: Gut biome health affects mental health, it’s a well-known connection. Sugar and alcohol in particular change the way our bodies operate. They cause excessive Insulin and stress hormones to be released at various times, which often causes weight gain and lethargy. Other people have been shown to have Depression-like reactions to certain food allergies and auto-immune responses. It can be a good idea to isolate food groups to see if eliminating bread, sugar, alcohol, dairy, meat or certain foods like tomatoes helps your energy levels.
Meditation: At first, I was sceptical but it really works. For just a few minutes a day, usually when I can’t sleep at night, I observe my thoughts. Sometimes, I just watch the conscious thoughts pop in and out of existence. Sometimes, I try to shut them down, focusing on my breathing or a point of light on the wall. Other times still, I run with them and follow them wherever they are going. If I’m feeling brave, I contemplate the question of what is it that experiences this stream of consciousness and sensory data? Am I one entity or a gestalt of many? I reach out to touch a wall or floor and realise that in a real way, everything I sense is actually a part of me since we are incapable of sensing the world without input from our selves. This has led to more than one beautiful, emotional experience of the divine. Don’t try to define it or hold on to it, just observe it and let it go when the time is up.
Mindfulness: This can be done at almost any time. I ask myself whether I am present in the living moment or away in the past or potential futures. If I find I am thinking about the past or future, I ask whether I am pulling useful information from the past or planning in a useful way for the future? If not, I snap myself back to the present. The animal part of our brain is content just to exist. Most of our pain comes from the outer, more complex, human parts. So shutting down the over-thinking human aspect when it is not useful leads to greater happiness.
Breathing: There are several good breathing exercises for Anxiety such as breathing in deeply for 4 seconds, holding for 6 seconds and breathing out all the way for 8 seconds.
I’ve also found that deliberate hyperventilation really helps with both anxiety and pain. For that, I breathe all the way in and 70% of the way out 30 times then hold my breath all the way out as long as I can. One deep breath and then hold as long as possible. This is called “One Round” and I do 3 Rounds then…
Cold Exposure: EASILY THE QUICKEST WAY TO SHUT DOWN MY OVER-ACTIVE MIND IS A COLD BATH. I’ve found that combining this with the Deliberate Hyperventilation described above creates a perfectly still mind. It doesn’t have to be a long exposure to cold. Even a short cold shower after my regular warm shower is often enough to reset my mind. I get out of that feeling like I could take on the world. While long-term stress is very bad for our bodies, short-term stress we can do something about is often good for both bodies and minds.
Heat Exposure: In addition to cold baths and showers, I’ve found saunas and steam rooms really helpful. At first, they are a relaxing way to chill out and meditate or meet new people if you’re ready to push that boundary. Towards the end, it can feel like an endurance challenge which I always top off with a short cold shower. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest such treatments release “heat-shock proteins” which can extend and improve quality of life.
Remember the following tips:
A lot of these things seem uncomfortable and that’s good because the most useful thing I learned is that COMFORT IS THE ENEMY. Sure it’s great to relax after a hard day’s work when you know you’ve earned it. But spending days in bed, knowing you haven’t done anything now just makes me depressed and anxious again. It’s OK to take a well-deserved rest. But beware the slow death of living in a comfort zone. Challenge yourself to do new things that make you a little uncomfortable such as meeting new people, travelling, talking to groups, dancing, trying exotic food, joining a gym or dating site, etc.
BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF. Take some time to honestly know what drives you. If what drives you is socially unacceptable to the people around you, it’s up to you what to do with that information but you can’t live your life for what you think other people want you to do. If, when you look deep into your own soul, all you want is a ton of money or to date a series of beautiful people then be honest with yourself: Chasing someone else’s dream won’t get you anywhere. Set a difficult but achievable goal.
Break your longer-term goal down into more manageable chunks that you can measure. If they still seem impossible like breaking down “Climb Everest” into “Get fit” as the first step, then break that down further until it’s manageable and achievable. “Get fit” breaks down into “Do cardio 3 times a week. Do weights or conditioning twice a week. Eat a protein-rich diet with the right number of Kcal for your end goal.”
If you find that you don’t know what to do in a given situation or find that you are blaming yourself, just ask yourself: “IF YOUR BEST FRIEND WERE IN THE EXACT SAME POSITION AS YOU ARE CURRENTLY IN, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THEM?” Which is effectively saying that you need to treat yourself as if you were a person you care about. This often provides better answers than anything anyone else could tell you because you know more about the situation than anyone else.
HELP OTHER PEOPLE. In many cultures, the standard advice given to someone who is feeling low is for them to help someone else. Taking the focus off your life and being useful, as opposed to used, feels good. Humans are collaborative and co-operative animals with social hierarchies based, in part, on helping one another.
HAVE INTEGRITY. So many people think they have to be ruthless to get ahead in life but the truth is, scarce things are valuable. People who will tell you the truth and do what they say are rare and beautiful.
Don’t confuse being good with being weak. This is another controversial one. I used to think there were only 2 types of people in the world: Victims and Oppressors. Since I didn’t want to be a bad guy, I just did whatever I thought other people wanted. That didn’t make me nice, it made me weak because given the opportunity to be “good” but also in conflict, I would immediately back down. It has occurred to me that only who can be genuinely “good” are strong enough to choose to be good, rather than those who have to “play nice” out of fear.
Continually forgive yourself: You will make mistakes. No-one is perfect. You’ll slip backwards sometimes and have a bad day. Learn what you can about what you did wrong, draw a line under the event and move forward with purpose.
Let toxic people go: Some of us are forgiving and sensitive to the point where it’s pathological. If someone has proven they are untrustworthy or never put your needs first, leave. There are good people out there, you are closer to finding them if you’re single than with the wrong person. Even certain family members need to go. Just ask yourself whether someone gives you Net-positive feelings when you take into account the good and the bad. If the answer is no, well it might be time for a little ruthlessness. It’s OK to prioritise your mental health over someone else’s feelings.
What about when really bad things happen?
It’s true that in spite of all your best efforts, horrible and unfair things will still happen. A loved one might die, you might get sick or lose your job or home. In all honesty, nothing short of a magic wand can prevent these things. There’s a great saying “A brave man only dies once. A coward dies 1000 times.” It means that if you live right, bad things will still happen and you will still die. But you won’t spend your life in misery on top of that.
If something bad happens that I can do something about, such as losing my job, I do the following: Take a moment to clear your head and come to grips with the reality of what is happening. List everything you need to do in order to take steps in the right direction. Get to work on it, as though your life depended on it. You’d be surprised but this left me feeling quite positive about the prospect of finding a new career path. Challenges are not bad. They give us the opportunity to shine.
Even terrible things we can do nothing to prevent can be an opportunity to handle it with dignity and to make ourselves proud. There are endless stories about people on their death bed, asking about their loved ones because even at the end of their life, they wanted to be helpful. I remember reading about a man in the Holocaust who had been selected to be shot and realising he couldn’t save himself, he took the opportunity to mock Hitler and give everyone a well-deserved laugh. These are small victories but we can’t prevent suffering or death. If all you can do is damage-limitation then do that.
So where am I now?
With all of these techniques, battling all of those years of suffering, am I pleased with my progress? Would I have done it again, given the opportunity? Definitely. I’d do it all again, and as urgently as possible.
I am 95-99% improved in body, mind and spirit.
I no longer drink to get drunk because I don’t want to escape my life.
I exercise, meditate and breathe now because they make me feel great. There’s no effort involved.
I’ve met many new people, formed new relationships and applied for much better jobs with confidence and direction.
Life isn’t perfect but it’s infinitely better than it has been for the last 26 years.
– Alex Morgan