Welcome to my ongoing series on happiness. If you didn’t know, I rode a bicycle around the world seeking the meaning of life and happiness. Lately, I’ve been exploring the topic of depression. Today, we will talk a little about whether depression is in the mind or the body. And, I’ll give you another idea to help you feel better before you even know you need to feel better.
For the record, I hate being labeled as depressed. Can I call myself happiness challenged? Seriously, watching the news makes me feel terrible about life — all these doom and gloom thoughts swirling around in my head. And surfing social media is even worse. Everybody in the world seems to be doing a better job of enjoying life than me. My mind is full of ANTs — Automatic Negative Thoughts.
As I mentioned previously, there is a list of cognitive distortions. At one point, I memorized this list to identify the negative thoughts and stop myself from going down the rabbit hole. But, if you are like me, the constant vigilance itself is a drain, and I eventually fall into a dark mood. My whole body feels like a lead weight. I’m too tired to even have any ANTs in my head. Life just registers as bleak and hopeless. I start to wonder: Is it my body chemistry? Lack of serotonin? Am I a victim of bad DNA? Did I eat a bad burrito for lunch?
But which came first, was it the negative thoughts in my mind or the bad biology of the body and brain that caused the dark mood? Which leads to the question: Are the mind and brain two separate things or one and the same? In philosophy and psychology, this concept is called dualism psychology or the mind-body problem. Can the mind and body be separated? Can I isolate the cause of depression as ANTs or DNA? Unfortunately, psychologists, philosophers and the like haven’t yet agreed whether the mind and brain are the same thing or not. (Go figure, right? I’d make a good philosopher because I have more questions than answers.) To complicate things, the whole mind-body argument is really about whether the spirit goes on after the body has ended. Not even Aristotle and Plato could agree on this one.
I may not be a brilliant Greek philosopher, but I can simplify this subject. Whether the mind and brain are two different things or not, they are related. A bad thought may create a cascade of chemical reactions in the brain; and, likewise, a poor diet full of chemicals like sugar or alcohol may interfere with the thought process. One always affects the other. It’s like being hangry.
Create an environment to foster mental health
If we accept that our environment affects our body, including the brain, and that the body influences our thoughts, then the simple solution to depression is to manage our environment. Create a safe place for when those bad days do come.
To me, it is like preventive maintenance. It’s so easy, you probably already know what to do. Have a refrigerator stocked with healthy food. Make sure the house is cozy, warm and quiet. Keep up on the chores so that you have fresh clothes and a clean bed when you need them. Have some entertainment ready. I’d avoid digital devices and even the television. Try reading a book, doing a puzzle or sit on the porch and listen to the birds. My favorite thing to do when I feel even a little bit unimpressed with the world is to go outside and work in my garden. I feel like I am reclaiming a little bit of the craziness. And get a cat. Cat’s are good medicine.
Another thing you can do is build joyful habits like skipping, singing, etc. I like to jump rope. These little, fun breaks eliminate the monotonous routine and boredom. It also gets the blood flowing and boosts the body’s natural happiness chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins). Another simple thing you can do is to look for something new. I guarantee there is something in your backyard you have never seen. Finally, try counting the things you are grateful for. These exercises will keep you impressed with life, not depressed. You can’t do both at the same time, so keep topping up the tank!
Now you are prepared if your mind or your brain has a hiccup in happiness. (Actually, having laid a strong foundation, you are prepared for anything, including living your dreams.) If you are experiencing a depressive bout, I recommend to pamper yourself in your cozy home and remind yourself, “This too shall pass.”