S is for Self

split face

There are so many aspects of self related to mental health. Some of the big ones being self-harm, self-talk, self-growth and self-loathing. One of the big ones I’ve been trying to work on lately is self-esteem. I think it’s a big part of my depression. Self-esteem is a way of thinking/feeling/acting that implies you accept/respect/trust and believe in yourself. Having good self-esteem means accepting and living with your strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging your value as a human being and being confident that you can fulfill your needs, aspirations and goals. Having low self-esteem results in feelings of emptiness that cause you to latch on to something external to provide inner relief. This could be a relationship, food or drugs. I know I definitely rely on cake, but besides that my major vice is work. I rely on my accomplishments at work, or lack there of to dictate my worth. This thinking isn’t healthy.

Psychologists have told me that good self-esteem is accomplished by taking care of yourself, in the form of 1) overcoming deficits from your past by becoming a good parent to your “inner child”and 2) recognizing your basic needs and meeting them. The first part always sounds kind of fluffy to me. What is your “inner child”? One psychologist explained it as being the playful, vulnerable part of yourself. Those who allow expression of their “inner child” will find it easier to be playful, to give and receive affection and to be in touch with their feelings. Those who ignore their “inner child” will find it difficult to have fun, to give/receive affection, will be overly logical and need to keep things under control. To be a good parent you had to identify from your childhood circumstances the cause of you growing up to feel inadequate. Most of these causes were to do with how your parents treated you as a child because apparently you treat your “inner child” the same way your parents treated you. I’m sure this will strike a chord with many, but it made no sense to me. What if your self-esteem issues are not rooted in your childhood? My parents weren’t overcritical or neglectful, I wasn’t spoiled nor was I overprotected, I didn’t suffer any major loss (like a parent’s death or divorce) and I was not abused in any manner. I am much harder on myself and more critical of myself than my parents ever were. Maybe this part of improving self-esteem just didn’t apply to me.

The second part made a world of sense to me. You have physiological needs (food, water, oxygen, etc.) for survival, but it is important to look after your psychological needs to promote well-being. What are psychological needs? I’ll give you some examples.

  • safety/security
  • respect
  • friendship
  • being listened to
  • guidance
  • fun/play
  • creativity
  • loyalty/trust
  • sexual expression
  • nurturing
  • freedom/independence
  • mastery
  • the attention of others
  • physical touch
  • expression of feelings
  • sense of progression toward goals

I don’t know about you, but I never considered these things to be needs. They were wants or wishes, things that I worked for, but didn’t necessarily need for my well-being. Since I have depression and a big part of that is low self-esteem, my perspective is obviously wrong. Are all of these needs being met in your life right now? A lot of them weren’t for me. I started with creativity, I felt that was easiest for me to tackle. I gave myself 15 minutes every evening to doodle. It didn’t have to be anything grand or anything complete, just doing it was the point. This eventually evolved into reestablishing my drawing hobby, which led to fun! Alright, there’s two psychological needs met that I didn’t have before. What’s next? Guidance. I’ve been running the research lab I am part of for the last while. I don’t have the qualifications or the knowledge to do this, it just sort of fell into my lap. So I’ve been stumbling through trying to figure things out in addition to doing my own work. It has given my confidence a good beating. I think I would do better with some direction, but this involves talking to my supervisor about it. Anxiety! Figuring out what I want to say to her and meeting with her is next in my quest for better self-esteem.

While I am working on improving my self-esteem, I have come across a few strategies that reinforce the little belief I do have in myself.

  • Taking care of my body. Yes I wish I were thinner, fitter, prettier, but that’s not what I mean. I mean be healthy. Eating right, resting and exercising. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you feel weak/tired/ill.
  • Expressing feelings. If you are out of touch with your feelings, it’s like you are detached from yourself. By expressing your feelings you can better understand your needs and desires and are better equipped to meet them.
  • Positive self-talk. Disrupt negative self-talk by distracting your mind or by questioning your thoughts. What is the evidence for this thought? Is this always true? Am I looking at all perspectives here?
  • Having direction. I always feel most confident following the accomplishment of one of my goals. This shouldn’t be the sole basis of my worth, like it has been, but it does affect how I feel. Self-esteem is reinforced by progression towards goals. In looking to the future, it’s important not to lose sight of what you have already accomplished.
  • Personal relationships. It can be intimate relationships, family relationships or friendship. They can’t create self-esteem. It has to come from within. Personal relationships can provide support/acceptance/validation/love that can go a long way toward strengthening your self-esteem.


Get in Gear

S is also for Steampunk!


M is for The Monster in my Head

Monster in your head

Contrary to popular belief, depression doesn’t need a trigger. I had a perfectly normal, storybook childhood. I have had your basic chick-flick type relationships. I’ve never really been through a traumatic experience. Yes, I have experienced loss, but that is a necessary part of life. This is the most frustrating part, there is no logical explanation for my depression. In my case it’s just there.monster shadow

I think of it as a monster living inside my head. Sometimes it’s asleep, but it’s always there. The worst part is, it’s self-sufficient.  It feeds itself with negative thoughts which causes me to doubt myself and my abilities. That feeds the monster even more and it just cycles like that, getting bigger and bigger and more out of control. This makes me want to hide from the world. Stick my head under the covers and hope that I disappear. This only makes the monster even stronger. How am I supposed to fight back?

I have to get out of my head. I have to change gears. I usually don’t have the motivation or energy, but I know it’s the only way to shut the monster up. I’ve learned that it is important to acknowledge how you feel and not avoid it or repress it. It is easier to use maladaptive strategies like sleep, drugs, alcohol or self-harm. These strategies relieve or distract you from your pain quickly, so they are often favourable, but they just end up causing more problems in the end.

What are some healthy strategies to deal with the monster in your head?

Exercise. It’s true. The hardest part is getting yourself to do it. Once you’ve gotten in to it for 5-10 minutes, the endorphins in your body take over. Cardio is usually the best form of exercise for depression because it gets the feel-good chemicals flowing the most quickly. If you don’t have enough energy for serious cardio, take a walk. You’ll get fresh air, new scenery, and it still raises your heart rate a bit. A healthy dose of vitamin D never hurt depression either.

Talk. I’m not very good at this one, but some people are. Talk to some you trust, who wont judge you. If you are alone, you can write your feelings down, or use social media to vent. I know some people get upset when people post negativity on blogs, facebook or twitter, but if that’s how you need to express yourself, so be it. I’d rather have your negative comments pop up in my twitter feed than have you harm yourself.

Meditate. It’s great if you are able to do it. If not, there are forms of moving meditation like juggling and martial arts. If you are religious, there’s prayer. Deep breathing and visualizing a calm place can work too. Focusing on rhythmic breathing or repetitive movement requires a great deal of attention, enough to move your brain away from the negative thoughts.

Engage. Be around people. Conversation and activity with other people can prevent you from over-thinking. You are also less likely to use one of the maladaptive strategies I mentioned earlier when you are around people.

Watch a movie or read a book. Focusing on the story line can often turn your thoughts. Reading involves scanning eye movements. Research has shown that these movements have a calming effect on the brain and reduce the effects of negative thoughts. Didn’t know that did you? It’s a new type of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Originally it was used to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome, but it’s now being adapted for depression.

J is for Juggling

If you are anything like me and you automatically associate juggling with clowns and the circus, then you must be giggling at thejuggler title of this post. No I have not thrown away a letter on the A to Z challenge and just picked any old word. I’m still doing my mental health theme. What does juggling have to do with mental health? Juggling therapy. Seriously? Yes, seriously. I giggled at first too, but the more I read about it, the more it actually made sense. Juggling therapy is advertized as a “fun” approach to improving mental, emotional and physical states. It “…works to balance both hemispheres of the brain (right brain & left brain) to improve motor-skill functions, reading, writing, creativity,  self-esteem, self-confidence, self-motivation, focus on tasks, multi-tasking. It can help combat and prevent the development of Anxiety, Alzheimer’s, depression and a host of other mental and emotional diseases.” Ok, so maybe the advertizing goes a bit overboard, but there is truth behind it.

Let’s start with physical well-being part. This part is obvious. Juggling is a cardiovascular activity, so of course it’s good for your body. It has the benefits of regular exercise in that it raises your heart rate and gets the blood flowing, but it’s easier on your joints compared to various other sports and exercises. Muscles have memory. As you learn to juggle, your muscles get to know the space and timing required to catch whatever you are juggling. It also improves hand-eye coordination which is a transferable skill meaning you can apply it to other activities; baseball, golf, applying make-up and yes, even video games.

What about outside of the physical part? I can understand how it can teach you multitasking and how to break down bigger problems into smaller pieces, but what effect does it have on your mind? Juggling activates several different brain regions for one thing; attention, motion, vision. Some studies have shown that it promotes the growth of gray matter in the mid-temporal lobe. This is the same area that is involved in processing emotional memory and believe it or not, generating panic attacks. A study in the Journal of Biopsychosocial Medicine did a study on female patients with anxiety disorders. They were divided into a juggling group and a non-juggling group. Both groups received appropriate medication and psychotherapy for six months. During the last three months of therapy, only the juggling group was trained on how to juggle. After treatment, both groups showed reduced anxiety, but the juggling group showed greater improvements in anxiety, anger and depression. Interesting results.

I can see how it would work. The repetitiveness of it is kind of a form of meditation. I’d try it. Why not, if it might help? There would have to be some ground breaking studies with the same results to get me to pay for it though.

What do you think? Would you try juggling to improve your mental health?

Nakahara et al., 2007

NeuroMuscular Junction Wellness Center

Emotional Regulation

“E” is today’s letter. “E” is for Emotional Regulation.

Emotional regulation was something I learned from a therapy session. The theory behind it is that feelings, behaviour and thoughts all influence each other. Feelings and thoughts come more automatically compared to behaviour. Essentially you are trying to modify your negative thoughts and feelings by behaving contrary to them.

Seriously!? Act opposite? It sounded like fromage (cheese) to me! I was told I don’t need to mask the emotion, that I should accept it and feel it, but my actions should reflect the opposite. This immediately came to mind…..

So this was my task, acting opposite….and because I’m a good little girl who does her homework, I gave it a try. I used my usual scenario, getting out of bed in the morning. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t want to get out of bed. Bed is cozy and warm and I’m safe from people and their opinions. If I get out of bed, I have to eat, get dressed, go to work. This, of course, requires energy that I do not have. Then, the thought of work starts to give me anxiety as I think about all the things that could go wrong and all the mistakes I could make and how that’s going to make me look. That gets me thinking about what other people think of me, then I just start hating myself. This cycle is what goes through my head every morning.

What would happen if I stayed in bed? I’d get to stay warm and cozy, my anxiety over work would lift and I wouldn’t have to spend any energy. So far, sounds good. That only lasts for a moment though. My anxiety is replaced by guilt for not getting up and doing what the average person does every day. This must mean I am lazy. I don’t want to be considered lazy, so I start hating myself and worrying about what people think again. On top of this, since I’ve elected to stay in bed, I’m alone with my self-loathing thoughts all day.

What if I got out of bed? I wake up, I feel like hell. Yes, I am depressed and have no energy, but instead of dwelling on that, I’m going to get up. Getting up is followed by the routine of getting ready to leave the house…breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, hair, make-up, pack a bag….before you know it, I am out the door without having started my cycle of dread. Huh. It worked!

By getting out of bed right away and starting my routine, I distracted myself from my negative thoughts and prevented that self-loathing feeling. I was still depressed, but I was functioning and I got to skip that whole part about dreading the day and hating myself. There are positives to this technique.


C is for Cognitive

Cognition is a huge part of mental health. That’s why I have dedicated the letter “C” from the A to Z blogging challenge to cognitive aspects of depression. I have already talked about the cognitive dysfunction experienced by some depression sufferers and how to combat those symptoms. Today I want to talk about a popular topic in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), cognitive distortions.

What is CBT? CBT assumes a relationship between thoughts, mood and behaviour and by changing maladaptive thinking, you can change your mood and your behaviour. The idea is to challenge your negative way of thinking. These automatic negative thoughts are called cognitive distortions. There are methods to counteract these cognitive distortions but first, you must learn to catch yourself in a negative thought. To do this I kept a Thought Record. I recorded the situation, what I was thinking and the cognitive distortion. Here is a list of the most common cognitive distortions.

how i feel

Negative Thoughts – Emotional Reasoning

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking. This is when you look at things in absolute categories; black or white. You forget about the continuum, the shades of grey. If you make a mistake, you see yourself as a total failure.
  • Over-generalization. This is when you look at a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. If it happened once, it will always happen.
  • Discounting the Positives. This was one of my first posts. You ignore your accomplishments and good qualities. It’s like they don’t count for anything.
  • Mind-Reading. You assume you know what other people are thinking, failing to consider more likely possibilities. For example, when someone laughs, you think they are laughing at you, but really they are probably having a conversation or remembering something cute their kid did that morning.
  • Labeling. You identify yourself with your short-comings instead of considering a more complex reality. Instead of shrugging off a mistake, you conclude you are a loser because of it.
  • Magnification/minimization. You blow a negative situation out of proportion or shrink a good situation inappropriately.
  • “Shoulds”. You motivate and criticize yourself with “shoulds”, “ought to’s”, “have to’s” and “musts”.
  • Emotional Reasoning. You feel it therefore you are. I feel fat therefore, I must BE fat.
  • Personalization. You blame yourself for something that wasn’t entirely under your control. I blame myself for not getting a lot of research data. In reality, there are a lot of factors that contribute to this. For example, people don’t want to participate!
  • Filtering. You dwell on the negative and ignore the rest of the situation.
  • Catastrophizing. You automatically assume the situation will turn out badly without considering other outcomes. You fear one negative event will be part of a chain of negative events without end.
  • Selective abstraction. You jump to conclusions without having all the facts.

Once you are able to identify these cognitive distortions it is time to come up with a strategy to challenge them. Being a scientist, I find it easiest to look at the facts of the situation. What are the facts? What information do I have to support my thoughts? What is the proof? You can use previous experiences too. What has happened in similar situation? How did I cope? What have I learned that will help me this time? This line of thinking does not come naturally. You have to literally stop what you are doing and think about it, ask yourself these questions. The good news? It does get easier and more natural over time. It has helped me to manage my anxiety. I hope it helps you too.

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