Tuesday, January 13, 2015

You do it to yourself: Depression and Anxiety revisited

Thom was right.

It sucks — and it's difficult for any of us who suffer from anxiety and/or depression to hear or to admit to ourselves — but no matter what life throws at you, in the end it is you who is responsible for your reactions to life.

Life doesn't happen to you.  Life just happens. The way you choose to react to what happens is all up to you.

Just you and no one else...

When I last broached the topic of Depression I presented all sorts of reasons why I question the very diagnosis and classification of "big D" Depression; I questioned whether these depressive symptoms were actually due to some physical problem (i.e. a broken brain) or whether they were simply reactions to outside stimuli (i.e. a broken situation). In short, I was saying: "Maybe the fact that I am dissatisfied with life is not an indicator that my brain is broken; maybe it's the 'reality' in which I live is that is actually broken."

Then somewhat conversely, in my Thanks! post I had touched-upon how reality is truly subjective;  as I said in that post: "What we often call 'reality' is really only a personalised reflection of but a sliver of the whole truth, and therefore we really are responsible for shaping our own reality."

So, what has changed in the 3 years since my post on depression?

Dietary changes

In 2012, on a bit of a whim, I decided to go wheat-free.  I had always been interested in trying an elimination diet, to see if I had any undiagnosed food sensitivities, but I just couldn't bring myself to start the diet — I found the restrictiveness too daunting.  However, by early 2012 I had been hearing about and reading up on the paleolithic diet — the idea that we should be eating a diet much closer to that of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors, since our bodies have not evolved to digest and process many of the foods that came along due to the advent of agriculture — and the book Wheat Belly was also regularly making the news — I have not read the book, but apparently the author makes the case that over the last 40 years wheat has become a genetic monstrosity which, like many of our other staple-crops, has been manipulated for centuries to increase yields, and that this new "Frankenwheat" is so much more detrimental to the body than the original, natural version of the plant.

I also had suffered from more than one skin ailment over my lifetime, and when I would look-up possible causes for these skin ailments they all had the commonality of being aggravated by yeast.  I also knew that I just craved that wheaty-goodness — bread, pasta, muffins, breaded fried things, pancakes, pretzels, bread, crackers, bread and bread (mmmmmmmmm...bread) — and I had read that it is not uncommon for people to crave wheaty, yeasty, sugary things when suffering from a low-lying, systemic yeast infection.  So, without any attempt to get any actual allergy tests or even to test myself for yeast, I just thought: "Meh, why don't I try quitting wheat and see what happens?"

Quitting wheat, for me, has been quite remarkable; the most remarkable result for me was the weight loss — I've lost at least 40 lbs since I quit.  My level of exercise has also not increased at all (this is one of my next goals) and I wasn't eating any less sugar or fat — in fact, I suspect my fat intake went up a bit. I simply stopped eating wheat and eventually went gluten-free.

Truly, my carb intake has probably gone down too, but not by much; I still eat pastas, potatoes, rice, chips, bread, pancakes, but just all GF. The only thing I no longer do is grab some bread to make a sandwich; while there are some good GF breads out there, you either have to eat the fresh stuff within a couple of days or keep it frozen, because it dries out so quickly.  You can't really just buy a loaf of bread and keep in a bread box for instant-sandwich-action, which is a good thing in my case.

After I stopped eating wheat I also found myself less hungry overall — I ate fewer times a day and was eating less per sitting.  Apparently another downside to wheat is that the message that your brain is supposed to receive to tell you when you are full is delayed by about 30 minutes when eating wheat, making it easy to overeat.

There were also other unexpected benefits to quitting wheat, such as the abatement of a strange rash that I began to experience in the summer of 2010, then again the following year, and which was finally diagnosed as "eczema" (which I later found out was a catchall term for basically any skin rash that is not the symptom of an infection or allergic reaction.)  I also found that over the 10 years preceding my decision to go wheat-free I seemed to be suffering more and more from itchy eyes and sneezing from spring to fall (I never had seasonal allergies as a kid) — these symptoms have almost completely disappeared since quitting wheat. I am also much less tired than I used to be and the my quality of sleep has improved.  My body is also notably less inflamed — one of the first things I noticed the few times I would eat wheat is that my face would get puffy.

Overall, I have found a lot of benefits in going gluten-free and these benefits are definitely helping my feelings of well-being. My only regret was not getting tested for allergies, including gluten sensitivity, prior to quitting wheat.  While I suspect that I am not a celiac sufferer (I've never noted intestinal issues related to wheat) I may never know for sure because in order to get an accurate test for gluten sensitivity one must be actively eating it for at least 90 days and I would really like to avoid going back to eating wheat, especially for 3 straight months.  As much as I love the taste and texture, it just isn't worth all of the other side-effects that come with it.

Confirmation biases

To address my tendency to be a "glass-half-empty" type of person, I've also been using my thankfulness experiment to very positive results. I am now much better at appreciating and making note of the times when things go well or better than expected.

I also am better able to catch myself when I'm making universal statements, like "never", "always" and say to myself: "Well, hold-up, that's not true; this doesn't always happen..."

It's funny because I'm still skeptical of the idea of "positive thinking."  I am still skeptical that good stuff will just happen simply because you will it to.  Nevertheless, what I cannot deny, even on a purely analytical/logical basis, is that if you think negatively you are only making the actual situation worse.  I'm not so much thinking positively; I'm just trying not to think negatively. I'm just making things "less-bad" for myself, and you know, it's kinda nice...

If only I had tried this decades ago!  I really do feel I have experienced a significant shift in perspective and it's been a real mind-trip.

Ongoing passenger management

And I am so happy to report that my passenger is much, much less in control than it once was and as a result I experience much less anxiety.  I don't have racing thoughts at night anymore and I am much more able to recognise and dismiss certain thoughts that tend to lead me down into the anxiety trap. I have a better handle on when my passenger is speaking to me and I am getting better at questioning her conclusions.  But like any skill this takes ongoing practice and there are times when Maggy catches me unawares, especially when I first wake up in the morning.  Some weeks can also be better than others.

Again, if only someone had introduced me to this idea earlier... My conception of the passenger came in part from listening to an episode of the Joe Rogan podcast with Aubrey Marcus where he spoke of the self-limiting and negative patterns of thought that writer Stephen Pressfield refers to as "Resistance" and which the Toltecs apparently called "the parasite".  And I cannot for the life of me remember how I came across this, as I have not watched cable/satellite TV or paid attention to mainstream news for years now, but I discovered that RuPaul also speaks of "the voice of the saboteur". I found a quote of his from this Reddit AMA where he responded to a question about quieting the "saboteur voice"; he says: "You have to nurture another voice that counteracts the saboteur. And you have to also ask yourself - are you willing to give up the payoff you get from succumbing to the saboteur?"  And it's true, it really does feel like a payoff when you give in.  It's so easy to give in and feed that validation-hungry pest.

However, unlike Pressfield, RuPaul and the Toltecs, I don't see this relationship as a battle with a malevolent entity.  I don't think my passenger is scheming against me; I think it simply doesn't know any better. It's like an unruly dog; as Caesar Milan often says about unruly dogs, it just thinks it's the "pack leader" because I've been letting it take the lead for so long.

I think that choosing to see this strange duality within ourselves as some sort of battle makes the relationship harder than it has to be.  When Maggy takes over without me realising it, and when I do finally catch on that it's happening, I just smile and say "you got me again Maggy" and ask her to explain herself, and because she can't explain herself, she stops. Yes, she is a challenge to deal with, as the passenger is persistent and relentless, but it's like being attacked by one solitary ant from a colony at the rate of 1 every 4 hours.  Her relentless attacks are annoying and at times frustrating, but it is hardly an unmanageable "onslaught" of insurmountable enemies...it's just one ant at a time.  It is hardly a "battle."

I'm also not 100% convinced that the passenger is completely useless. I suspect it's the part of the mind that has to make the most accurate decision possible based on a split second of fractured data — the kind of decision making you want when someone is attacking you in a dark alley, or if you see someone drowning in a frozen pond.  The problem is, it also seems easier to listen to and act by the passenger's fractured thoughts.  I also suspect that most of us have never questioned the passenger's thoughts and it appears to me that much of Western society creates a perfect storm for feeding it — the CLOGs rely on our primal urges, especially those based in fear, to keep the machine running.

Life just happens

So while I stand-by what was said in my post on depression, I would now add an addendum:

To my old self I would say this: Let's say you can successfully argue, with scientific proof, that life does actually suck. To that argument I would now say: "It is what it is."

The present moment "is what it is." Trying to convince yourself that it was meant to be or should have been another way is futile and only furthers your suffering.  The only thing you have control over is your own reaction to what you perceive to be reality. No person, thing or event can "make you" feel bad, happy, sad, embarrassed, guilty, angry.  No one has that sort of magical power, nor do inanimate objects or events.  Life's gonna happen.  Getting upset, angry, depressed over what is happening only makes what is happening that much worse.

Your personalized slice of the whole picture is up to you.  So while your passenger might want to argue that life is hopeless and might just continue to suck, or even get worse — which could very well be true — what is definitely true is that you have no control over what life throws at you, so given that the one thing that you do have control over is how you react to what life throws at you, then why make that one thing also suck, making the overall situation suck all the more?  By moping, complaining and crying about it you are only adding to the suckiness of the situation. Not only that, but you are probably making life suckier for those having to interact with you too. The irony of complaining about how life sucks is that you are joining in on making it suck for everyone.

So while in my post about depression I was saying: "Maybe the fact that I am dissatisfied with life is not an indicator that my brain is broken; maybe it's the 'reality' in which I live is that is actually broken." I would now respond to my past self with this:  "You might be right, maybe life is broken, so what are you going to do?  You could mope and fret over it, but all that does is make your present experience worse; IMO the least you can do is not add to the suffering that you believe you are already experiencing.

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