Who’s in charge of your life? on not letting mood dictate your behaviour

I wonder how often I attribute my choices to my mood?  “I wasn’t in the mood to do the dishes,” for example.  Or, “I’d exercise more, but I’m just not in the mood.”  When I think this way, it is almost as if my mood is something outside of me, or something that comes over me without my awareness, knowledge, or permission.   And then I give it the power to decide whether I’ll do the dishes or exercise.

Or maybe (MAYBE) I let my mood dictate my behaviors because I don’t want to take responsibility for my choices.  Somehow it would not be as okay to claim the choice to sit on my couch and not do something.

We often feel like we are subject to the whims of our internal lives, as if our moods and emotions rule us.  I don’t think we were constructed that way:  I think that moods and emotions are information for us but they are not masters and we their slaves.  But when we just react our way through our days without even really noticing our inner life, then it may feel like our feelings are running US.

How do we get out of that?  How do we get to take charge of our own lives?

We first have to have awareness of our thoughts, our feelings, and our body sensations.  We need to be able to notice our vitality affects, for example (energy level), and notice sensations of prickling, tightness, openness or lightness, whateer sensations are present.  We need to be attuned to our own selves as well as to the world around us, and that means that sometimes we have to turn down the stimulation and just check inside ourselves.

Atmospheric phenomenon to which we attribute meaning
Atmospheric phenomenon to which we attribute meaning

Pay attention to the shift in your emotion, no matter how small. When you notice yourself getting more upset or distressed, ask yourself, “What am I telling myself right now?” or “What is making me feel upset?”  It is likely a thought which has occurred to you.  But how might you feel if that thought had not occurred to you?

In other words, how would you feel if you didn’t believe that thought?

Ah….maybe I’d feel just fine, thank you very much.

Conversely, the body can give us messages that we interpret to mean something.  The other day, I felt fabulous…had just finished a long walk with a little running, was working a positive inner dialogue about my progress, was able to notice the trees, the air, the birds…all those things that contribute to my personal sense of well-being (your list will be different).  Suddenly I found myself irritated at some minor frustration, very irritated.  Wait!  How did I get from feeling fabulous to feeling irritated?   I checked in on my thoughts, my experiences, and by body sensations and yes, there it was…the tiniest little bit of aching in my groin from running.  The endorphin flow had slowed, I could start to feel the work that my joints had done, it was painful though only slightly….and suddenly I was easily irritated.  And probably underlying that body ache was some automatic thought…”Oh, this again,” or “Ugh, I hurt,” or “I don’t feel so good,” and so irritation happened.

Mood is a number of things but whether we let our moods dictate our lives is a personal choice.  If I only did things when I felt like it, well, I’d have some pretty severe limits on my life!  So I choose to watch my thoughts and remember that thoughts, mood, and feelings are all part of my body, and they all are fluid and shifting…so I might as well live my life and let my mood catch up with me.

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Knowing by slowing…

Body psychotherapy isn’t as odd-sounding as it once was.  People are beginning to understand that the mind and body are not really separate, that there are tissues in the gut, for example, that are much like brain tissue, that emotions are experienced at the body level, and that even those classic “psychological” problems of depression and anxiety are body experiences.   The mind of course is part of them;  the kinds of distorted thinking that we engage in when we are experiencing depression or anxiety can most certainly make things a lot worse.   But I am not sure that the chicken-egg question matters here….I personally don’t care if how you feel affects how you think, or if your thoughts are affecting your emotions.  The point is that things are pretty bad, one way or another, and how can you live more comfortably?

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So it is obvious, I guess, that developing awareness of what you are thinking can make a difference.  You can even change your habits of mind.  You can also change your habits of body, and your habitual ways of responding to situations, and those kinds of changes can be most helpful in trying to cope with symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Self awareness is the key to any kind of change.  You can’t change if you don’t know what you are currently doing.    And the key to self awareness is, for many of us, slowing down.  Slowing our everyday experiences so that there is time for self-reflection, slowing our thinking, so that we can become aware of thoughts as they arise and fade away, slowing our behaviour so that we can become responsive rather than in the perpetual knee-jerk of reaction.

What happens when you slow down?   Just take a moment to notice what happens….without judgment, without struggle, with compassion.   For many of us, slowing down generates negative thoughts (“this is unproductive,”  “I”ll never accomplish anything,”  “Does she think I’m not a busy person?  I don’t have time for this nonsense.”).   For some people, the open space of unstructured time feels uncomfortable, as if you should DO something.   For some, a bit of quiet allows us to feel our exhaustion, the fatigue that comes with forever and forever keeping up a front, being frantically productive and chronically stressed.

But without judgment and with compassion, what is it like for you to take time and space to just be?  What do you notice about yourself?   Who are you, really, when you separate yourself from the story inside your head?

Wherever you are is the place to work.  Notice sensation in the body.  Notice what you notice in your environment;  what are you sensitive to in this moment?  In the next moment?   Notice thoughts as they arise and fade out.   Notice which ones tug hardest on your attention.  Notice more sensations in the body;  try moving, and notice what that is like.   Can you feel the desire to move, the intention to move, before you manifest that intention into action?  Where in your body are you aware of that intention?   How do you KNOW, in your body, that you want to move?

The skills of depression

I have found a lovely resource, a book about depression that is unlike other books about depression.  It is called Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and What Medication Can’t Give You.  Doesn’t that title grab you?  The author is Richard O’Connor, who is a therapist but more importantly, is a person who has depression.

Undoing depression

So what’s so lovely about this book?  Well, first off, he discussed the skills of depression…the particular abilities that being depressed seems to hone in people.  For example, depressed people are good at isolating, or separating feeling from experience, so that we have experiences but we don’t have the emotion you might expect to go with it.   Depressed people are skillful at procrastination:  it keeps us from, as the author says, “ever having to put your best self on the line,” because we always run out of time. (Oh, boy, can I ever relate to that!   Waiting until the last minute meant I never really knew if I would actually get through graduate school).    Depressed people are skillful at negative self-talk, at pessimism, at setting impossible goals or having no goals and lots of guilt.  Depressed people are good at setting themselves up to make sure that a negative view of the world is supported:  that is, undermining ourselves…perhaps before we can be undermined by others.  There are more skills but you probably get the picture.

The great thing about this approach is that skills are something that are learned.  They are not innate characteristics;  they are not who we are.    They are coping methods that we developed to manage our depression. So we had a traumatic childhood, or we were bullied in the workplace, or a parent died or left the family.  Or we have family members with depression, and we both inherited their predispositions and watched and learned from depressed behaviour.    Whatever the story that generated our depression,  we have used these methods to cope.  But they are skills….learned and therefore un-learnable.   If we learned these skills, we can learn other skills.

Aha!  so my tendency to procrastinate and put my job at risk, and isolate myself and put my relationships at risk, and to engage in pessimistic and negative thinking and put my own safety at risk…those are skills I have learned to cope with depression.   They are not character flaws.  They are not immutable parts of my self.  They are SKILLS.

Somehow, that is a tremendously hopeful message.

One of the keys to undoing,  according to O`Connor (and a lot of other people, including researchers) is to cultivate mindfulness.   Mindfulness is practically a buzzword these days;  everyone is being mindful of something, somehow.  But the mindfulness that seems to be particularly useful in retraining people who are skilled in depression is of a particular type.  Mindfulness is “spending time paying attention in a particular way:  on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,”   according to Jon Kabat-Zinn.  According to O`Connor, it is about  “deliberately trying to attain a new attitude toward your own thoughts, feelings, and everyday experience, a viewing of oneself with compassionate curiosity.”  This practice is embodied by meditation, the content of which is one’s own experience in the moment.

peaceful

The ability to see oneself, to experience one`s moment by moment being, complete with thoughts, emotions, images, and body sensations, is to free oneself from the anchors of the past and the anxieties of the future.  For a few minutes every day, you can be as free as possible from all of those things that otherwise feel like constraints.   During mindfulness practice, we can learn to defuse from our thinking, those beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world that limit us.   We can be just as we are and see what that is like.

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This kind of practice enables a freedom in the world, as well as on the meditation cushion.   I am thinking that perhaps that`s part of O’Connor’s message.   When I create some  space away from the skills of depression, I am aware of being able to make choices in how I will be, how I will respond, how I will live in the world.   And that is a place from which skills for the full experience of living can develop.

People-Holding-Hands

When I’m feeling blue…..

There is something about feeling miserable that seems to be uniquely human.  Emotional misery seems to be a gift that humans get along with being human.  Okay, I have to back off from that and say that I really don’t know about other primates, and I have also heard recently that elephants exhibit behaviour that can be interpreted as grieving.  But when I think about my goofy Labrador retriever, Max, I don’t see him suffering emotional pain because of something he did, or something I did, or something that might happen in the future.

However, the people I know all are capable of that kind of suffering.  Our capacity to think has permitted us to think about things that actually make us FEEL bad.   Have you ever noticed that you can be going about your day, all is well, everything is normal, and you suddenly have a thought….and all hell breaks loose in your inner life.   Perhaps the thought is an obviously catastrophic one (“Maybe my plane will crash when I take my trip next month”) or maybe it is less obvious (“My partner won’t like my new haircut”) but then it cascades into a whole series of thoughts (“And if he doesn’t like my haircut, maybe he won’t like me, and he’ll leave me, and I’ll be alone and how will I make it, and nobody will ever love me, and I won’t be able to survive…”).

That might sound like an exaggeration but I swear to you, it isn’t.   While we often are unaware (mindless) of the cascade of thoughts, images, and subsequent sensations and feelings in our bodies, they are still happening.  And that’s one of the ways in which a vague dislike of your new haircut can turn into a full-blown emotional meltdown.

Now we are all intelligent people, of course, and we KNOW in our intellectual selves that our partners are not likely to leave us and we are not likely to be destroyed because of a bad haircut.  The thing is, the part of the brain/mind/body that is doing this thinking and feeling is NOT our higher intellectual selves.   We react on a body (somatic) level to our thoughts and also to our body sensations.  Many body functions have associated sensations that are just below the level of our awareness.  Your body is busy all the time maintaining itself;  keeping proper blood chemistry, blood pressure, hormonal balance, particular cellular tensions and various chemical and electrical communications.  When something is a bit out of whack in this process of homeostasis, then you may feel a bit “off.”  You probably have no idea why, so your mind gets busy developing some cause.  Humans do that;  it is how we make sense of the world.  However, these perceived “causes” may actually be irrelevant to what you are experiencing. If you are already feeling “off” and you get a bad haircut, well, you know what can happen.

So… How do we prevent emotional meltdowns, with all of their pain and suffering and the interpersonal fallout that is inevitable?  How do we separate the thoughts that hurt us from our normal, everyday functioning?

First, we start to become aware of ourselves as BODIES.  We are not a person who happens to live in a body, but the body you live in actually IS you.  Any increasing level of body awareness is helpful;  the practice of mindfulness, meditation, contemplative movement such as yoga, all of these practices can help develop body awareness.  At  the same time, one can learn to watch the activity of the mind.  Watching isn’t the same as getting involved in it, but is simply observing….”Oh, there I go, thinking…..Oh, yes, that’s a memory.   Oh, I can see that my mind is trying to make a to-do list again…”  and gently bringing your attention back to awareness.

Tomorrow:  ways to use a bioenergetic approach to developing self awareness..

By the way, if you are interested in how our bodies shape our minds, you might like Antonio Damasio’s book, The Feeling of What Happens:  Body and emotion in the making of consciousness.