Don’t worry – you don’t have to even like science in order to enjoy this post. Don’t panic 😉
I’ve noticed that when it comes to helping ourselves be the best we can be, many of us fall into a trap. Let’s call it the “Tried it, Didn’t Work” trap. I personally experienced this a lot when I was dealing with some of my more severe depression. The thought train went something like this:
Helpful article/friend/book/therapist: “If you do XYZ, it could help!”
Me: “I already tried that, it didn’t work last time.”
Me: “I remember I used to do that, and I was still depressed back then. So it doesn’t work.”
Me: “I did that last month, and I’m still super depressed, so it didn’t work for me.”
Notice a theme? All of those thoughts are based on what I recall about the PAST. I remember doing XYZ. I remember that I’ve been in depression for an eternity and nothing I’ve ever done has fixed it. I remember that even after doing XYZ, I still felt poopy.
Therefore, it doesn’t work.
Guess what? That’s very poor scientific practice. And it’s poor practice for helping yourself. I don’t care if your problem at hand is always losing your keys, or if it’s debilitating anxiety, or anything in-between. You cannot rely on what you remember trying before and how you remember feeling afterwards, to determine the effectiveness of a method. Our memories are not that accurate, for one thing. Also our current state tends to color our memories – if you feel anxious now, you’ll remember feeling anxious in the past more often and more severely than you may have actually experienced it at the time. If you’re depressed now, it seems like you’ve *always* felt this way and nothing you’ve done has ever, ever made one iota of a difference.
Humor me, and just try this. Seriously, this was literally life altering for me. Literally. TRY IT.
- First, choose the issue you’re struggling to solve. My example above was depression, yours may be similar or totally different. Pick anything that is chronic (ongoing) and that you feel powerless to fix, or at least have trouble fixing.
- Next, get a journal page ready. Or a post-it note. Or a note on your phone. Or a whiteboard. PICK SOMETHING. Write your trouble on the page so you know what it is you’re monitoring.
- Now. Regularly, a few times a day, rate your issue. “On a scale from 1-10, how depressed am I right this very second?” Write down your number. It doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate – I know these things are tricky to quantify. Just do your best. I chose a few guide words to help me out, like 10 = black depression, 7 = really struggling, 4 = feeling fairly good, 1 = feeling great.
- THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART. When you get a negative rating, i.e. when your trouble is troubling you, do something about it. Just pick something. Walk the dog, sing a song, write a list, read a book, eat a snack, watch TV, do a chore, workout, cook…. literally any activity. It might be helpful or it might not, but do it.
- THEN. Then, my friends, then. Then, rate your issue again.
Feel bad, do something about it, record the result.
I thought this was stupid when my therapist assigned it to me. I already knew what helped (almost nothing) and what didn’t (everything else). I already knew that depression was just a brain thing, a chemical thing, an inherited thing, a <something I can’t control> thing. I knew I couldn’t fix it, I knew it was lifelong, I knew it was just a matter of surviving.
But I was wrong.
I was genuinely surprised when I took my parakeet out of her cage, petted her little head, fed her some millet, put her back… and then scored myself a full three points lower (less depressed) than I had ten minutes ago. I was truly shocked when I went for a walk, and scored myself two points lower. I was baffled entirely when I did a load of dishes and then scored my level of depression as lower than before I started the dishes. If you had asked me before, I would have said that playing with pets, getting light exercise, and being productive by doing chores helped barely if at all. I would have told you my depression didn’t really respond to that. I would have remembered that I used to play with my pets more, but I was still super depressed. I would have looked back at the past and recalled that even after working out, I felt like poop, and it hadn’t helped. I definitely would have recalled that I was typically too depressed to do many chores and the ones I did accomplish just wore me out and discouraged me because it was never enough.
But I was wrong. My choices affected how I felt. I couldn’t choose to not be depressed, but I could make choices that affected my depression. MIND BLOWING. Seriously, I literally did not know that. A lot of literature about depression talks about the lack of a true cure, and the roots (which we often cannot change), and the things we could try to do that might help but I had already tried and they didn’t help. I had come to the completely incorrect conclusion that depression was just a part of me and I couldn’t do much about it. It wasn’t until I approached it in a scientific manner, studied the cause and effect, tried out a hypothesis and tested it and measured the results, that I truly understood my own power. Somewhere in my head I knew our choices affect how we feel but I didn’t know it in my heart until I studied it.
The best part is, I only had to do it a handful of times before I learned my lesson. The lesson wasn’t about which activities helped the most, the lesson was that my choices affect me.
Once I learned that, it was juSt a matter of finding the choices that would produce the best results. And that’s where this blog comes in.