Occasionally during events or in conversation, I’m asked how to help someone with depression. I’ve been on both sides of this dynamic throughout my life — as the “supporter” and “supported” — and wish to share what I understand are effective and compassionate approaches.
Helping a loved one through an emotional crisis is daunting. Equally, asking for support can feel impossible when in the eye of the storm. With that in mind, this guide is for everyone affected. Perhaps someone you know is struggling and you want to educate yourself. Perhaps you’re struggling and you’d like a resource to give to a loved one.
Either way, I’m hopeful the following framework increases understanding, sharpens communication, and offers clarity around this complex interpersonal relationship. I write from a place of deep appreciation for my support system. This article is dedicated to the words of encouragement, empathy, compassion and humour that has supported, and continues to support, my journey.
Christmas is nearly here. Argos queues stretch out the door. Amazon drones cause Gatwick delays, maybe. ASDA is buzzing — broccoli, best before Boxing Day, is 20p at the moment. Deals in every aisle, from every brand, at every outlet, everywhere.
Friends back in town. Family gatherings aplenty. Football’s festive fixtures. Parties, Pringles, party poppers, pickled onions, presents. Presents! Do you have all your presents, yet?
With its cultural significance, the pressure to have a perfect Christmas is palpable. Like the myth of romantic love, we’re bombarded with unrealistic portrayals of how things should be. Of course, all of us want to enjoy the special day. Strive for perfection, though, and you will find yourself struggling under the weight of expectation.
Internalise the Christmas Myth, and the 25th December is loaded with should statements. These are cognitive distortions psychologists note contribute to anxiety, depression, stress, and other distressing emotions. Should statements can be self-directed, directed at others, or directed at the world. This conflicts with things as they are, which is exhausting.
This article includes tips to manage common shoulds related to Christmas, allowing you to enjoy the day free from pressure of expectations. So, grab a mince pie and read on.
I’m dreaming of a perfect Christmas…
Expectations are comparisons. You compare the present experience to a mental image of how the day should be. You compare how your day should be with another mental image of how you expect your day will unfold. Expectations are resistance to what is. Without realising, we often spend time rapidly comparing our direct experience with mental expectations.
Generally speaking, the more demanding the expectation, the more stress or disappointment will arise. Awareness is the first step in overcoming these beliefs.Try the below exercise to highlight your unique Christmas shoulds.
Exercise: Note your Christmas Shoulds
Reflect on the shoulds you hold about Christmas. Grab a pen and paper and write them down. Allow them to be as silly or serious as you like. Below are some examples:
I should listen to Christmas music and be in the Christmas spirit. Instantly.
When people ask me if I’m looking forward to Christmas, I should respond enthusiastically and positively.
I should watch the Queen’s speech.
The day should go to plan.
People should be happy. It’s Christmas!
Uncover as many as you can. Consider their impact. Do they lead to contentment, or guilt, stress frustration, shame, disappointment (not a loaded question…)? The next step is to reframe rationally. “The day should go to plan” becomes “I would like the day to go to plan, but I appreciate it is unpredictable and I will deal with the unexpected as it comes.”
All I want for Christmas is… 100% positivity 24/7 all the time?
Emotional perfectionism is a distorted belief about how you should feel. Pleasant emotions are desired and challenging emotions are judged as bad or unwanted. In her brilliant Ted Talk, psychologist Susan David explains positivity as a “new form of moral correctness,” denying the richness of human experience. Her response to clients who wish certain feelings go away? “I understand,” she says, “but those are dead people’s goals.”
Blunt, but true. For example, I developed the belief I shouldn’t feel nervous. I believed emotionally healthy people didn’t experience any nerves. These beliefs created inner turmoil every time I had the faintest flutter of anxiety. This is a poor coping mechanism because unresolved or ignored emotions return, stronger. The feeling returned, re-energised. I’d panic.
At Christmas emotional perfectionism increases, due to the myth the day should be joyous, happy, carefree. That’d be lovely, wouldn’t it? But attempting to filter certain emotions leads to suppression, or frustration or shame when they arise. Anyone suffering from depression or anxiety may have experienced this unpleasant dynamic. I’ve spent numerous Christmases wishing I could flick a switch and turn on happiness, just for the day. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.
In reality, the year end is a time to reflect, emotions are running high. The loss of those no longer in our lives is heightened. The temptation is to put on a brave face and “get on with it.” But it’s important to take a moment to sit with loss and difficult emotions. Remember the good times, cry. With a little alchemy, attention and compassion, loss often transforms into appreciation.
While reflecting, it’s worth challenging accompanying shoulds. Reframe statements like “I should be happy” to “I’d like to enjoy Christmas and feel happy, but challenging emotions may arise. If they do, doesn’t mean I’ve failed.” I recommend sharing this exercise with a close friend or family member. Though feels everyone else has it worked out, you’ll be surprised how universal these emotional expectations are!
The power of acceptance
“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” — Ram Dass.
Acceptance is the Holy Grail for evaporating expectations. But it’s often misunderstood. It isn’t an act in itself, but the state of mind arising the moment you stop resisting reality. It is a quality cultivated by the absence of wishing things were different.
At Christmas, we may wish the day unfolds in alignment to perfect expectations. We may wish our family matches the perfect image of how families should be. When these expectations aren’t met, we become annoyed or frustrated.
Ram Dass’ quote is playful, but based in truth. Familial relationships are challenging due to closeness and shared history. A degree of annoyance is understandable, perhaps inevitable. But resistance or wishing things were different causes unnecessary tension. Accepting family as they are, in all their colourful, unique, beautiful imperfection, creates harmony.
Acceptance isn’t passivity, though. We become flexible and unstuck from habitual behaviours when we see things as they really are. Then we take action by communicating our needs or making necessary adjustments. Changing the dynamic of familial relationships may feel impossible, but it’s never too late to created updated, healthy boundaries.
For example, my family talk… a lot. I love them for it but I can’t keep up, even as a talker myself. So I’ve expressed my need for quiet time. I explained I’m sometimes overwhelmed, and if I zone out of conversation, it’s nothing personal.
Acceptance allowed me to empathise — their excitable chatter is a symptom of their appreciation that I’m home, as I’m away for most of the year. From this perspective it was easier to express my needs with compassion, from the heart.
This works both ways. Our relationships harmonise when we ask others what their needs are, and listen attentively to the response. These honest conversations are generally avoided because they make us vulnerable. But if we pluck the courage to instigate these conversations, we’ll notice everything flows smoother.
Cultivating genuine appreciation
Intellectually bullying ourselves to appreciate good fortune is futile. If you don’t believe me, recollect a time you told yourself you should appreciate something — how did you feel? My guess is you felt guilty or bad for being ungrateful. Now, recollect a time of genuine appreciation. I imagine it appeared spontaneously, without needing to think.
This is intellectual barrier is strengthened around Christmas, but there is an solution. One of my favourite aspects of spiritual practice is experientially cultivating appreciation. I call this gratitude from ground zero. Whereas fearful comparison justifies appreciation by looking at how bad things could be, gratitude recognises everything you have with loving abundance. In a world where the majority feel a perpetual sense of lack, this simple switch in mindset is immensely powerful.
Gratitude from ground zero wipes the slate clean. It’s an attempt to view your life situation with fresh eyes. Simultaneously, we let go of concepts of how our lives should be, or how things need to be for us to be truly happy. To give this a go, list five (or more) things you’re grateful for, and move on. Let go of expectations of what gratitude will provide. If possible, do this daily. With space to flourish, appreciation magically bubbles to the surface.
A word of warning: occasionally appreciation announces itself spectacularly. But mostly it is a subtle hum, noticeable when the clutter of expectation is removed from the mind. Watch out for emotional perfectionism framing subtle appreciation as “not good enough,” thus invalidating its existence.
A word on alcohol
Alcohol has been deeply ingrained in society for hundreds of years. But its cultural acceptance masks its impact. This year a major global study discovered there is no level of “safe” drinking. As well as a number of physical health risks, alcohol reduces serotonin, the chemical associated with happiness. Alcohol is a natural depressant linked with psychosis, self-harm and suicide.
These are side effects anyone suffering from depression needs to consider. In the past, to escape unwanted feelings, I’d medicate with drink. When hungover, anxiety would skyrocket, energy would plummet, my mood would reach unpleasant lows. Drinking provided temporary relief but reversed the hard work of carefully cultivating a lifestyle to improve my mental health.
So I decided to abstain completely, after slowly reducing my intake. My mood is much more stable and I believe this is a big factor. This’ll be my first Christmas without alcohol and the pressure to indulge increases this time of year. Interestingly, this decision has revealed a source of anxiety was the knowledge of the cumulative effect day-after-day boozing would have on my mood.
If you’re tempted to be teetotal, remember drinking is not an obligation — though it may feel that way. It takes resilience to sip soft drinks when faced with beer pressure, but if you want to cut back to benefit your wellbeing, stick to your guns and smile. You don’t have to abstain completely, but small changes can reduce consumption; meet a friend for coffee, alternate alcohol with water, or if you’re daring, communicate your need to cut back for the sake of your mental health.
Last but not least…
Well, there we go! This is my last post of 2018. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Thank you so much for supporting MindThatEgo throughout the year. Expect more content in 2019.
A standard morning routine consists of a quick bite to eat, a shower and a brush of the teeth before hurrying out the door. Non-standard morning routines are often linked to enhanced, near superhuman productivity. They’re framed through stories of awe focusing on high-profile people such as Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill or Benjamin Franklin. They advocate reduced sleep. Rising early. Smoking a pipe. Saving the world. They’re well intentioned and nice in theory, but starting such a routine — let alone sticking to it — is a difficult task.
That’s because — for most of us — the reward of increased productivity isn’t enough to entice us out from under the sheets when not completely necessary. If we’re not a Silicon Valley extraordinaire of high-flying politician, the incentive isn’t enough; we don’t have to rise early to get to work on time. However, there is another incentive. As the clocks fall back and the nights draw in, our morning routine can have a surprising impact on reducing the low mood and low energy that accompanies winter blues.
Before we begin on exploring how and why a change of morning habit can increase your mood and wellbeing, it’s first important to note the difference between so-called winter blues and Season Affective Disorder (SAD). Naturally, as sunlight reduces, so do vitamin D levels. As does the amount of light that reaches the pineal gland (responsible for regulating the body clock). Consequently, the majority of us will feel more lethargic and less sprightly as our cardiac rhythm slows. However, those who suffer from SAD experience symptoms commonly associated with clinical depression (loss of pleasure, feelings of worthlessness, irritability, anxiety) during the winter months.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, this routine is designed to help. Following the five below habits won’t only allow you to survive winter, but to thrive in winter:
1. Wake Up Earlier Than Necessary
The way you start the morning frames the mental approach to the rest of the day. Wake up with just enough time to quickly shower and run out of the door, and your cortisol levels increase, you feel rushed, you feel stressed, and you carry this into the day. By waking up with the intent to put aside some time to focus purely on your wellbeing, you’re starting an important habit of self-compassion.
To perform the tasks on this list, you’ll need more time. Depending on how quickly you usually get ready in the morning, set your alarm 30 or 40 minutes before your usual time. I personally give myself at least an hour and a half before the time I need to leave the house. If you find that it’s practically impossible, you may need to go to sleep earlier the evening before. Scientific studies have revealed that, thanks to our body clock, we perform better at various tasks at different times. So it’s beneficial to replace the sluggish hour or so of before bed with an extra hour in the morning, a time when our minds are most alert.
2. Make A “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast”
Our diets have an important role to play in all aspects of our health, including our mood. The “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast” (as I call it) targets three areas linked to winter blues: carbohydrate cravings, omega-3 and vitamin D. It’s important to start with a meal that satisfies these areas and keeps you full, in turn keeping your blood sugar levels steady.
Studies show that those who have a high-protein breakfast stay full for longer with reduced feelings of hunger. A study by Heather Leidy, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the MU School of Medicine, discovered that, in overweight teens, a high-protein breakfast also reduces weight-gain and stabilised glucose. Combine this with a complex carbohydrate, and your first meal will provide you with plenty of energy to start the day right and stave off cravings (this applies to later meals, too).
3. Consider Supplements
Studies have also shown that both omega-3 (an essential fatty acid our body doesn’t produce) and vitamin D have a role to play in our brain’s production of serotonin. A deficiency in either has been linked to genetic pathways crucial to brain development. Both can be found in foods; the former with fatty fish (or avocados for non-meat eaters) the latter with eggs, cheese and mushrooms.
Vitamin D is, of course, also found in sunlight. However, especially in winter months, our levels can drop to a deficiency, especially with modern lifestyles that see most of us working inside for the majority of the day. Considering a lack of vitamin D can cause depression, it’s worth being vigilant on how much you consume via your diet.
I’d advocate supplements for both omega-3 and vitamin D, at least as an insurance policy. You’ll hear people argue that vitamin D deficiency is overhyped, however, one study found that one in four Americans were found to be deficient. Plus, a major global study advised the British government to fortify foods with vitamin D due to the number of Brits with low-levels. The same study also revealed that vitamin D can reduce the chances of colds and flu.
4. Try Light Therapy
As mentioned above, our cardiac rhythm slows in winter. Our ancestors would’ve simply slept a lot more, entering a mini-hibernation. It’s not viable to do that in the modern world, unfortunately. The link to such energy levels and seasons is down to the amount of light, and is widely regarded the key factor in SAD. Fortunately, light therapy (also known as phototherapy) has been proven to be a highly successful form of treatment. A 1998 study of 96 patients showed significant improvement when using light therapy.
Light therapy involves sitting in front of a particularly bright light for 30 minutes per day. Such light boxes contain 10,000 lux, which is around 100 times brighter than standard indoor lighting. The beauty of using one of these lights is it gives you no option but to sit and read in front of it for the allocated half an hour. What that means for the benefit of the wellbeing morning routine is that you can use this time to read (I’d opt for either spiritual text or something light-hearted), journal, sip coffee and eat your “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast.”
It’s important to note light therapy should only be used in more serious cases. Before considering whether to invest, if you have a mild form of winter blues, simply getting out and about, taking a walk in the sun (when it’s there!) may be enough to instigate noticeable improvements.
5. Avoid Your Phone In The Morning
Over 40% of Americans check their mobile phones within five minutes of waking up. Such is the attachment to smartphones in modern society, there’s even a name for the fear of being without one — nomophobia. There’s more and more evidence that our constant state of “connection” is making us depressed and anxious. We’re always “on call.” We’re always “checked in” or “online.” That means that to truly dedicate yourself to this morning routine, to really take some time for yourself, you need to avoid checking your phone. In any capacity. No Facebook. No emails. Buy an alarm clock and use it instead of your phone. Choose to connect on your terms.
Last but by no means least… The reduced levels of anxiety and depression that come with daily meditation can only be beneficial in dealing with feelings of low mood and lethargy. I won’t go into those details just yet, as there’s more to come later, but even taking 10 minutes in the morning to sit quietly with your own thoughts can lighten your mood.
It may also shine a light on the belief patterns and interconnected thoughts linked with winter blues.
Semantics are both insufficient and crucial when discussing spirituality. They’re insufficient in that individual spirituality is a direct experience. All the words in the world can only point you in the right direction, they can’t fully explain what the destination feels like, looks like, sounds like. But they’re crucial in making sure those directions are as accurate as possible. Mind That Ego is a self-fulfilment blog, a label I feel best fits. But what is self-fulfilment? And how is it different from everyday fulfilment?
There are three definitions of fulfilment: the fulfilment of a dream, to achieve fulfilment of one’s hopes, or the state or quality of being fulfilled. We’re concerned with the latter, for one crucial reason — it’s an internal state. Of course, fulfilling a dream or achieving a goal is an extremely rewarding, healthy part of life. But this subset of fulfilment is linked to external events. When our sense of fulfilment is linked to external events, it’s outside of our control. If we don’t achieve our goals or realise that dream, then what?
Fleeting Fulfilment And The “I’ll Be Happy When” Mindset
That’s where self-fulfilment is your friend. Self-fulfilment can be defined as being content with oneself, in the present moment, regardless of external factors. It’s the antithesis of one of the biggest ailments of modern Western civilisation, the “I’ll be happy when” mindset (capitalism is a huge purveyor of this mindset, but more on that later). The “I’ll be happy when” mindset is a red herring, a spiteful illusion. It’s the mind tricking you into looking elsewhere for fulfilment, anywhere but “the now.” Some examples of how it can manifest include:
I’ll be happy when… I meet the perfect partner.
I’ll be happy when… I get that pay-rise.
I’ll be happy when… I lose weight.
I’ll be happy when… the sun is shining, my bills are paid, I get my haircut, I have sex, I eat the meal, drink the drink, take the drugs, etc.
I’ll be happy when… Bristol Rovers are in the Premier League (that one’s mine).
Just looking at this list of “I’ll be happy” whens exposes them for their true value. Not only are they out of our control (maybe you won’t meet the perfect partner, maybe you’ll lose your job, maybe you’ll gain weight) they’re also fleeting. That is, once they are “fulfilled,” the mind will instantly be looking for the next “I’ll be happy when,” because this “I’ll be happy when” becomes “I thought I’d be happy when.” And so the cycle continues.
Self-Fulfilment, Being Present And Appreciation
“Well, that’s just great, Ricky. But how can I break the cycle?” Good question. As highlighted above, the “I’ll be happy when” mindset is a product of the thinking mind. Or, as I’ll refer to it for now and forever, the ego (more on the intricacies of the ego later). Consequently, you can’t think your way out of this one. This is a lot harder than it sounds, because most of us born into Western culture have been raised in a way that strongly identifies with the thinking mind — as Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking your way out of the “I’ll be happy when” cycle is like trying to extinguish a campfire by sprinkling gasoline on it, for want of a better metaphor. You may even find you start to think “I’ll be happy when I’m free from I’ll be happy whens.”
Instead of thinking your way out, the answer is experience itself. Being, “the now,” present, awareness… Whatever you call it, the experience of pure being is the antidote to thought. It’s the ingredient freeing your sense of fulfilment (and sense of worth, for that matter) from external events and provides headspace from the thinking mind and its accompanying emotions. But it’s not a magic fix. It requires practice, and plenty of it, in the form of meditation and mindfulness. If you’re new to spirituality you may well be thinking this sounds too good to be true, but, I promise you, the effects can be life-changing.
To highlight my point crudely, a common benefit of mindfulness, meditation and being present is appreciation. Not in the thinking sense of “I should appreciate the fact I have food and shelter,” but instead as a direct experience, a state. By being present, you appreciate the moment, directly, away from all those pesky “I’ll be happy whens.” The more you tap in to this appreciation of being present, the more those “I’ll be happy whens” dissolve, leading to their eventual disappearance.
A Lack Of “I’ll Be Happy Whens” Doesn’t Mean A Life Without Goals
By dissolving the “I’ll be happy whens,” does this mean we can give up on society? Stop having goals? Become content just being and never seek fulfilment from the endlessly surprising, vibrant, exciting outside world? No. The key with self-fulfilment and “I’ll be happy whens” is the change in relationship. Rather than having a sense of fulfilment dependent on an outcome (and suffering with lack of success), you’ll have a non-attached relationship with your goals. You’ll feel content whether you achieve them or not. Success is the cherry on top, the added bonus.
For example, let’s say one of my “I’ll be happy whens” is relationship based. I’ll be happy when I have the perfect girlfriend. My sense of fulfilment is linked to an outcome I can’t predict (not to mention “perfect” doesn’t exist). I’m attached to the result. Every encounter with a potential partner is seen through the perspective of whether they will be the one to fulfil my “I’ll be happy when.” Not only is that putting an immense amount of pressure on potential partners, it’s also handing away my autonomy for happiness onto the most unpredictable external factor — someone else.
Self-fulfilment alters this “I’ll be happy when” drastically. The first step is acknowledging the ego’s role by becoming aware of it. This example is particularly pertinent because thanks to Hollywood culture, we’ve been programmed to believe in the notion of romantic love, or “the one.” So, most of us have such “I’ll be happy when” thoughts at some stage.
The next step is the practice of mindfulness and meditation to gain inner self-worth and contentment. Then the approach to the “I’ll be happy when” changes. Without any attachment to the outcome, it doesn’t matter whether or not you find the “perfect partner.” But that doesn’t mean you’re then destined to die alone, quite the opposite; it means when meeting someone, you have no pre-existing ideas. You aren’t seeking fulfilment from them, you’re already fulfilled. You can experience all the joy of falling in love, sharing goals, providing support to each other, growing spiritually together and all those nice things, but also remain independent and self-fulfilled away from the relationship. Sounds a lot like friendship, right?
Finally, Self-Fulfilment Isn’t…
Now we know how self-fulfilment can break the cycle of “I’ll be happy whens,” here are few things it isn’t:
Selfish. In fact it’s the opposite. By being more content in the now and feeling fulfilled, all of your relationships will be enhanced, and you’ll approach your goals with more clarity.
The abolition of goals and motivation. As mentioned before, self-fulfilment will change your relationship to goals and success. It doesn’t mean you have to give them up, you just no longer have the sense of needing them to be fulfilled. It’s liberating, and may even see your goals change.
Easy. It’s important to end on this caveat. It’s bloody hard work, and it takes time. But it is possible with dedicated spiritual practice.
If all of this seems daunting, just remember, as soon as you are aware of these thought processes, you’re already one step into the journey of changing the relationship. And don’t fall into the trap of: “I’ll be happy when I am free of I’ll be happy whens.”
What are your “I’ll be happy whens”? Do you feel they prevent your happiness in the present?