The first step in actively fighting depression is to identify your personal “triggers.” Typical triggers include birthdays and holidays; exhaustion; the crash after eating sugar; illness and pain; interaction with people who push your buttons; and sad events, such as the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one. You may find that a certain song or a familiar perfume can trigger sadness. Some people discover allergies to certain foods cause their depression. You may already know some of your triggers, but journaling or creating a spreadsheet to keep track of your activities and feelings can help you connect the dots between your triggers and times when you feel sadness or despair. This kind of record can also help you to find the connections between your “good triggers” and the feelings of joy or contentedness that follow. Once you know your triggers, you are better able to avoid or diminish the triggers to negative emotions, and take intentional steps to choose the triggers that result in positive emotions.
Many victims of trauma spend years fighting depression. They have what seems like hundreds of triggers. They feel like puppets being manipulated by an evil puppeteer. I know, because I used to be one of them; for years before I learned that I could proactively fight depression, I was subject to a seemingly endless series of negative triggers. For example, if I had contact with someone who happened to have the same name as my mother, I would plunge into a funk, wondering what she was doing, whom she was with, if there was any chance she ever thought about me, and if she cared at all about what was going on in my life. Another trigger was my birthday; a full month before my birthday, I’d start hoping that this would be the year I’d get cards from my mother or father. I’d build myself up so much that the inevitably empty mailbox on my birthday would have the power to destroy the good wishes that came from anyone else.
Like a pilot who sees a potential mid-air collision and takes corrective action to avert disaster, successful survivors pay attention to what precedes their feelings of depression, so that they can take precautionary, proactive measures in the future. They avoid people and places that they know lead to sadness. Because I knew that my birthday was a trigger for depression, rather than waiting to see who remembered my birthday and being disappointed by those who hadn’t, I learned to make my own plans for lunches with friends, for trips, and for other enjoyable activities on that day. I chose not to gauge my happiness by those who didn’t remember my birthday, but by those precious people who did.
Another common trigger for depression is the feeling of being overwhelmed that comes from facing multiple challenges at the same time. For example, if you don’t have enough money to make it through the month and don’t know how you are going to pay bills and put food on the table, having the extra expense of a flat tire can throw you into a feeling of being overwhelmed. And that overwhelmed feeling is easily exacerbated by the demands of your job, family, or otherwise manageable challenges.
It’s even easier to become overwhelmed when there is physical pain involved. Pain can make it difficult to think clearly and to accomplish the unfinished tasks before you. Financial issues compound other challenges, because it’s difficult to find solutions to problems if you’re hungry and homeless, or if you don’t have the money to rectify those huge issues. It’s not as though successful survivors never feel overwhelmed. They do. But they’ve learned that in order to successfully navigate through multiple challenges, they must break them down, prioritize them, and deal with one issue at a time.
To avoid the feelings of depression brought on by being overwhelmed, it is especially important not to exaggerate the facts, and to not speculate on what tomorrow may bring. Take each problem individually and try to think dispassionately about all the possible solutions, regardless of how implausible or even ridiculous they may sound. Try to be objective: Imagine that you are giving advice to a friend who is faced with your circumstances. Focusing on how to find possible solutions shifts your mind from pessimism to cautious optimism, from feeling hopeless to hopeful. This shift in attitude is integral to finding the resolutions you seek.
Once you’ve written out as many possible solutions as you can think of, give yourself a break. Resist the temptation to give in to the sense of being overwhelmed or depressed by taking some simple steps to control something that is within your control, like taking a shower and putting on clean clothes. Do your hair; ladies, put on make-up. It will make you feel better. Taking control of even the most mundane thing can help you move toward a more hopeful feeling. It will also help you become prepared for a break—what some call luck. But successful survivors create their own luck by being prepared and looking for opportunities. Optimistic successful survivors know that successful outcomes are the result of preparation, hard work, and expectation that good things are in their future.
Success = (preparation + hard work) x positive expectations
Optimistic successful survivors intentionally look for someone to help, even when they themselves feel down. Although it may sound counterintuitive to reach out to help someone else when you’re struggling, it can be the most helpful thing you can do for yourself. Once you’ve done all you can do to resolve the challenges you face, the process of helping someone else serves to get your focus off yourself and your problems and onto someone else. This helps you gain perspective. It engages your assets—the strengths, talents, and abilities in you that can be helpful to others. Finding someone to help rather than trying to find someone to help you is a powerful way to proactively fight depression.
I am not suggesting that you never seek help; by all means, do. Find a mentor, attend a 12-step program, exercise, get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of water, and eat healthy foods. But when you are in the midst of a potentially overwhelming situation, helping someone else can be extremely valuable in getting your mind off your own situation for a time. It’s also often true that in the process of helping someone else, you stumble upon a solution or resource for improving your own circumstances.
Whether you tend toward feelings of depression or not, one sure-fire way to feel sad is to think about what you don’t have, dwelling on times when you have been mistreated, or when you knew you weren’t wanted or loved. As simplistic as it may sound, optimistic successful survivors learn to avoid these thoughts and the depression that usually accompanies them.
Some people are naturally able to deliberately choose what they are going to think about. When a negative thought comes to mind, they are able to immediately notice it and replace it with a positive thought. Others find themselves prisoners of their negative thoughts. Their imagination runs wild with all the terrible things that could happen. They are sadly unaware that they can “change the channel” of their minds, and choose what they think about.
Every single one of us can train our minds to take negative thoughts “captive,” replacing them with positive thoughts. We can intentionally do the work that cultivates a positive attitude. One way to train yourself to avoid negative thinking is to wear a rubber band around your wrist, snapping it every time you catch yourself having a negative thought. It’s a free, simple, and effective tool to begin the process of reprogramming your mind to avoid negativity.
Once negative thoughts are arrested, the next step is to intentionally replace them with positive, optimistic and hopeful thoughts; it really is like changing the channel on the television. To do this effectively, collect thoughts, pictures, jokes, or whatever it is that makes you smile or laugh. These can be photographs that remind you of good times, pictures cut out of magazines of places you’d like to go or things you’d like to have, funny or inspiring videos, or stories. Intentionally positive survivors have these things ready, so that when a negative thought comes to mind, they can instantly replace it with a thought that lifts their spirits.
Successful survivors focus on what they have (their good qualities and characteristics), what they are striving for (their goals), and how they are going to reach their goals (their plans). They replace thoughts of people who have harmed them with thoughts of good, safe people in their future who can be trusted. Successful survivors replace ugly scenes in their mind with a picture of a beautiful place they hope to see, a home they plan to have, or images of the lives they want to live.
This visualization of lifestyles and places is even easier now than ever before, thanks to the Internet. You can search for images of places you want to visit, homes you would like to live in, and the things you would like to have or do. When you look at images and imagine yourself in the picture, you are planting these pictures firmly in your mind so that you can easily recall them to replace negative thoughts and ugly images. The more you recall these images, the more likely you are to recognize them when they show up in your life!
It’s important to note that, during this process of visualizing a happier future, you do not allow yourself to negatively compare your goals and dreams to everything you currently lack. Don’t let your inspirations for the future turn into criticisms of your present—these are more than empty goals, these are things that you can and will have in the future. Let these hope-filled, positive visualizations lift you upward and onward.
To be continued… check back. I want to help you actively fight depression.
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