As part of my quest to burn down/ salt the earth of the stigma against mental illness in this country, I occasionally post about my depression.
I don’t want this to be the blog where that’s all I post about, but it is part of my life, and has been for as long as I can remember, so – if I’m being as honest as I need to be – the subject will tend to creep into the discussion from time to time.
Usually the content revolves around how depression and anxiety intersect with my work life, creative endeavors, and attempts at fitness. (I’m finally back in the gym on a regular basis, btw.)
Today I want to talk about an aspect of the thing itself: energy.
Don’t worry, this isn’t some woo-woo, Chakra-balancing, incense burning, everything will be all right of you just think positively and do yoga, infomercial bullshit.
It’s just a discussion about something I’ve noticed.
But yeah, energy.
I know how much baggage that word carries with it in our culture. So, let me define it for our purposes here:
Energy is the ability to do work.
That’s it. Eat, drink and breathe. Covert the chemical energy of plants, animals, and oxygen into chemical energy your body runs on.
We’re absolutely NOT talking about spiritual or mystical energy.
Nothing supernatural here. Plain old, down and dirty human stuff. That’s all.
SO, WHEN I REFERENCE ENERGY IN THIS POST, THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!
Cool. I knew you would understand. Go you. You’re every bit as awesome as I’d hoped.
Our bodies run on energy. Every part of our bodies. This includes our brain.
That squishy, gray fat-battery sloshing around in your skull.
In fact, your brain uses roughly 20% of your body’s total energy needs.
That’s right, a fifth of everything you consume goes into keeping your hard drive spinning.
It’s easy to think of emotions and thoughts as being ethereal things, because we don’t normally “see” those things. You can feel your heartbeat, breathing, see your limbs moving, feel the trickle of sweat as it works its way down the crack of your ass, but you don’t have a physical reference for thoughts and emotions.
I’m not going to talk about the roots of consciousness, or really any other weighty philosophical topic, (I can hear my friends cheering even before they read this), but I do want to point out that thinking and feeling are physical processes, even if we don’t have a physical reference for them.
The things that go on in our heads, regardless of what you think about them spiritually, can be described as chemical processes. Compounds – neurotransmitters – have to be synthesized and metabolized. There is no free lunch.
It takes calories, energy, to think and have emotions.
And, as we have established, it takes a bloody lot of them.
One of the main symptoms of Depression is a lack of energy and motivation.
You just end up feeling tired all the time.
Part of this, according to a theory I read in college, is to encourage the organism (us) to ignore distractions (the world and everything we love in it) in order to be better equipped to deal with the internal struggle.
I don’t know if that’s correct or not. Sometimes I think it sounds nice.
But one thing is certain, depression requires a shit-load of calories from your brain.
(We may appear generally numb from the outside. We may even be generally numb to the outside world, but ask any depressive and they’ll tell you, there’s too much going on inside. Often, way too fucking much.)
All that internal work takes a ton of energy.
And humans do not have an infinite supply, regardless of what some people would have you believe.
We all have only so much energy. (The levels vary, sometimes wildly, between individuals). There is no “inexhaustible well” from which to draw. It don’t exist. And if you’ve been kicking yourself because you can’t seem to winch up the bucket of that mythical well, STOP IT RIGHT NOW! You’ve been lied to. There is no well. Never was.
All you have is your own, particular bucket.
All you can do is look to manage the levels in your bucket.
So, how can we do that?
(Ok, here’s the part where I tell you I’m not a doctor or any kind of licensed professional. This is just my experience. Your mileage may vary. And for fuck’s sake, go talk to your doctor. Seriously. Go.)
First thing: Start getting some exercise.
Yep, that thing you don’t feel like you have the energy to do.
Force yourself to do a little of it. A 5-10 minute walk, once a day. Start small and work your way up to something you like. You’re not training for an event, you’re looking after your health. Exercise helps us to have more energy to use, by convincing the body to produce more. (Really you’re tricking it into thinking it needs more on a regular basis, but whatever works eh?) Exercise also has been known to ease the symptoms of depression. I like lifting weights. Find what you like and do it, even if it’s only a tiny bit at first.
Second thing: Fix your sleep.
Seriously. Regulating your sleep can raise you several notches towards the light. Try to get 7-8 hours a night. Get up at the same time every day. That helps. Have a pre-sleep routine that you do every night. Total darkness. After that, it’s whatever works for you to start getting regular sleep. You’ll know it’s working within a week, usually within a couple of days. If you don’t get regular sleep, your metabolism goes straight to hell. A Damned metabolism equals diminished energy production.
Third thing: Fix your food.
Yep, diet. Look at it and ask yourself if you’re really getting all of the macro & micro nutrients, and calories you need. You’ve been on a calorie restriction, trying to lose weight? Lay off and return to maintenance calories, (between 13-15 calories per pound of body weight for maintenance), maybe for a few months. You’ve not been eating enough fruits and veg, relying on supplements to get your vitamins and minerals? Learn to eat better. Supplements are not anywhere near as bio-available as whole foods are. Start adding in more fruits and vegetables. Try one serving per day, until it becomes normal, then add another somewhere else in the day. It might take six months, but you’ll get there. Probably sooner than you think. And there is plenty of variety, so find something you actually like to eat. Have you been eating super low-fat? Stop that shit. Your body needs fats. It’s how you produce hormones. Your brain is mostly fat. If you’re not getting at least 25-30% of your calories from fat, you need to up it in a hurry. All the research says it’s perfectly safe and healthy, as long as you avoid trans-fats. Are you getting enough protein? 0.6 grams per pound of body weight should do the trick – slightly more if you’re working out regularly or trying to lose weight. Drinking enough water? How much, you ask? Unless you have a disorder with your thirst mechanism, or you’re really hot and sweaty – which causes an issue with thirst perception – you should be drinking liquid (not alcohol) when you’re thirsty. We evolved that mechanism for a reason, use it.
Fourth thing: Do the things that give you energy.
There are things that make all of us wake up a bit. Things that energize us. It varies from person to person. Find those things that light you up like Christmas, and do them. Doesn’t matter how small. Doesn’t matter if you’re the only one doing them. As long as no one gets hurt, it doesn’t really matter. Depression feels like it steals our joy. Things we used to enjoy lose their flavor. That’s how it feels, anyway. But that’s not the case. You have to think of depression as a loud noise, drowning out most everything else. Imagine talking to a friend at a noisy bar. You could just let the din of the space overwhelm you, but you like your friend and you try focus on the conversation you’re having. You might not hear all of it, but you’ll get most of it. This is how it is with depression. The things that used to give you joy are still there, they can still lift you up, but depression is trying to deafen you like that one asshole who keeps playing Conway Twitty on the too-loud jukebox. Keep doing the things that wake you up and make you feel energized. Just keep doing them. You’ll get better and better at feeling them again. I promise.
Final thing (because this list is getting long and I’m running out of steam):
Pay attention to your Mental Hygiene.
What the fuck does that mean?
Simply put, pay attention to the things you think about. Pay attention to your thoughts.
(not all the time. you don’t need to turn into some navel-gazing vegetable. sheesh.)
Some thoughts are going to make your depression worse. Learn to recognize those thoughts, and redirect them.
Become aware of how your thoughts make you feel. Often you will begin by noticing after the fact. That’s normal. The more you practice, the earlier and earlier you will pick up on it. Pretty soon you’ll become aware of them right as they start.
Become aware of these thoughts, and how they make you feel, without judgement.
That’s the important part: without judgement.
If you judge your thoughts, you’ll either run towards them or want to run away from them. Either option gives the thoughts more energy.
Judging your thoughts dumps more calories into thinking them.
(And you only have a limited amount of calories to go around, remember? Of course you do, you’re fekkin’ awesome.)
So, once you’ve gotten some practice noticing your thoughts and not judging them, you can take the next step, which is trying to turn your thoughts to a neutral subject. I often use my breath, or immersion into my physical senses (trying to see, hear, smell, taste, etc everything I possibly can at that moment). Again, these are things you are observing. Just watch them for a moment. Let yourself float in neutral for a few minutes. Let your heart rate and breathing come back to normal. Let the hormonal response to the painful thoughts ebb. A couple of minutes. (Ok, could be as long as 20 minutes, if you let yourself get deep into the negative shit. But really, what’s 20 minutes for sanity?)
Once you’ve got practice at that – and this can happen fairly quickly, it doesn’t take years, or even months – you can practice thinking about things that give you energy. Your next workout, next project, dreams for the future, whatever gives you the git-up-and-go.
This is redirecting your thoughts to revitalize your energy stores. It’s not weird mystical shit. It’s just something we’re not generally taught.
But it is all scientifically describable and provable.
This doesn’t require any belief, only action.
Action and practice.
You’ve likely heard, somewhere, about the Cherokee grandfather telling his grandson about the two wolves. Or, maybe you’ve heard the Buddhist saying that what grows in your garden is what you water.
Both of those sayings, and countless more like them, boil down to one thought:
It’s about what you give your energy to.
That is what flourishes in your mind.
This is just one method of learning to redirect your mental energy. I encourage you to research others. This one works for me. As do a few others I’ve tried.
And, I know I’ve avoided the topic of weird mystical shit, but if woo-woo works for you, go get your woo-woo on. I will not judge you for it. I might ask for detailed information, but I won’t judge if it helps you climb out of the hole.
So, that’s it.
I hope this helps some.
I encourage you to do more research on the subject. Sometimes just realizing there is information out there is enough to get me off my ass and moving. Maybe it’s the same for you.
Whatever the case, if – like me – you deal with depression and/or anxiety, I hope you come to the help you need. Professional or otherwise.
I don’t know if there is a cure for depression, but I do know there are ways to manage it that are productive and healthy.
I’ve tried to outline some of them for you here.
If you have different methods that work for you, feel free to leave a comment describing them.
I wish you well on your journey.
Remember, all you have to do is keep walking.
One foot, in front of the other.
Until next time…