I’m reluctant to play the game of self-diagnosis but I’m pretty sure I don’t have bipolar disorder (which involves rapid fluctuation between periods of severe depression and periods of great energy). However. I can relate to such see-sawing between extremes. In the morning I’ll be having dark thoughts about life and death and meaning, then in the afternoon I’ll be whooping and hollering and rolling around on the floor with the puppy, laughing like a madman while she tries to lick my face off.
As I said, the intensity and duration of these swings isn’t on the scale of bipolar, but it is significant enough, and consistent enough, to have forced me to evolve a go-to response. Amongst the collection of documents that I use to manage my life I have one containing daily, weekly and monthly processes, and one of those processes is my “recalibration” protocol. It’s a self-righting mechanism for when anxiety or depression has me in its teeth and is ragging me like a chew toy. Specifically, it directs me to do one of two things:
Breathe or move.
Now, the reason I’m thinking (and writing) about this is because I saw the following from Ido Portal on his Instagram:
“I was asked by a professor of psychiatry once if I ever experienced depression. I answered ‘not to the best of my knowledge/experience’.
He replied simply: ‘of course not. You move too much….’ I tell all people I meet but especially those battling depression, loss of meaning and similar states: MORE NON-VERBAL EXPERIENCES DAILY is what the doc prescribes and movement is the best medium.”
The above got me thinking about the nature of depression and anxiety, and consequently, their respective antidotes. (An aside: depression, anxiety and other “negative” states are an integral part of existence. That they are present and experienced is not the problem. The problem is when they make up a disproportionate part of day-to-day life. A diet that relies only on one macro-nutrient and no micro-nutrients isn’t healthy; neither is a life filled only with depression and anxiety.) Ido Portal and others recommend movement as a response to a depressive state; my study of mindfulness indicates that the breathe is an equally potent defense. But why? Let’s take a look.
DEPRESSION VERSUS MOVEMENT
It’s been posited that many mental health disorders, like depression, are due to chemical imbalances in the brain. So, supposedly the solution is to correct those imbalances, either via medical treatment or lifestyle adaptation. If we imagine the body’s total chemical and hormonal system as one big soup then we can position movement as an activity that flushes and renews it.
In actuality, it ain’t that simple. The mechanisms at play are more complex than we first thought and we understand them less than we would like to. But, as anyone who’s just completed an intense bout of physical activity will tell you, movement does modify mood, and usually in a positive manner. Sometimes before a Brazilian jiu-jitsu session I feel un-energised, tired, lazy. After, I feel strong, I feel good, I feel happy. Similarly, if I’m feeling blocked when I write I can take a walk and come back to work revitalised.
This is because physical activity transforms your physical state. It impacts cortisol levels, the circulation of insulin, glucose usage, it releases endorphins and other neurotransmitters, it increases brain activity, and it takes the edge off of mind wandering and rumination—it’s hard to think about all the shit at work when you’re chucking a twenty-plus kilo kettlebell around or trying to deadlift double your bodyweight. And in regards the dark thoughts associated with depression and anxiety? Simple. It yanks your mind off of them. It lifts you out of the reinforcing loop of destructive thoughts and loss of vitality. Which is the opposite approach to mindfulness.
DEPRESSION VERSUS MINDFULNESS
Movement’s antidote is concerned with distraction. Mindfulness’s antidote is concerned with acceptance. For example, one of the core practises in most forms of meditation is the act of non-judgemental noticing. It is sitting, consciously noticing the feelings that arise and refraining from judging them—either positively or negatively. Neither grasping at the type of thoughts you want to have and holding onto them, nor pushing away the thoughts you don’t want to have.
If a person does this enough, so the idea goes, then it becomes possible to separate the thoughts you have from the person you are. Or, more eloquently, to realise that You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are transient. Stay with them long enough, watch them closely, and you will see them be born, grow, fade and adapt.
How exactly does this relate to riding out depressive episodes? One way to think of it is that depressive episodes are existential threats. And like most threats, you can either bend to them or call their bluff. But here’s the rub. Depressive thoughts often aren’t the Mafiosi they seem to be. They are normal fears and typical worries hugely amplified by our own internal mechanisms. And to see that all you have to do is sit with them.
Next time you feel anxious, worried, depressed, or in any other “negative” state, stop what you’re doing. Cease everything and go sit down somewhere quiet and comfortable, preferably in a semi-active posture—meaning, sit upright and attentively, don’t slouch. Once sat, close your eyes and breathe in. And breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. As you do this your mind will wander, and that’s okay. Just bring your awareness back to the the breath.
If you do this for ten or fifteen or twenty minutes, you’ll come down from DEFCON1 back to DEFCON 5. You’ll see that the dark shadows were concealing only minutiae, not monsters.
THE DANGER ZONE
Movement mitigates depression by destroying our focus on the negative aspects of existence. Mindfulness mitigates depression by enhancing our focus on the negative aspects of existence, thus revealing them as transient and not as omnipotent as we first thought. The simplest way to encode this into your brain and remember it forevermore is via the use of a simple diagram. Consider:
Chronic, low-level activity of the physical and psychological systems simultaneously is the prime breeding ground for the bacteria of depression and anxiety. In contrast, alternating between acute episodes of high activity gives such bacteria little chance of staying put. Our powers of contemplation and attention, when turned all the way up to eleven, dissolve depression and break its insidious and reinforcing cycle; the various mechanisms of our body, when fully engaged in a task requiring immense co-operation and effort, shunt all resources down the necessary channels and leave little room for rumination.
It may not work for everyone. But for me, depressive episodes require a recalibration. And to recalibrate what I need to do is move or breathe.