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Digging up the Roots of Depression

Anyone can experience sadness, grief, and despair (assuming one has the emotional capacity), but not everyone will experience depression. Depression is characterized by loss of interest, lack of pleasure, changes in appetite or sleep, irritability, low energy, decreased mood, among other symptoms that can have a severe impact on daily life. Try to picture being a slug with no hope and no desire to do anything- that’s depression. It’s like trying to run against the current… while underwater… and someone forgot to give you a scuba tank so you could breathe. Depression is as abundant as the common cold, and it is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Although previously believed to stem from chemical imbalance, we now know that root of depression lies among a variety of risk factors, including physiological, environmental, emotional, and situational circumstances.

Physiological factors may include genetics, diet, hormonal imbalances, or chronic illness. Both of my parents were diagnosed with clinical depression at some point in their lives. In my own case, an extensive family history of depression put me more at risk for developing depression myself (I like to call it The Double Whammy). So, while this encouraged me to learn some skills early to manage depression, I didn’t quite understand what it would actually feel like to be- in the words of a client- “cuckoo-nuts,” until it got severe enough that I couldn’t work through it on my own. In some cases, poor diet or hormonal imbalances can relate to decreased energy or mood, influencing depressive symptoms. In my case, this was a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. I’d feel depressed and lose my appetite, have candy or chips or nothing for dinner, and then feel MORE depressed because I was eating like garbage. Often, individuals with chronic illnesses, sleep disorders, or other health concerns experience depressive symptoms, as well, particularly if these conditions cause challenges completing daily tasks and living a fulfilling life.

Depressive symptoms may also be affected by environmental factors. For example, if someone lives in a stressful or chaotic environment, that person may be more likely to experience depression. My own depressive symptoms heightened after moving to the suburbs. Living in a house that I could not afford, working two jobs, and living far from my friends created financial stress, lack of self care, and isolation. I found myself hiding in my room with debilitating anxiety at the thought of coming out of my cave and engaging with my manipulative roommate and her bro-in-denial boyfriend- which often meant navigating my way through stale marijuana smoke and Patron. And don’t get me wrong, I am far from prude, but this wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted or expected when I moved. My inability to cope with feeling stuck in an unhappy and unfulfilling environment was a major factor in my depression spiraling. Additionally, environmental factors may affect those living in a setting with increased violence, domestic disturbance, or crime.

Individuals who experience low self esteem, pessimism, or have a history of physical or emotional trauma may be more susceptible to symptoms of depression. This can be more apparent in people who lack coping skills or positive outlets for emotions. I used to have a saying: “Turn your sadness into anger, and lock it up in a box.” Now, picture me screaming this from the tallest rooftop: THIS WAS NOT HELPFUL. It took a LONG time to realize that feelings are normal and okay, and pretending it does not exist does not mean a feeling goes away. It just means that it’ll eventually come up more bubbly and more aggressive than before, like an exploding pressure cooker, or manifest in symptoms of depression or anxiety. And so, my new saying is: “Listen to yourself.” We experience emotions for a reason, and, whether they are accurate or not, they all deserve to be respected and acknowledged.

Last, but certainly not least, feeling sad is not the same as experiencing depression. Let me say it again: feeling sad is not the same as experiencing depression. However, if you are a human you have probably encountered a situation that has caused you intense grief- and if you haven’t, give me some of those unicorn-and-rainbow sunglasses you’re wearing. Life transitions can be complex. Death of a loved one, issues in work or school, relationship problems, financial issues, moving- these are all situations that can cause one to feel stressed, overwhelmed, distraught. These are some of the situations that I deem the “Big Bad Sad-Makers.” Major life changes can affect daily routine, cause anxiety, and manifest symptoms of depression. If emotions that come from these situations cause disruption in your ability to engage in daily life, it’s something to look at more closely.

While these are common roots of depression, they are surely not the only ones, and many individuals experience more than one of these risk factors for depression. Take me for example- all four of these things joined up to make me a tiny burrito of sadness! From the time I was in college, factors have been coming in and out of my life to cause disruptions in mood, and the one thing that encouraged me most in dealing with my depression was learning about my depression. Everyone has a different experience with mental health, and if I can offer you one piece of advice in tackling your own mental health concern, it is to learn about it. It’s like Voldemort- Harry had to learn about Voldemort’s history, strengths, and weaknesses before he could defeat him. Yes, I just turned Mental Health into a Harry Potter reference… and I think it’s my proudest moment of the day.

Thanks to @depression-patriciajordan.com for inspiring me to write this. It’s not a simple answer, but it’s an answer none-the-less.

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How Live Your True North Began

My History With Depression

In October 2018, my therapist diagnosed me with depression after spending months struggling with chronic unhappiness. Although I seemed content from the outside, I constantly struggled with irritability, sadness, and loneliness. I paid horrible attention to my daily needs, and I spent a great deal of time wrapping myself up like a blanket burrito to hide from the world. For me, depression felt like running underwater against the current. I forgot how to be myself and often ruminated on memories of laughing easily, completing tasks with ease, and surrounding myself with good people. 

I let depression hold me captive as I fantasized about my life instead of actually living it. When I did go out, I fought through intense anxiety and discomfort. Negative thoughts swirled in my brain and told me that I was not good enough. At work, I struggled with motivation to complete tasks, crying spells, and anxiety. To make matters worse, my unhelpful thoughts screamed, “You’re a mental health therapist! You’re not allowed to get depressed!” 

My Breaking Point 

I naively expected to pick myself up from my bootstraps and get better on my own. Realistically I knew that I could not help others if I did not help myself. I struggled to navigate the cognitive dissonance associated with being a therapist who needed therapy. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t manage my depression independently, and I felt like a fraud counseling others. Instead of acknowledging that I needed help, I pretended that I knew exactly what was wrong and exactly how to fix it.

On a Saturday in September, I finally reached my breaking point. That day at work, I ran late for a therapy session with a young client, which triggered the child’s parent to feel frustrated. Naturally, I expressed my apologies and explained the nature of the delay and resumed the therapy session. However, I could not stop ruminating on what happened. Her reaction caught me off guard and triggered intense anxiety about being bad at my job. I cried, trembled, and struggled with thoughts of not wanting to be here. After processing the event and my reaction with a friend, I finally accepted that I needed help.

Finding a Therapist

I first dabbled in therapy in college after experiencing difficulty transitioning to the new environment. My therapist at the time, a lovely woman with short, black hair and a soothing demeanor. However, I didn’t feel a close connection, and I struggled to fully engage with my therapist. I eventually worked through the transition on my own. Now, though, I felt emotions I didn’t understand and didn’t know how to overcome. 

Finding a therapist was relatively easy using both Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” tool and the phone number on the back of my insurance card. After finding a clinician who accepted my insurance, I sat with the phone number until I gained the courage to call schedule an appointment. My therapist, Ron, was a former baseball player who changed careers after suffering permanent spinal cord damage. He had a tall and lanky frame, and his wispy gray hair framed his strong facial features. His minimalistic office featured just a few artful pictures, a cluttered desk, and a long futon where I sat week after week.

Doing the Work

It took time, but Ron helped me understand that the only thing preventing me from overcoming depression was myself. Ron described a phenomenon called “Paralysis by Analysis,” where my negative overthinking prevented forward motion and decision making. We explored the onset of symptoms and events in my life that potentially contributed to unhelpful thinking styles. With Ron’s help I realized that simply attending therapy was not enough. If I wanted my life to change, I had to take what I learned in sessions and apply it outside of the office. 

First, I left a toxic roommate situation and moved into my own apartment. Then, I spent more time with family and friends, and I engaged in more overall self care. Even though the healthy habits I created helped, I still fought against the darkness. When I hung out with others, it told me I’d rather be home by myself, doing nothing, feeling hollow. I processed this feeling with Ron, who suggested following up with my primary care doctor.  “If depression is still keeping you from coping, then maybe you should explore medication,” he said.

Finding Relief

My heart initially sank at the thought of being prescribed medication. I worried about side effects, and I worried that medication with either not work or make things worse. I didn’t want to feel more emotionally stunted that I already felt. Nevertheless, I took Ron’s guidance and made an appointment with my doctor, who took the time and care to educate me and ease my concerns. In April 2019, I began taking Prozac once a day. 

After a few weeks, I noticed a lift in mood. The heavy water that I ran through began to evaporate. Prozac helped my brain maintain serotonin, which helped my mood, energy level, and quality of sleep. I actually trained my body to eat normal sized meals again, now that it felt hungry. Better yet, I happily found that my only side effect was mild dry mouth that disappeared after increasing my water intake.  

Maintaining the Progress

I needed to find a way to keep moving forward in my depression recovery. I started by noticing how I felt when I completed certain activities. If I did something that helped me feel better, I wrote it down in a list. By paying attention to the impact of my behaviors, I learned that eating healthy, being active, and engaging in artistic forms of self expression helped me to feel my best. These habits helped me become my happiest self. 

It takes anywhere from 18-240 days to form a habit and another 60 days for that habit to become an automatic behavior. I understood that I needed to focus on making these a bigger part of my lifestyle. I ate on a Paleo diet for several months in an attempt to reset my eating habits, I adhered to an exercise plan, and I made time for activities such as painting, drawing, and journaling. Furthermore, I frequently reminded myself that progress truly is an ongoing process that never ends, and positive self talk allowed me to more easily work through challenges. 

Sharing My Journey

When I created a blog, I intended it to serve as a space to document and record my personal growth. Sharing my story helped me to hold myself accountable and allowed me to change my lifestyle more consistently, and I quickly found that there is an entire community of wellness warriors out there trying to do the same thing. I hope to empower others to ask for help in finding balance and happiness. I recognize that I will never be done growing, and I want this space to grow with me. 

Above all, I learned that no one is immune to struggles with mental health, and we all get by with a little help from our friends. Live Your True North is a safe space for healing and self exploration.

I hope you choose to join me in living well, being myself, and living my True North.

Much Love, 

Kel