Last week was a struggle for me. My husband and I call it the “blues”. It creeps up, in a slow, stealth way, not easily explained by any particular event or life stressor and covers me like a heavy blanket. Generally, when I slip into this mood, it is marked with lethargy and crushing self-doubt. I seem utterly unable to accomplish what I desire to, question my abilities and fall into a pattern of self-criticism. I am always surprised when I fall into this state. I tend to be an optimistic person, seeing the good in most things. I am able to maintain a sunny outlook towards and for everyone else except myself during this blue mood. Interestingly, in the most stressful times of my life, I have been able to muster the strength I’ve needed to survive, pooling resources and support from friends, family, faith and practice. When the “blues” strike, I am caught off guard, dumbfounded, my reaction is to retreat into myself, which is in those periods, a hostile environment.
Great concern befalls me when this mood arrives, as depression and anxiety run rampant in my family. I lost a grandparent to suicide and many of my relatives have at some point been treated for depression/anxiety. In my estimation, I do not suffer from serious anxiety or depression. Due to my family history however, I tend to take notice when one “off” day turns into several bad days, or perhaps a week marked with feelings of self-doubt, criticism and tears.
Four years ago, when I first sat in one of Tommy Rosen’s workshops at Hanuman Festival, a light bulb went off! He sat quietly in front of us in all white, calmly glowing with the radiance. (That may seem like an overstatement, until you’ve been in a room with he and his wife, Kia Miller – they radiate joy and kindness.) After greeting us, he asked, “What are you addicted to?” Naturally, I thought, “nothing”. He then went on to name the usual addictions we are familiar with; drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling. . . still nothing. Next he mentioned shopping and I thought. . . well, maybe at a point in my life. . . to some degree. He then said, “What about the Four Aggravations; negative thinking, self-doubt, procrastination and resentment?” BINGO!
It came over me in a wave of recognition. Not only were these thought patterns I routinly found myself stuck in, they were hallmarks of my family history. Rosen will say that there is resistance from some in labeling the Four Aggravations as addictive behavior, afterall, these are thoughts and not a chosen elixor to stiffle pain. His response is that an “addiction” is any behavior which produces negative consequences in which we continue to participate. It is worth noting, many of us may struggle with persistant self-doubt, negative thinking, procrastination or resentment and never fall into abusing drugs and alcohol. Yet these thought patterns can be destructive all the same.
I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. My yoga practice and the self-awareness I have been able to cultivate, I believe has saved my life. It has helped me recognize and come to terms with negative thought and behavior patterns and given me the space and time to observe them and make better choices. I remain deeply curious as to the cause of these times of blue-ness, however, my practice has allowed me to let go of the “whys”. Perhaps just the right combination of things created a perfect storm and a dark mood, perhaps it is simply a pattern or habit created by my ego or mind. My priority remains in developing the skills to deminish these patterns.
Eventually, I feel my blue mood lifts almost as gently and quietly as it arrived without explanation. What I do know is that through my practice, I have tools to move through these periods. The following is the toolbox I have created for myself.
1. Communication and connection
When I can’t shake negative feelings about myself, I tell my husband – who happens to be my best friend and cheerleader. He also happens to struggle with the same tendencies, so there is no judgment and always lots understanding and hugs, which incidentally can help increase Oxyitocin, our bodies “love hormone”.
Connect with friends and colleagues who may struggle with the same self-doubt around work or personal life. It always helps to hear that you are not alone in your fears or anxiety.
Often, the first thing I want to do when feeling this way is to melt into my couch, but movement releases important hormones to help counteract depressed mood such as; Seratonin, our bodies natural anti-depressant. Last week, I had fallen out of my yoga routine and my husband encouraged me to get back on my mat.
If yoga is not your movement of choice – walk, run, cycle or even dance.
3. Eat and sleep well
Returning to healthy eating and sleeping patterns can aid in mood recovery. Our bodies need fuel and rest, continually running at a deficit can contribute to negative moods and anxiety. The more aware I become, I can see the direct connection between good rest and food to my overall well-being and happiness.
4. Just Do It
Nike has a brilliant slogan – because sometimes you just have to do it. With energy low, it is often hard to accomplish or finish tasks on my long lists and which tends to feed the cycle of self-criticism and doubt. To-do lists are often a set up for unreasonable expectations in my life. Taking on a few tasks and pushing through to completion, despite my negative mood often helps reverse my depleted sense of accomplishment. Simply put, I like to feel useful and as though I am caring for my family.
5. The silent treatment
Meditation and stillness can be the most challenging part of the yoga practice for those of us who struggle with constant negative mind chatter, the Four Aggravations. It is not so much that physical stillness does not feel good, I love stillness – ask my couch. Rather, it is that in stillness, that the negative chatter gets louder as I am no longer distracted by physical movement. Sitting in stillness and trying to meditate then seem to be ill-advised if it produces opportunities to further deminish oneself. However, although not easy in the beginning, mediation provides us with the opportunity to observe our thoughts, identify patterns and then choose a different reaction. If you struggle with the process, let go of the label and judgement. When you first begin, it will be a battle with the loud voices constantly interrupting your attempts to be quiet in your mind. I use the “silent treatment” – you know, that thing you used to do to your siblings when you were young? Or maybe you do it to your partner when you are in a fight (horrible by the way, just horrible)? Have a sense of humor and use it when you are meditating. Ignore the obnoxious thoughts that continually interupt your attempts to find space. Cross your imaginary arms, turn up your nose and ignore them until they begin to deminish.
If you are struggling, perhaps these tools will help, however they are not the only or even the best answer for every situation. The “blues” as I identify them, lasting longer than a week or two or behavior patterns resulting in negative outcomes in your work or personal life should be addressed. Seek help and advice from professionals and support groups if you are concerned about yourself or others. The links below may be helpful.