Photo by James Shih
The blues. Feeling down. Depression. For the longest time, I didn’t understand what to call this feeling that would pop up and burrow itself into me. Today before writing this, I had a blue spell and it's only now slipping away. Part of that reason is because I'm writing this down.
For many Asian Americans, the emotional vocabulary for mental health was not readily taught. Many of us didn't receive the education from our family or our schools what to call all these damn feelings. Growing up, I called it pain, a pain I couldn’t trace to a physcial cut, but it hurt all the same. What's interesting to note is that in a 2008 study, female Korean immigrants in the U.S. were interviewed about depression, and they would refer to this experience as "suffering" rather than "depression."
In high school, I gravitated to songs and movies that expressed this melancholy. I began to have romantic ideas about this pain, this depression. All writers drink, all artists suffer, etc... As I became interested in the arts, I began to cling to the blues, relish in it. Some artists and writers do the same, they latch on to this pain as if it’s somehow a part of their identity.
This can be a Downward Spiral (a great NIN album by the way), but you realize soon enough that you can't create if you don't want to get out of bed or if you're too self medicated. As Stephen King wrote in his insightful book On Writing: "Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. [...] We all look pretty much the same when we're puking in the gutter."
The times I felt the most creative, most happy, were the times I was most present, when I was not attached to my depression. Nothing wrong with feeling blue once and a while, that's human. It's also human to want to come out of those blue periods, to not want to wallow in misery.
In this article, I'll go over some of the habits that have helped me come out of dark places. What I've learned is that I have personal responsibility for my happiness, we're not helpless in the face of our depression. Even if I can give my mood one quantum nudge in the direction towards joy, that's worth celebrating. Just know that each person should take and customize the tools that work for them. Feel free to use this as a reference and take what you find useful, discard what is not.
Note: if you suffer from severe depression or have suicidal ideation, please seek professional help. As Andrew Solomon says in his TED talk, you're only [enter your age] once, don't let depression take over your life, ask for help. At the bottom of this article are numbers and resources to reach out to.
Photo by James Shih.
1. Writing it Down: the Negative and the Positive
I've found that by writing out all the anxiety, regret, frustration, anger, sadness...just getting all that darkness inside me out onto paper or a word document can be cathartic. It's a way to manifest and see visually all those thoughts that are crowding my head.
In doing so, it gives me more objectivity in looking at what's bringing me down. Even if I can't pinpoint it and I hate myself for feeling bad for no good reason, I'll write that. I begin to see the cognitive pitfalls and irrationality of my own thoughts. By doing so, I can clear away some of those delusions and maybe even laugh about them. One exercise I've done before is writing down these dark thoughts onto a piece of paper and then ripping it up or burning it. This can be quite satisfying.
Another exercise is chronicle journaling: writing three good things that happened to you today, however small or big (e.g. petting a dog, receiving a compliment, etc...). In addition to chronicle journaling, gratitude journaling is a great exercise: writing down three things you're grateful for (e.g. I'm grateful for my health. I'm grateful for the rain, etc...). You may notice that there might be some overlap with chronicle and gratitude journaling, that's fine! There are no concrete rules on how to do them, you can use just one if you'd like. I use both as a way to write down more positive things about my life with chronicle journaling focusing on positive events or experiences of the day and gratitude journaling about what I'm feeling grateful for in that moment.
2. Get Inside Your Body
What happens with depression a lot of the times is that I find myself overthinking. To help get out of my head, I work on getting into my body through exercise or some form of physical activity.
Examples that have helped me:
* Taking a walk or going for a run.
* Strength training
* Martial Arts (Taichi, Karate, Judo, BJJ, Baji, etc...)
...and more. That's part of my list, but you should build your own and find out the physical activities you enjoy. The important thing is to get yourself moving and breathing. This can be incredibly hard for someone with the blues, just getting out of bed is tough enough. You can try getting yourself to move by tricking yourself with little steps: let me just get my workout clothes on. Let me just step outside. I'll do the exercise for just five minutes and then see how I feel, etc...
What's surprising is that if you just make small steps towards a task, you'll gain inertia and do more than you initially thought and feel better afterwards.
Photo by James Shih.
3. Sleep and Sunlight
Comedian/actor/painter Jim Carrey, who has struggled with depression, shares, “I believe depression is legitimate. But I also believe that if you don’t exercise, eat nutritious food, get sunlight, get enough sleep, consume positive material, surround yourself with support, then you aren’t giving yourself a fighting chance.”
There's a lot of good stuff in that quote, I'm going to hone in on sleep and sunlight for now. Lack of sleep as well as oversleeping can lead to depression which can then lead to sleep disorders. This can then become a vicious cycle with sleep disorders and depression feeding into each other.
If you have severe sleep disorders and depression, medication may be needed and you should consult your doctor. You may also want to check if your insurance can cover a sleep test to see if you have sleep apnea which is when a person stops and starts breathing while they sleep and is associated with snoring and poor sleep quality.
One thing I've done to help with getting enough rest is going to bed and waking up around the same time as much as a I can. This helps put my body in a regular rhythm. Also, I try to get enough sunlight during the day, at least 10 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight. What I've found is that this not only improves my mood, but it helps me sleep at night.
Avoiding screens before going to sleep is also helpful because the light can suppress melatonin (your brain's hormonal signal telling you to go to sleep).
For the longest time I thought meditation was a waste of time. I would say to myself, "If I'm going to sit and do nothing, why don't I just use that time to plan my day, write a blog, etc..." I also didn't start the practice for years because I felt like I needed to know how to do it perfectly. Eventually, out of curiousity, I joined a Zen meditation group and found that a) after meditation I felt much better plus this feeling would carry on into my daily life and b) it's super easy: just sit, watch your breath, and be aware of whatever happens (thoughts, body signals, etc...).
There are a number of studies on how meditation helps with depression and how it actually helps shape your brain towards being more prone to joy. Reading about it is helpful, but it's important for one to actually experience it. Meditation also made me more productive, I felt more energized to do things after meditation.
I practice 10 minutes a day and I use an app called Insight Timer to keep track of how many days I've been meditating. Sometimes I'll do a 30 to 40 minute session once a week. You want to find a time length that is easy for you to work with, don't feel pressured to sit 30 minutes right off the bat. You can start off with just 5 minutes a day to see what happens.
For me, 10 minutes a day has been good and I can already find myself more aware of my thoughts. At first they would drag me around like an oversized dog, pulling me out of awareness. But through meditation, the thoughts have become more like amicable dogs that sniff me, then walk on by.
Meditation has helped me be more present, which is a major key for happiness.
Photo by James Shih.
These are just a few of the habits that have helped me get out of some dark places. I fall off the horse sometimes and get depressed, but that's OK. Another thing to keep in mind is to not beat yourself up too much, that we're all learning and growing. This is a daily practice and a journey. It's also important to realize that YOU'RE NOT ALONE. Whatever feeling you have just know that somewhere in the world, there are many others that are feeling the exact same way. You belong and your life is precious.
If you or someone you know is having a major depressive episode and/or thinking of harming themselves:
- Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-662-4357.
- Message/call 7 Cups for someone to listen: https://www.7cups.com/
- Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255: suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
- Visit the National Institute of Health Suicide Prevention website: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml