I had forgotten what it’s like to feel depressed, overwhelmed, sad, physically hurting, numb and avoidant all at the same time. I got so used to living an amazingly Vibrant Life, I got disconnected from the soul of why I do this work. I woke up this morning after a night of broken sleep due to letting myself fall asleep to an audio book (to avoid just settling into my body and feeling) and a realization hit me. I feel depressed. Even now, it was all I could do to pull myself upright to type instead of crawling further into my bed or going downstairs to placate my mood with food.
And as I fought the urge to crawl into an even smaller ball under the covers, to kick this habit of sinking and retreating to basic comfort, I remembered why I do the work I do. In real time. I remembered why my clients and I do Yoga in psychotherapy sessions together. Because sometimes, when its all you can do to get out of bed, or not reach for another bag of chips, or whatever your vice is, knowing what you COULD or Should be doing is not enough. I don’t care how awesome your pile of self help books by the bed are, WHEN you are in the midst of the funk, you need something more. Or perhaps its that you need something simpler.
You need the HABIT of a regular physical practice. And when you are in the lumpy pile of depression, choosing something other than the go-to vice, getting yourself to the gym or the yoga studio, getting to the place of self motivation seems as insurmountable as climbing Mount Everest in roller-skates. I have the habit of a regular practice already built into my system, which is why I am typing this awesome blog instead of burrowing deeper into my bed.
Here’s the science-y part. If a resource (like meditating, yoga or some other mindfulness practice ) isn’t a regular habit, it requires activation of your pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the part of your brain involved in higher order thinking and functioning. (Think: “humans at their best” qualities like hope, empathy, problem solving, motivation, etc) When you are in the throes of depression, anxiety or trauma, your limbic system is activated. The limbic system is the part of your brain that is tasked with your survival and responsible for recognizing threats to your being. Perceived threat = Actual threat, as far as the limbic system is concerned. Threats to your emotional safety are not differentiated from threats to physical safety in terms of limbic system response. Here’s the clincher. The limbic system is an ENERGY HOG. When it’s activated, it steals valuable resources from the pre-frontal cortex like a thief in the night. Remember – the PFC is what you tap into to use resources that are newer to you. So literally, you are virtually incapable of reaching into your PFC to access and implement all this handy self help knowledge.
So we come back to HABIT. There’s a part of your brain that doesn’t get hijacked by the limbic system and that’s the part that deals with Acquired Skills, things that are a part of rote memory, aka Habit. It’s why you go back to the things you know most. It’s why you fall back into old patterns when you feel stressed. How does one access mindfulness practices when stressed or depressed you ask? You put these things into play when you have the resources to do so. You make a habit of 5 minutes of mindfulness practice in the morning. Or evening, Or whatever floats your proverbial boat. And in the case you are already coughing and sputtering as you flail about in your limbic pool, You contact your friendly neighborhood Yoga Psychotherapist. You do yoga sequences specifically tailored to YOUR needs, with your Clinician. You begin to build HABIT, with the aid and structure of somebody who can throw you a life preserver and pull you to shore.
And once it becomes habit, you learn how to pull yourself out of bed, open the computer, squeeze out some creative juices and join a friend for coffee and go about your day feeling accomplished and re-inspired.