By: Stuart White 10-09-2020
If you ask someone in a bad mood or feeling depressed if they can control it, or change it the chances are they will say no. They will refer to getting out of the wrong side of the bed, having the blues, or experiencing something bad which created or contributed to their mood. Such thinking points to circumstances - perceived as being outside of one’s control - being responsible for the mood: – being unemployed for half a year, recently retrenched, losing a loved one etc..
Many people believe that they can’t change their state of mind, but it is important to realise you can and how. As one with a proclivity for the blues years ago I was drawn to a book called ‘Depression is a Choice’. I didn’t get very far in the book as it made me so angry. I found myself feeling livid with the author’s audacity to suggest that within the domain of depression there was choice, suggesting that depression was within my control. At that time, I had fully bought into the thinking that depression and anxiety was a result of a chemical imbalance. In the 1990s that theory was often cited as an explanation for mental health conditions (it still is). It states that depression and the like is caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters between nerve cells in the brain. For example, depression is said to be a result of having too little serotonin in the brain.
Although the chemical imbalance theory is unproven I believed it nonetheless wholeheartedly at the time which allowed me to lambast the book as rubbish, only to read it much later in my life when I was more open to learning. The one thing wrong with believing the theory (in addition to the lack of proof for it) is that this narrative makes people dealing with mental illness think that they will never recover. One study undertaken found that when people were told their depression was caused by a chemical imbalance, they showed more pessimism about recovering. The “chemical imbalance” framing tacitly suggests that mental illness is permanent – “wired” into someone’s brain, instead of something that can potentially improve through treatment. The other problem is thinking that your mood is fate and therefore not fixable.
In parallel, thinking that we are in a state of recession and societal hopelessness has the same problem, putting us in to victim mode – it is unhelpful and require a switch in our state of mind. We alter our sates every day, all the time albeit often unconsciously. Those who regularly exercise will tell you how they can get ready for a soccer game or other form of exercise while feeling lethargic and tired only to finish energetic and fresh 90 minutes later. People lacking ideas and inspiration experience an abundance of creative thought and passion after a meditation class. And prayer has the effect of bringing calm and a feeling of being centred when before we may have felt anxious and all over the place.
How liberating it is to realise that you are in the driving seat. That you can switch on another mood. It doesn’t mean you don’t have moods, just that you have greater control over them. On my own front I still have bouts of depression, probably because I spent so many years that way and those old neuronal patters are still hardwired in my brain but nowadays I have learnt to employ techniques which can take me out of that space in minutes instead of the long slow crawl which characterises so many with the blues. It might be a run, meditation, or distraction.
Technically, I understand the neuronal process whereby signals from the emotional part of the brain (subcortex) must travel to the thinking part of the brain (neocortex) before you can feel any emotion or pain. It’s a small instantaneous process which happens beneath the level of awareness. There is never any depression in the latter, it only happens in the former, so if you learn to switch between the two, hey presto.
Brainswitching, as it is called, uses simple mind exercises to switch the neuronal activity from the emotional part of the brain to the thinking part. Here’s an example of an exercise. If you wake up depressed, instead of thinking “I’m so depressed,” think some neutral or nonsense thought over and over, repetitively, like “watermelon sugar high, watermelon sugar high” or “yeah. Yeah, yeah,” or singing a nursery rhyme to like “bah bah black sheep.” Anything random, much like a mantra, focus on the phrase and not the thought that you are depressed. Concentration upon your neutral or random thought in the neocortex will thought jam the cognitive awareness of whatever depression is going on in the subcortex. It will elevate neuronal activity in the one and withdraw neuronal activity from the other.
Sounds simple and that’s because it is. In the words of Dorothy Neddermeyer “Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.” It seems that in a very real way you really can ‘snap out of it’ after all.