Monthly Archives: July 2016

Fighting depression with truth

Depression lies. Lately it has been making me feel like a failure, a reject, someone who breaks all she touches, that maybe I have much to offer but that the world isn’t interested. But it’s not the truth. The lies are powerful, but ultimately truth holds a greater power.

Since I last wrote on the subject I have been to my doctor, been diagnosed with mild depression and as a result been offered counselling, and referred to a self-help group for learning to manage anxiety and depression. I’ve also been reading a book with a friend, which has given me some really helpful insights and ways of dealing with my illness. I want to share what I’m learning as I figure the more information is out there for people, the more we can overcome this stuff. I hope I can help demystify the treatment process a bit, and share the things I’ve found helpful.*

Despite my really pretty low level symptoms, my doctor listened when I described them, took me seriously and told me that what I was saying sounded important. Low level as they are, the symptoms were still enough to be diagnosable and worth referring for treatment, and catching it at this early stage should stop it becoming worse. It’s SO worth knowing the symptoms of mental illness, so you know when to seek help; you don’t have to just accept these symptoms as normal and suffer in silence, there is help, and as with so many illnesses, treating it early gives the best prospects of recovery.

So. My self-help group is basically a training course, teaching a group of us a set of techniques called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which basically aim to break the vicious cycles of self-destructive thoughts and behaviours our illnesses can lead us into. This is the main recommended treatment for mild depression and anxiety, and one of the most effective too for mental illness in general. It is front-led, and somewhat death-by-powerpoint, but as a result, none of us have to share anything personal or talk about our illness or circumstances at all unless we want to. I’m currently almost half way through the CBT course, and am already seeing some things change.

One of the most significant changes is actually that I’ve seen a massive change in the confidence of other participants. The first session I found heart-breaking; we were a room full of beautiful, broken souls, and so many were evidently completely unaware that they were not alone. People were surprised to hear that mental illnesses like theirs affect a quarter of people at any one time, and stories emerged of feelings of isolation, worries that they were ‘crazy’ or would be seen that way, years spent trying to just cope with the way they were feeling, unaware that there was help available, or that ‘help’ did not necessarily mean scary drugs and certainly did not mean being locked up, and all sorts of feelings of guilt, weakness or inadequacy in coming to this group. I realised how incredibly, unusually blessed I am to be surrounded by so many friends, family and colleagues who are open about their health and help to raise awareness and share solidarity with each other; as a result, I have experienced none of this. Four weeks in, people are no longer trying to sneak into the clinic unseen; they are talking more freely about their experiences, they are beginning to see how normal and common their experiences are, to speak of their illnesses as illnesses and not weaknesses, and there’s a general sense of solidarity, strength and pride breaking through. It’s lovely! Openness makes such a difference! Breaking stigma is one of our greatest weapons against mental illness, so please do what you can to open up the conversation around you; it truly makes a difference.

Anyway; back to the content. We have so far been learning techniques to help us improve our sleep patterns, calm us down when anxious, break cycles of destructive thinking, and motivate ourselves into getting active again when depression tries to shut us down, paralyse us into inaction, stop us enjoying the things we used to, or to regain control of tasks that seem overwhelming.

Sleep – sleep problems can be a cause and symptom of depression and anxiety, and tackling them can help recovery. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar, smoking, eating too soon before bed, physical discomfort, exercising not enough and/or too soon before bed, lying awake, and using the bed for things other than sleep and sex, especially involving screens, are all detrimental to sleep. Apparently the amount of sleep we get is far less important than its quality, so it isn’t about going to bed or getting up at particular times so much as retraining ourselves to sleep well when we do sleep. We were advised to learn the difference between feeling fatigued and feeling sleepy – literally ready to fall asleep – and only go to bed when we are genuinely sleepy, and to get up and go somewhere away from the bedroom if we find ourselves lying awake, until we feel sleepy again. Keeping a sleep diary for a couple of weeks (no longer, don’t get too hung up on it) can help identify patterns.

Calming techniques – we were taught a breathing exercise to help us to calm down when feeling anxious. Instead of breathing quickly and shallow, it helps slow our breathing down and deepen it. Putting one hand on our chest and one on our belly we can feel the difference between breathing deeply and shallowly. When we are breathing deeply, from the diaphragm, our belly should move more than our chest, so focus on this. Count as you breathe in – maybe to four but whatever feels natural – hold the breath in for a second or two, then let the breath out slowly as you count a little longer – maybe to six, but again whatever feels natural. Focussing on breathing can help calm the mind in itself, but so does the deep breathing itself. We also learnt a relaxation technique where in your mind you think about each part of the body in turn, noticing how it feels, tensing the muscles there and then consciously relaxing them again, working down the body until we’ve noticed and relaxed all areas we’ve had tensed up.

Thought Challenging – healthy or unhealthy, we all have negative thoughts pass through our minds regularly. But when we are ill, they come at us more frequently, we lose resilience to them, and we can find ourselves in unhealthy thought spirals. Firstly, we learnt the difference between a thought and a feeling, which sounds obvious until you consider how often we might say ‘I feel…’ when describing something we actually think (for example ‘I feel stupid’). A thought you can rephrase into an ‘I think…’ statement (‘I think I am stupid’), and someone could call into question, whereas a physical or emotional feeling (‘I feel sad/hot/sick…’) no one can argue with. Secondly we learnt the different types of unhelpful thought patterns we might find ourselves in, so that we can learn to spot them. These include: Thinking in very black and white terms (that things can’t be partly good, only all good or all bad), Overgeneralising (thinking something is always the case), Taking things personally (eg thinking it must be your fault), Mind reading (thinking you know what someone else is thinking or coming up with reasons why something has happened), Fearing the worst, fixed ‘Shoulds’ that induce guilt, Focussing on the negative whilst ignoring the positive, or even Disqualifying the positive (eg putting down a compliment paid to you rather than accepting it), making Negative predictions that can be self-fulfilling (such as ‘I won’t enjoy myself’), and Mistaking feelings for facts. We were encouraged to keep a diary, noting down the negative thoughts we’d had as they come at us, to rate how bad they made us feel and how much we believed them, and through that, to identify the really problematic one that we’d most like to tackle. For me – ‘I think I’m a failure’. It should also help identify triggering situations. Finally, we challenge the thought. We were taught to put the thought on trial, to list the concrete, factual evidence for and against that thought really being true. Usually that will result in a list of points both for and against it. And from this, we can then work out a more rational statement to replace the original thought with; not an unrealistically positive statement, but a more true one, taking into account both sides of the facts. Identifying, analysing, challenging our thoughts and learning to believe the replacement thought more than the original negative thought will take practise, but I’m finding even beginning to practise is helping disrupt the unhelpful thought spirals that lead to my low moods.

Motivation – depression can easily demotivate us from doing anything; it feels like a weight pressing down on us, making even straightforward activity hard work, making us tired or overwhelmed, taking away enjoyment from things we used to enjoy doing, and adding anxiety to social situations that can make us avoid others. However, the truth is that withdrawing from activity is one of the very worst things to do; it perpetuates and deepens the illness in a vicious cycle and can lead to it becoming really serious. Breaking that cycle takes a lot of effort, but is vital to recovery. The first thing we were advised was that motivation doesn’t necessarily precede activity; activity itself is often what causes motivation to increase. The technique we were taught to regain motivation I have to admit caused me a lot of anxiety even thinking about it, as it sounds like the to-do list from hell – but I do think it makes sense in breaking the paralysing effects of depression, so I’m going to persevere with making it work:

We were taught to list all our routine tasks (everyday things like showering and cooking for example), our necessary tasks (like work, paying bills, and for me at present, freecycling all the junk that’s in our garden), and pleasurable activities (including things we used to enjoy doing but are currently finding difficult, such as social activities or hobbies). The next step is to rate them in terms of how easy or difficult we are currently finding each task, breaking down those we’ve rated hardest into the smallest chunks we can, and then re-rating those chunks for difficulty. Then we are to plan out our weeks, scheduling in the tasks for really specific times so we don’t put them off, making sure we plan in a good balance of routine, necessary and pleasurable activities, and crucially, starting small. They emphasised the need to not try to take on too much to start with, but concentrate on the tasks we’ve rated as easiest, and also not to get carried away if we achieve something and feel good, and be tempted to do too much more, overdo it, and then feel low on energy the following day. Finally, at the end of the week, we were advised to review the week’s plan before planning our next week; what worked, what didn’t, had we taken on too much, could we do a bit more..?

Discussing this in the group after we’d given it a go for a couple of weeks, we found that breaking down the tasks as much as possible, and celebrating and rewarding small victories rather than beating ourselves up for stuff we hadn’t managed to do were really important, and I confessed that I’d found it hard to do with a rather chaotic lifestyle; I’ve been trying to apply the principle to smaller blocks of time, maybe a day or half day at a time, planning my time so I don’t get stuck on the sofa feeling low and overwhelmed but making sure I deliberately planned in little tasks to all my time, and keeping a good balance between routine, necessary and pleasurable activities. I now have a book in which I’ve started noting down small victories, things I found difficult on the low days but did anyway, which is encouraging.

At the same time, I have been reading a book with a friend called ‘Loving God With All Your Mind’. This is a book written by Elizabeth George, a Christian who discovered a similar treatment for depression and anxiety via the Bible. Having struggled with depression and anxiety for many years, she suddenly made a breakthrough after reading the words of Phil 4:8; ‘…think about what is true and honourable, right and pure, beautiful and respected. If anything is good and worthy of praise, think about these things.’ She suddenly had a revelation that actually the way she was thinking did not match up to these criteria. The more she examined her thoughts, held them up against these virtues, and questioned ‘but is it true?’, the more she began to break her destructive thought patterns and head towards recovery.

Truth in particular is an important one; it is so easy to begin to believe or worry about untruths, about ourselves, about others, and certainly about God. Some of my own are that I am a failure, that others are better than me at everything, and feeling surplus to requirements, even to the extent of doubting whether God has a use and a plan for me. There’s a little truth behind some of this; but are these things really true..? Honestly, no.

The technique is remarkably similar to that recommended under CBT, and has helped many people overcome depression and anxiety. Learn to identify the negative thoughts underlying your low feelings, and ask yourself ‘but is it true?’. I’ve been doing this a lot over the last few weeks, and although it’s early days, I know it is already helping a little. I’m still getting into negative thought spirals that mean sometimes I just cannot lift myself out of a real low, but just beginning to ask the question, is it true, is already starting to interrupt the vicious cycle a little, and causing me to focus on what I do know to be true in fact, even if I don’t necessarily feel it at the time. Good stuff. I’m only part way into the book so I can’t say whether the whole book is helpful or not as yet, but certainly I recommend these first few chapters, and exploring how this Biblical advice could help you.

We so easily lose sight of what is actually, really, true. Bringing ourselves back into a true perspective is tough when we’re ill, and takes a lot of time and practise. But at the end of the day I do believe the truth will set us free.

(2nd half of this post here, featuring my notes on what we learnt about panic attacks and managing worry.)


 

*I figure it is in the interests of the NHS to have this shared widely to potentially help others on the way to recovery and thereby possibly help reduce pressure on the overstretched service – though please do still go to professionals for help. What you won’t get from online advice is the chance to ask questions and advice of professional therapists, share difficulties you find when using these techniques, tips for making them work for you, and the sense of solidarity from being part of a group and learning with others in the same position.

Shadows

So. A year ago today, Jon Foreman planted a series of bombs under several areas of my life, pushed the detonator, and BOOM! You should have seen the explosions go off 😀

The ‘bombs’ were 6 little songs, collectively called Shadows. A year later, I’m still feeling the shockwaves. I’ve never known a music release so turn my world upside down! As it happens, it was a much needed shake up. And Shadows is still one of my favourite things he’s ever made, and I am still obsessing these songs. So; happy birthday Shadows 🙂

You can listen to the EP here, and here’s a review I wrote of it, which talks a little more about the songs 🙂

Switchfoot’s ten albums

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With their 10th album releasing today, here is my take on each of Switchfoot’s albums. I’ve found there are particular moods or sets of circumstances for which each one is just right for the moment; this is how it looks for me. For each album I’ve picked out one song that I think illustrates it best, and you can listen along by clicking on the links, which will open the song  in a new tab. Enjoy!

1 – The Legend of Chin

Listen here

This album is perfect for my questioning moods; it raises questions, and helps me process questions. Who am I, why am I here, what should I be doing, what’s my aim, what’s the point, why don’t things make sense, what do I do with doubt, is it a good thing, what do I believe when it comes to it, what matters…why…?

“It’s a longer way from yesterday to where I am today… all that’s in my head is in Your hands… scream to no-one, take your time, sing it louder, twist and shout… all of your hoping and all of your searching for what… ask me for what am I living… could it be true, can life be new, can I be used… give me a reason for life and for death… not in me, in You…what’s your direction..?”

2 – New Way To Be Human

Listen here

This was my first introduction to Switchfoot. Jesus found and rescued me late 1999, and shortly after, a friend gave me an old-school mixtape to celebrate. New Way To Be Human was the final track on side B, and it fell off the tape half way through! But it was enough – I borrowed, and then bought the album, and the rest is happy history! So this album has been with me right from the beginning of my walk with God, and is deep enough to have been there for me throughout the journey, wherever it’s taken me. It’s even helped shape that journey as it has thrown in interesting philosophical ideas about life and faith, asked the deep questions, made space for the doubts and the wrestling with God, and taken me on some exciting adventures in vulnerable prayer. I’m so glad they’ve kept that depth over the years when so many other Christian musicians have felt the need to have all the answers and to always put on a show of positivity – that phoniness has put me off so many others, but Switchfoot’s honest questioning just keeps drawing me deeper in. I can’t fault New Way at all, except as with all of them, it’s too short!

“Divinity blends with a new way to be human… you’re the missing person now… give me a motive, swallow me whole… condemned to be free… oh God I believe, please help me believe… dreams of shrinking… all my sandcastles spend their time collapsing… let me know that You hear me… hey, I give it all away… sing to me of the song of the stars… out to start a fire in a barcode plastic world… breathing You in to blur the lines that mark where I begin and where You end… I’m an already-but-not-yet resurrected fallen man, come break this limbo, come define me… deep is the soul is the space I control…”

3 – Learning to Breathe

Listen here

It’s an extremely close call but I think if I had to pick a favourite album this is it (though Nothing Is Sound, and Edge Of The Earth if I can count an EP, pretty much tie with it!). It actually feels like blue skies and a breath of fresh air to listen to, and as a sky lover I appreciate all the atmospheric references. I love these delicious songs for many reasons, but I come back to it time and time again when I’m in need of grace, especially when I’ve messed up, as there are so many lyrics in there that connect me back in to God’s grace and a heavenly perspective on myself. This is where they became my favourite band, and I couldn’t have found a better band to follow if I’d tried.

“I could use a fresh beginning too…I want to lose myself in grace…you’ve been given innocence again… grace is high and low… do me a favour ‘cause I’m playing for keeps… we are bruised and broken masterpieces but we did not paint ourselves… sweet Erosion, break me and make me whole…”

4 – The Beautiful Letdown

Listen here

This one carries a sense of feeling far from home, that the shallow everyday is not all there is… this sense of holy discontentment has been very important to my faith journey over the years, keeping my eyes on the things that matter eternally (which come down to love), and from becoming too attached to the things that don’t (which come down to personal gain). Listening to Switchfoot, and this album in particular, I can never forget that what we see as normal is actually completely upside down compared to how it should be, and I should never become complacent in accepting things as they are but keep striving to make them better.

“We were meant to live for so much more… we want more than this world’s got to offer… more than oceans away from the dawn… we’re the issue, we’re ammunition… the tension is here, between how it is and how it should be… I don’t belong here… she believes in living bigger than she’s living now, but her world keeps spinning backwards and upside down… there’s more than what you’ve heard… I’m standing on the edge… I want to see miracles, to see the world change… I am the second man now…”

5 – Nothing Is Sound

Listen here

This is a strong contender for a favourite, partly because it’s my favourite evolution of their sound so far, partly because it was when I really realised how much of a good thing I was on to with this band, and also because it’s carried me through so much. This is where I go when ‘nothing is sound’ to the extent I have no words to express it or to pray – when I’m frustrated with myself, when there seems no hope, but more often when nothing seems right with the world and all the news is bad. (For example, where do you start when your country’s whole political narrative is being driven and dominated by mass-media xenophobia, but you know we are one, allied to a country without borders..?) Here I find the prayers and heart cries, big-picture hope on the horizon without being sold short with easy answers. And it helps me look at the situation with compassion too, overcoming the tendency to respond with anger.     

“I want more than my desperation, I want more than my lonely nation… we are slaves of what we want… I’ve been thinking about the meaning of resistance and a hope beyond my own… when will all the fighting end… nothing is SOUND!… please Lord don’t look the other way… does justice never find you, do the wicked never lose, is there any honest song to sing besides these blues… they’re selling shares of me again, I’m not buying it…I pledge allegiance to a country without borders… I don’t want to lose the common ground with the whole world upside down… let it go, open up your fist…”

6 – Oh! Gravity.

Listen here

I know it wasn’t the best time for Switchfoot, but they seemed to channel the pure energy from that difficult period in a way I’ve not heard from them before or since, it’s amazing. I think if I had to name a single thing that makes me the fan I am it would be how they take imperfect raw materials, and work them into something sublime, far better than ‘perfection’ could achieve. There’s a stunning level of musical and lyrical creativity in this one. And when I’m feeling restless inside and need something new to push and pull at my thoughts, disturb my normal, wake me up from sleepwalking through life, break out my own creativity, or just to yell, this is where I go.

“There’s a fracture in the color bar, in the back seat of a parked car… are you really as tough as you think, you blink and you’re over the brink, you bleed but the blood runs pink with dirty second hands… you’ve been talking in your sleep about a dream we’re awakening… I want to wake up kicking and screaming… another line, another freeway, another freefall…  I hated what I saw, golden eyes were dead… the future is a question mark of kerosene and electric sparks… souls aren’t built of stone, sticks and bones… as the dead moon rises, and the freeways sigh, let the trains watch over the tides and the mist, spinning circles in our skies tonight…”

7 – Hello Hurricane

Listen here

Songs of love for God, humanity, partners, children, and self; love in all its forms, inspiring without being idealistic. Whatever the storm, where there’s real love of any kind, it will pull through. ‘Needle’ illustrates it best for me; a love song that doesn’t shy away from real-life imperfection of life together, but is yet euphoric. The highs and lows. And when they play it live for us I know they understand it works just as well for the artist-fan relationship too.

“We are once in a lifetime… it’s hard to free the ones you love when you can’t forgive yourself… Your love is a symphony all around me… love is the final fight… there is no song louder than love… back from the dead and all our leaves are dried, you’re so beautiful tonight… when I try to reach above I only hurt the ones I love…  this is the day you were born and I am always yours… love is the one true innovation, love is the only art, don’t let ‘em blow it apart… she’s got teary eyes, I’ve got reasons why… if it doesn’t break your heart it isn’t love… take what is left of me, make it a melody…”

8 – Vice Verses

Listen here

As an activist, it’s easy to get worn down by the constant battles against the injustices of this world; the endless cycle of wins and losses in the things that I really care about, steps forwards and backwards in environmental and social justice, takes a toll on me. This album has a lot of ‘fight’ for the times when I can’t find it in myself; so many times I have come to it broken, and it lets me have my cry out, but then gives me the kick I need to press on and come back fighting again. The lyrics meet me at my lowest ebbs of hopelessness, and carry me through it, never letting me fall too far from the energy and determination I need to pick myself up and keep going.

“I’ve tasted fire, I’m ready to come alive, I can’t just shut it up and fake that I’m alright… every fight comes from the fight within, I’m the war inside… running hard for the infinite with the tears of saints and hypocrites… we’re still on the air, it must be the truth, we’re selling the news… no I’m not alright, feel like I travel but I never arrive, I want to thrive not just survive… hope makes the blood change courses… just another scarecrow choking on a cough OH COME ON!…  the curse is spoken, the system’s broken, let’s rise above it… I want to see the earth start shaking, I want to see a generation finally waking up inside…”

9 – Fading West

Listen here

This album is full of sunshine, and it sounds incredible on the beach or at a summer festival. But whether or not it feels ‘sunny’ at the time, these songs are full of brightness. This album landed in my life during a really difficult winter (along with Fiction Family Reunion – took me a while to track that one down!) when I was in an awful housing situation, and those two albums lit up that dark period. I’d take them with me on long cycle rides down to the sea, sit on the dunes, watch the waves and be reminded of better things – that whilst I didn’t have anywhere to call ‘home’ right now, maybe this was a reminder that ultimately nowhere here would ever be ‘home’ when I was made for something bigger… that difficult times pass… to put aside my own circumstances and focus instead on making the world I want, and supporting others in the stuff they’re struggling with, and breaking down ‘us and them’ divisions in society… There’s an element of escapism to it, but the lyrics remain rooted in reality and a true perspective.

“I’m trying to find where my place is… eyes open like a child… it’s gone, yeah but we carry on… is this the world you want, you’re making it, every day you’re alive you change the world… every breath is your religion… our hope is just a metaphor for something better… let my soul fly, let it go… we won’t stop till we’re getting it right… sick of all the small-talk dripping non-stop from the open mouth graves of the faux hawk cinderblock malls… I can feel the ocean… my heart is Yours and what a broken place it’s in, but You’re all I’m running for and I want to feel the wind at my back again…”

10 – Where The Light Shines Through

Listen here

Even after these nine incredible albums, this collection still surprises. As with Oh Gravity, it’s a stunningly musically creative album, and the band sound very much like they’re having fun experimenting with styles and pulling it off beautifully. Running through it all is a theme of hope for broken relationships, whether personal or within wider society. It’s been with me less than two weeks as I write, but it’s already put its finger firmly on a few of my issues, and pointed me to the hope that they can heal. I’m not feeling like I’m in a place where I can talk more about that yet; it’s early days, some of it is very personal, and will take some dealing with to get to a point where I can share about my particular ‘wounds’ and the healing process, but I find these lyrics already at work. It’s also arrived at a point where things look pretty dark politically in both the US and UK, and here I find songs to sing into that darkness. Finally we really get to hear their musical skills, so evident when you see them live. This is an album we will be able to hold up to show what they’re capable of.

“Your wounds are where the light shines through… if the house burns down tonight I got everything I need with you by my side… my enemies weren’t the ones that I had fought, my liberties weren’t the freedoms I had sought… I keep feeling like we fall apart better than we fall in love… bring me the music for the revolution, I’m singing for more than just a dead solution… everybody wants to rock and roll but a couple of years and it takes a toll and I want to start healing… America who are you, do you get what you deserve, between the violence and entitlements, which nation do you serve… Your hope is the anthem of my soul…”

If you like what you hear or want to explore more, you can buy the music and read more at switchfoot.com – please support this amazing band! 🙂