Monday, February 15, 2010

"The Blue Mood Lover" or Warning! Depression is Toxic & Contagious!

(Fourth in a series of excerpts from This is Your Brain in Love. To order the book from Amazon, you can click on the cover to the right.)

Depression is toxic to marriage. As it turns out, when either mama or papa ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy in their marriage. Being married to someone who struggles with blue moods takes its toll on both partners.

“There is a growing body of research indicating that mental health and unhappy marriages are closely entwined,” writes lead researcher Mark A. Whisman, PhD, with the University of Colorado at Boulder. In this particular study, Whisman and his colleagues recruited 774 married couples from seven states. Each partner was tested for depression, anxiety, and whether they felt they had a happy or unhappy marriage. They found, not surprisingly in my opinion, that when one partner tended toward depression, the other spouse began to struggle with being happy as well. Especially with being happy with the state of their marriage.

The researchers also tested for anxiety, but it was in marriages where depression was the third silent “partner” that couples felt the most unhappy in their marriages. Having an anxious or fearful spouse tended not to be as dampening to a relationship as having a depressed partner. Of course, this makes sense. When your mate is fearful (we’ll talk about that in the next chapter), you may be able to offer soothing comfort. Perhaps you may even feel needed and appreciated.

When someone is feeling depressed, however, everything in his world is colored in shades of gray with outlines of sorrow or heaviness or disappointment. Including the way he or she views you. Needless to say, when your partner is always looking at you through gray-colored glasses, you aren’t going to feel terribly positive about him either. There’s an old saying that “We fall in love, not so much because of the way we feel about them, but how they make us feel about ourselves when we are with them.” When you are living with a spouse stuck in a blue funk, he doesn’t tend to make you feel very good about yourself in his presence. In fact, many partners of depressed spouses long to escape the dark cloud that engulfs them when they are with their low mood mate.

In our book, This is Your Brain in Love, we discuss in detail six different types of depression found in various combinations in the brain. In addition we talk about the difference between grief (situational or circumstantial related depression that lasts for a season) and clinical depression (that does not lift on its own, with time and comfort).Then there is also hormonal related depression that many women experience just before their periods or during menopausal changes.

But whatever the cause or exact kind of depression you are suffering, here are a few ways to help yourself (if you are stuck in a blue mood and can't get out) or to help encourage your mate who is suffering from unrelently sadness. (Note: I'm not including supplements or medication tips in this post because they are long, complicated and varied according to severity and type of depression. However, these can be life-saving and are discussed in depth in the book.)

Lifting Your Own Blue Mood

1.Chop wood, carry water, knit a sweater.
Interestingly, depression is much lower in countries where people use their hands and do physical labor that yields meaningful rewards—such as food to eat, clothes to wear, and wood for the fire to keep warm. It is astounding how, even in third-world countries where the economy is terrible and freedom is often limited, people who get out in their gardens, produce their own food and generally create the things that help them survive, have a small fraction of the depression that we have in our country. The Amish and others who live an agrarian lifestyle have much lower depression rates, as did, apparently, our grandmothers and grandfathers.
Scientists are finding that our brains are literally wired for meaningful work that involves at least some physical labor, preferably out of doors. But even crafting and homemaking activities such as knitting or cooking seem to calm anxiety and elevate moods. In her book Lifting Depression, Dr. Kelly Lambert talks about the discovery of an effort-driven reward loop (EDR) that, when activated, increases our happiness. When the effort involves your hands in the task, it seems to work even better. (“Give your brain a hand!”)

2. Let there be light!
Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun (Eccles. 11:7 NIV).
More than 25 percent of Americans suffer from a special sensitivity to the natural decrease in sunlight during the fall and winter in a condition called SAD (or seasonal affective disorder). For many lower-serotonin people, late afternoon brings on the sad hours. If you are able to get to a window, open up your curtains first thing in the morning and let the sunshine in. It will help your emotional outlook on the day and also help you sleep better at night. Research is showing that we may have overcompensated in our fear of skin cancer by keeping people from getting the sun they need for vitamin D production. Ten to fifteen minutes a day out in the sun is good for our moods and our health.
Getting some natural sunlight will be a big boost. Even on a cloudy day you’ll get 10,000 times more lux (the standard unit of illumination) outdoors than you’ll get indoors. There are special therapeutic lamps that you can sit under for several minutes a day if needed.
Note: Bright lights can also trigger irritable or manic moods. If major mood swings or bipolar moods are a condition for you, avoid these lamps.
You can buy full-spectrum lamps in a variety or models, or just purchase the bulbs from a health or hardware store.

3. Remember, your glasses are foggy and dark right now.
Try to remember that when you are depressed or in a low mood, your mind will automatically go on a “mental garbage hunt,” dredging up the saddest and worst memories of your loved ones from your past. You are not seeing people in their best light, and not even in shades of black-and-white, but in real depression you are experiencing others through the darkest colored glasses, from the worst possible eye-view.
What you feel versus what is true can be very skewed in a low-mood state. Many marriages do not survive a depression sleeping between them because of this very reason. From your viewpoint, your mate may seem to be unable to do much of anything right, to say anything helpful, to do or be who you need him or her to be. Even the way he chews may irritate you. True, he probably doesn’t understand how you feel, because he may never have survived a dark night of the soul such as you may experience in a deep depression. Just recognizing that your mate is probably doing his best and allowing him to help you to get to the help you need is the most important thing you can do.

Tips for Encouraging Your Blue Mood Mate

1. Learn the art of “being present.”

While a depressed person is recovering, ask how you can help. Some people need you to hold them while they cry and find a good deal of relief after letting out the tears. Do not be afraid of just being with your mate in this time of sorrow and silently holding her, stroking her hair, or whispering words of love. Counselors have to learn how to detach from their clients’ pain while still being compassionate witnesses to their suffering. You can learn this skill too. You can hold people and comfort those who are sad without going to the depths with them. Henri Nouwen wrote, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing . . . not healing, not curing . . . that is a friend who cares.”

2. Listen deeply.
I saw a book the other day with the title, Listening is an Act of Love. As a therapist who listens to people all day long for a living, I had to agree with that premise. Many troubled souls have received comfort and cheer simply from being with a friend, counselor, or pastor who lets them unburden their thoughts. You don’t have to fix or have all the answers. Just listen without judging or fixing, with compassion. Say things like, “I am so sorry you are in so much pain. I know you have lots of inner strength and that you’ll move through this and find a way to feel better. And I’ll be here with you. It’s going to be okay. I love you.”

3. Don’t try too hard to cheer her up.
Subtlety is key when people are down. The last thing they want is a bouncy, cheerful, happy clown to try to make them smile. They need your gentle understanding first of all. Then think about how you might upsize the joy in their physical environment without making it obvious or being loud and obnoxious about it.
Rather than saying, “Get up, Grumpy! Let’s go for a run in the fresh air! Or how about we go see a funny movie? I’ve got to get you out of the dumps!”—go for subtler approaches.
Perhaps, just open the curtains and let in some light. Or say, “I’ve made us some smoothies, would you like to sip them outside in the sun with me for a few minutes?” Maybe turn on some music that you know she enjoys or light a candle with a scent she loves. As you are sipping smoothies, smile softly and, naturally and calmly, tell them an interesting or funny thing that happened to you or something light that you read. Maybe ask, “What was the funniest thing that ever happened to you?” or “What part of a movie made you laugh the hardest?” Take a bowl of peas or pecans outside with you to shell together. (Remember that simply moving your hands helps perk up your brain.) As you see her mood lifting and her energy rising, you might say, “Would you like to just take a short stroll around the block? Maybe five or ten minutes?”
Inch by inch, gently lead those who are in darkness to light. But do not whack them over the head with a joy stick.

4. Be a noticer

Notice the times when your mate seems to find the energy to accomplish tasks or go out in the world.
One husband noticed that when his wife had nothing planned to do during the day, she would stay in bed and sink into a funk. The house would be a mess, and she could not muster the energy to begin to clean it. Oddly enough, when she had a lunch planned with a friend, or took her child to a playgroup, or took a class at the local YMCA, she seemed to get more done on the house. Once she started moving, the energy to clean the house, do laundry, and cook dinner seemed to come.
So, together, they came up with a daily schedule and made sure she had something to do, outside of the house—some appointment, some friend to meet, some art or exercise class to take—every single day. Never underestimate the power of “something to look forward to” to get the happy juices flowing.
Little by little, more energy to do life came back to his wife.
Happiness is usually not terribly complicated. It generally comes to us when we have someone to love who loves us back, something worthwhile for the hands to do, something special to look forward to, and a deep knowing that God loves us. There is much to be said for old-fashioned ways to beat the blues. However, when the simple things like sunshine, good food, honest work, and love aren’t doing the trick—I’m thankful that we have brain science to help ourselves and our marriages back to the sunny side of life’s street.

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