Summer is an especially tough time to feel down.
In the winter we can hide behind the cold and dark. It’s more acceptable to stay inside, to sleep more, and generally people understand when you feel blue. But in the summer, it’s like the whole world disagrees with your presentation.
Depression is horrible and when you experience relief from it, it’s a feeling you want to keep far, far away.
In my experience, people who have experienced depression respond in a unique way to any questions about it. They typically brush past the subject quickly and with few details except to say, “I don’t ever want to go back there again.” By contrast, after a physical illness, people more comfortably describe the symptoms and what happened. Talking about an illness helps us get clear, feel support and move on. However, after depression, people frequently worry that even talking about the previous pain will cause a relapse.
Although it can feel like a risk to talk about depression when you feel better, it is worthwhile to gently do so. Unfortunately, the fear that tries to keep you from processing your experience can create even more problems. When you get overly anxious about becoming depressed and push those old feelings away, you are actually more likely to fall back into a depression.
An unhelpful thought cycle sounds something like this:
- I felt so depressed and luckily I snapped out of it. I don’t really know why. I don’t even want to know why.
- I feel a little of that familiar depressed sensation. I feel freaked out and angry. I just cannot feel that again.
- Now I feel so nervous, like I can’t trust myself. Well, that’s depressing.
You might be surprised to learn that you can successfully hack into your own nervous system when you feel afraid of depressive symptoms without making things worse for yourself.
Here’s a quick way to help your mood and fears using the science of Polyvagal Theory and a bit of Internal Family Systems parts work. Let’s get hacking!
First: Imagine the three parts of your polyvagal system. They are: Dorsal Vagal, Sympathetic Nervous System and Ventral Vagal. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to help you recognize them:
- Feelings of shut-down and hopelessness are generally consistent with the Dorsal Vagal portion of your nervous system.
- Anxious, fearful, worried or panicked feelings are usually expressed in the Sympathetic Nervous System.
- Your Ventral Vagal portion is characterized by feelings of safety, social belonging and security.
Second: Breathe and recognize that you shift up and down between these portions of your nervous system all the time every day. That is 100% normal!
Now, of course you don’t want to deeply delve into an uncomfortable sensation. But did you know that you can calmly experience feelings from your past and the fears that accompany them with a sense of safety? None of your feelings are trying to hurt you.
Third: When you notice any depressive symptoms, you have the ability to acknowledge them and help yourself by shifting between your nervous system states.
If you feel any fear or agitation, breathe gently and play with your nervous system. You can successfully convert from Dorsal Vagal up through your Sympathetic Nervous System to rest in the Ventral Vagal.
Any energy (even fear) is actually a great way to move out of symptoms that feel depressing.
Experiment with using the upset energy you feel to simply move. Start with tiny movement like making a face that reflects your fears. Can you do this in a way that brings a smile or laugh? These small movements innervate the Ventral Vagus nerve. Try to make eye contact with a loved one. That also activates the Ventral Vagal response and helps to bring you out of anxiety and into feeling safer. Listen carefully to music that lifts you. Dance if you can. Breathe, breathe and breathe more.
These simple, natural practices will help you feel your Ventral Vagal response. You can practice them even when you are not worried about depression. Then, if a twinge of depressed feeling comes along, you have a body memory of safety that calms you. When you feel calmer, it allows you to talk about your feelings with comfort and compassion.
I recognize that you might have parts of you that say that these ideas will not work for you, that they’re ridiculous, childish or too woo-woo. Here’s where Internal Family Systems (IFS) comes in handy.
IFS envisions parts of your personality in the same way we might consider the roles and relationships in a family.
Using this method, imagine there’s critical part of you is stepping in to help you in some way. Ask yourself, what might happen if I just try to convert my feelings of fear into an energy source, a way to get out of the blues and back into my life?
You might hear yourself say: It won’t work and I’ll just end up depressed. If so, I’d say that’s a pretty good reason to play it safe. Let that part of you know that it makes sense.
Now imagine how confident you will feel if this skeptical part of you could step back and allow you to use just a little neuroscience to get yourself into a calmer, happier state.
By staying aware of your wise nervous system, your new thought cycle can sound more like this:
- As I think about my depression and get a little fearful of it returning, I can breathe and gently move up and out of my Dorsal Vagal and through my Sympathetic Nervous System to arrive in my Ventral Vagal where I feel “okay”.
- I notice that there are parts of me that feel very vulnerable when I think about depression, like it might just suddenly occur again. Staying in my Ventral Vagal “space”, connected to myself and those I love, I can let all parts of me know that I am safe and sound.
- I feel compassion for myself reminding me that the blues can happen without throwing me into a depressive state. And I can talk about anything I need to with myself, a loved one or a professional to help me release that fear and pain from before.
Gently notice your feelings as much as you are able. Before long you’ll be hacking your nervous system, allowing you to talk about your personal experiences with safety and confidence.
For more great ideas, get: Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief and Self-Confidence.