My body is trying to speak to me all of the time, but I ignore it.

I binge until I feel sick and then fast the next day to “make up for it.” I procrastinate going to the bathroom because I’m in the middle of something. I power through headaches and nausea and terrible boredom. I carry tension in various parts of my body with no release.

Because of fear, poor self-esteem and habits formed out of desperation as a child, I ignore my need to exercise. I don’t admit to being stressed even when it’s overwhelming. I stay guarded even though I know I have some inkling of how soothing love and personal contact could be. I swallow negative feelings and let them become a part of who I am.

I don’t listen to the still, small voice that’s trying to save me from myself.

My depression taught me a great deal about myself. But it is still speaking. So are the anhedonia and the binge eating. I have much to learn.

I try to be in complete control of myself and my immediate environment in order to create a safe space. I thought if I had near complete control over my body I would feel better. Sure it whined and complained that it wanted to eat or stop eating, lay down or get moving, that it was dehydrated or completely spent. But no, my mind was in charge and my body needed to fall in line.

There’s a bible verse that they used to say over and over during a church-led boot camp I was in years ago:

No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Cor. 9:27, NIV

Not only was the verse slightly out of context, but as quoted, the instructors didn’t take into account the fact that the most accomplished athletes eat to nourish their bodies, get regular massages, take rest days, manage their stress and guard their hearts and minds to stay in fighting mode.

As a highly sensitive person, it is even more imperative that I pay attention when my body is telling me it is struggling to go on.

To live my best life, I’ve got to make peace with my body. I’ve got to listen.

This is Part 1 in a series on listening to your body and learning its wisdom. Stay tuned for articles about Eating (Part 2), Stress (Part 3), Boredom (Part 4) and Exercise (Part 5) and what your body is trying to say and how to respond with compassion and self love.

This Is Your Brain On Stress and Depression. Any Questions?

Remember those “brain on drugs” commercials? I think it’s about time for a discussion of your brain on stress.

While trying to understand how dopamine works in depression and whether there’s any useful research on anhedonia reversal (little to none), I learned that the chronic stress I experienced throughout childhood and to this day (thanks BIGlaw) has been destroying my brain. Through processes as of yet unproven and partially unknown, the brain of the chronically stressed experiences significant malfunction over time in the hippocampus (atrophy), amygdala and neuron production, which are related to anxiety, mood disorders and memory problems. The same malfunctions are observed in patients experiencing chronic depression.

If you’re one of those depressed people who has responded positively to antidepressants and/or exercise — even if not completely — then maybe the research that I’ve been reading lately will be helpful to you too.

It turns out the popular theory of SSRIs — that they essentially keep serotonin accessible in the brain longer to keep you calmer and happier — was largely debunked nearly 10 years ago. Instead, SSRIs may actually be helping the brain to heal itself, create new neurons and stop, and even reverse, atrophy of the hippocampus by helping the body create more of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). That’s why it takes weeks to improve after you start an SSRI, rather than days (despite increased serotonin availability within hours).

Why does this matter? Because the research also suggests that there are many ways to halt and even reverse this atrophy! It appears voluntary exercise, calorie restriction, intellectual stimulation, cumin, antidepressants and electroconvulsive therapy could all work to increase BDNF expression in the brain. Am I crazy for thinking that it’s about time I start working out daily, going on a calorie restricted diet made up of 30% Indian food and reading more interesting books?

The important thing to note here is that the jury is still out. It is not clear whether this is a cause-effect relationship or simply a random correlation. Further, it is certainly clear that too much calorie restriction, for instance, can actually lead to lethargy and depressed mood, orthorexia and other unhealthy food relationships. But in my n=1 experience, I do feel better when I exercise nearly daily, limit my food intake so that I’m never stuffed/eat when actually hungry and do work that stimulates my brain. I have had rather positive experiences with intermittent fasting as well. And look, I will take any excuse to eat Indian food. (Pass the naan!)

But there is something else. Something that’s potentially more important for mental health over the long haul. If the cause of these troubles is chronic stress — which I’m still struggling to manage — then the highest long-term priority of those suffering from depression should probably be to learn and utilize better coping strategies. Learning to both minimize stress where possible, and process it and expel it from the body in effective ways may be protective against future depressive episodes.

Maybe stress management and increased BDNF production are the keys to recovering from depression now and helping to prevent its recurrence — for good.

What’s My Motivation?!

Anhedonia. Defined as the inability to feel pleasure. Personally, a more precise definition is the inability to stop thinking that everything I do is boring and stupid. It’s a pervasive lack of motivation, knowing that even accomplishing a goal won’t be rewarding or fulfilling in the slightest.

I took up knitting, baking, coloring and jewelry-making a few months ago. I got halfway through a scarf, made some lovely drop earrings, completed a couple of pictures and made (and ate) more cookies than is healthy. I was so proud of myself. When I attempt to pick up my needles now I am repulsed by how bored I am almost immediately. I hate them and don’t want to do it. I immediately want to throw the needles down because I’m so angry at them for not making me happy anymore.

Losing motivation is devastating. You don’t know what is wrong with you. Why nothing seems worth doing. Nothing is fulfilling and you hate others for asking you to do stupid, pointless things and not understanding how stupid and pointless those things are. When I get like this I become terrified of what will become of me. I was always a good student, curious and hardworking, unbelievably responsible, a teen with myriad passions and dreams and when I was “on” I was one of the most organized, neat, planned, forward-thinking people I knew. I’m the person people always picked to be the coordinator and plan events in college and law school. I was thorough. I took care of my entire family when my mom was sick. Details? I had ’em covered.

Lately, the anhedonia has taken over with a vengeance. Funny that something that deprives me of the ability to give a damn or feel passion is such a strong, pulsing, growing force. I work up the will to start the laundry, but that’s all the steam I’ve got so I lay down and leave it sitting in the washer. I used to be a neat freak. Now I vacuum once a month. Who am I?

So my new experiment is to completely forget about doing things for pleasure, or waiting for motivation. It’s a fake it ’til you make it game. I’m going to make a list of things that I have to do everyday regardless of whether I feel like it. And just do them. I imagine worst case is that I become even more angry and bored, but at least my life keeps moving forward.

But maybe best case, is it helps me get better. Some achievement sparks something — however small — in me and gives me what I need to keep moving forward.

What do you think? Have you struggled with anhedonia? What have you done to overcome it? Exercise? Medication? Therapy? Just waiting it out? Can I fake it ’til I make it?

Just Have The Cookie Already

What would my life be like if I didn’t constantly think about food and my body. As soon as I stop eating I start thinking about when I can eat next, whether I should eat more or less, whether I should change my whole diet up. Should I give up sugar? Become a vegan? Eat more fish? I’m in a battle with food and it’s got the upper hand. I try so hard to impose control over my food and body — maybe because I fear that I lack control in so many other realms. Then when I fail to permanently give up sugar for the 25th time, I feel that I’ve failed. Evidence that I’m not a strong, disciplined person with superhuman ability to resist the temptations, which topple mere mortals.

My most crazy-making food relationship is with cookies. My friends know never to invite me over with an empty cookie jar. I don’t feel safe without easy access to cookies. Sneaking cookies in the middle of the night as a child was a ritual. Now “secret” binges are the norm. I know my partner knows, but I do it anyway. I don’t want to be seen “failing.”

Life is hard. Whether you struggle with mental or physical illness, you’re having difficulties in relationships, you’re trying to make a better life for yourself, you’ve experienced some kind of loss — the list goes on — you know that life comes with pain. But you have to go on living. So if, for a time, the only pleasure you can find is a cookie and it gives you what you need for right now so that you can go on, have the damn cookie. But maybe skip the side dish of shame, secrecy and obsessing.

Why do we waste our time assigning shame and guilt to arguably amoral actions? I am behaving badly if I’m lying, stealing or cheating. Am I truly behaving badly if I eat cookies to help me cope with pain?* It’s so important that we love and care for ourselves. Particularly, when we’re having a hard time. Love shows mercy. And sometimes mercy looks a lot like a cookie. So just have the cookie already. Here’s one I baked myself. :-)

2015-09-05 01.19.36

*There are certainly arguments to be made regarding the culpability of externalizing unhealthy choices – but in the absence of intention, maybe that argument isn’t as strong as we self-righteously assume. A blog post for another day.

Revised 10.22.15 for clarity.

What’s It All For?

While struggling with depression, my low days always involve the most misery-making of questions: What’s my motivation? Why am I doing this? What meaning or purpose does any of this have? Why even bother? If it’s not one existential crisis with me, it’s another.

Unfortunately, I don’t have answers. When I am most depressed, I binge on cookies, TV and sleep and do anything not to face these questions. For reasons I cannot articulate, asking these questions and realizing I lack an answer (or worse, that the answer is “there is no reason”) causes me spiritual and physical pain.

When I am well I don’t ask these questions. When I am well, I think less and do more. I get outside of my mind and into the world around me.

When I am not well, doing things that distract me from these questions (even binging on TV) makes me feel better. There is some variation in the quality and lasting result when it comes to distractions from the crisis. Teaching an English class or following my weight lifting routine make me feel better immediately and often continue to help my mood for hours afterward. With TV binges, as soon as the episode ends and the laughter subsides it’s as if the bubble bursts violently and the pain returns. So maybe I should do more engaging things when I am feeling low — to the extent that I can get myself to do them.

My partner has repeatedly suggested I adopt a more nihilistic worldview: there is no meaning, but that is OK. I am not ready to commit to that yet. It does have some appeal. Maybe I will find peace when I accept that life lacks intrinsic meaning. That it only has whatever meaning I assign to it. As it stands I experience excruciating pain when I ask the question and then feel that maybe there is meaning for others or even meaning for myself that is as of yet undiscovered by me.

What do you think? Does life have intrinsic meaning? Can we find it or assign meaning on our own? Or does simply accepting the lack of meaning liberate us?