Self help is a proven pathway for overcoming depression, as Margaret Evans learns in a new edition of the highly successful Beating the Blues.
He who conquers others is strong; He who conquers himself is mighty
- Lao Tsu, Chinese philosopher
I've often thought emails were an undervalued snapshot of the state of society. For sure, there are many that irritate (currently I'm on the daily receiving end of three or four fast food franchises and could eat endless, calorie-laden free lunches if I felt so inclined), and many others that bring good news. But it's the trends that show up in the stream in between that point to society's new norms.
Right at the top recently has been the flurry of news releases on depression and, to a lesser extent, anxiety. For instance, just this month we've learned that heart patients have a heightened risk of depression, something more persistent and serious than the anticipated 'cardiac blues'. Beyond Blue is now promoting the idea of a 'red flag' system to raise awareness of the warning signs among patients and those caring for them.
The same impressive organisation has also just launched a national Anxiety Awareness campaign with a short film starring Ben Mendelsohn as its centrepiece. This is no small thing as two million Australians now experience symptoms of this condition, making it even more prevalent than depression in our society. (You can access fact sheets, and view the film at www.beyondblue.org.au)
But it is depression that is rearing its ugly head as a major world health issue, both in its sheer numbers and its severity. In the Foreword to the recently re-released Beating the Blues, written by consultant psychologist Susan Tanner and clinical psychologist Dr Jillian Ball, we learn that depression is forecast to be the second largest cause of health burden globally by 2030 and suicide is the most common cause of death in our fellow Australians aged 15 to 44. The book was originally released in 1989 and sold 150,000 copies elevating it to unexpected status as a bestseller. This second edition has been revised and updated and seems certain to reach an even greater audience in these very uncertain times with its focus on self help.
Central to the book's approach is the time honoured technique of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or Cognitive Therapy which recognises that the way we think determines how we feel and that distortions in our thoughts play a key role in causing and maintaining distressing feelings. So, in effect, our thoughts create our reality, good and bad. If our thinking habits are more likely to be negative rather than positive - of the 'I can't do anything about this situation' variety - we're setting ourselves up for feeling insecure, distressed and ultimately depressed. But, the authors tell us, it is possible to change our feelings by changing our thinking and Beating the Blues is largely devoted to exactly this aim.
A key factor in the book's initial success was its practical exercises and activity plans and the revised edition continues this approach with such things as identifying automatic thoughts so we are at least aware of them, keeping a daily mood monitoring form, setting up an activity plan to break the 'lethargy circuit', recommending 'baby steps' to break seemingly unachievable tasks into bite size chunks, setting daily and weekly self assertiveness tasks and keeping a gratitude diary. As we've learned from others in the holistic industry, when we focus on giving thanks for what we have rather than dwelling on our perceived lacks, it promotes feelings of contentedness. In keeping with changing technology, a gratitude diary can be a book or on a mobile phone or computer with images that we enjoy.
An important new chapter in the book reflecting developments over the past 20 years examines the technique of mindful awareness, often called mindfulness. Originating as a Buddhist practice, mindfulness has now earned its stripes alongside Cognitive Therapy in Western psychology as a means of training the mind.
As the authors tell us, mindfulness is focused attention. In focusing only on what is happening to us at a given moment, we become able to stand back from the experience and observe it in a detached manner. "When we are aware - awake to the present - our thoughts can guide us to solve problems and give us clarity and direction," say Tanner and Ball. Founder of the Feldenkrais Method, Moshe Feldenkrais sums up the dilemma perfectly: "You can't do what you want until you know what you're doing."
So whether it's as humdrum as stacking the dishwasher or visiting the supermarket or a task that resonates with me in its unpleasant smelly necessity, filling the car with petrol, when we stand back and observe the experience, we can control our thoughts rather than be swept up in our emotions. I'll work on that one!
We learn, what traditional Buddhist societies have understood implicitly, that mindfulness calms the body, relaxes the muscles, slows the heart rate and breathing and lowers blood pressure. Our calm and uncluttered thoughts create new neural pathways that "literally rewire our brains". It's central to the exciting developments in understanding neuroplasticity that have gained great traction in the last few years and offer amazing potential for the future.
Tanner and Ball tell us that it's important to realise that trying to rid ourselves of stressful and upsetting thoughts and feelings only creates more of the same! It's only by acknowledging unhappiness, depression and pain, even to the extent of labelling them when they arise, that we can stand apart from them and gradually reduce their hold over us. As elsewhere in the book, we're offered tangible ways of making progress, such as through meditation on the breath, heightening awareness of our senses and focusing on eating so that we savour every taste and texture.
Beating the Blues has another great strength, I feel, and that is its countless case studies. If ever anyone thought they were alone with their misery - and surely that is almost a given in depression - then reading about so many people just like themselves must give great heart. Especially when we read they have sought professional help and found the path to health and happiness largely through their own efforts.
As its success has already established, Beating the Blues is an important book for mental health in Australia. This new edition will offer empowerment and hope to a great many more new readers.
Beating the Blues
Susan Tanner and Jillian Ball