Saturday, 6 May 2017
How I Beat Stress And Depression - John Abbott BSc MSc CtH
I am John; agricultural scientist, ex diplomat, development economist, education researcher, university senior lecturer and certified clinical hypnotherapist.I was born in Southport, UK, and have lived in South Africa for most of my adult life, 45 years plus.
This is my personal story of how I beat stress and depression.
The techniques I'm going to share with you are not difficult and they worked for me. They will probably work for you too.
I distilled everything that I am recommending to you from many books written by highly qualified psychologists and neuroscientists. I have simplified their recommendations so that everyone, even teenagers, can benefit.
Their research shows that these modalities work as well, if not better, than medication; except in very severe cases of clinical depression.
I know that if you are stressed or feeling depressed you will, as I did, benefit immensely from this valuable knowledge.
John G Abbott BSc. MSc. CtH.
ALF AND AUTOMATIC NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
I want to share with you now, the most exciting and effective method I have found to help you stop worrying, feeling stressed, fed-up, blue, depressed......call it what you will.
You will know the feeling: you don't feel like facing the world, down in the dumps, feel nothing is going right, you don't enjoy things you used to do. Something has changed in your head but you don't know exactly what?
You may also be drinking more alcohol than usual, hoping you can drown your sorrows. But it makes matters worse?
So your doctor gives you a SSRI (like Prozac) but it doesn't work, turns off your sex drive, makes you fat, makes you feel lousy? Even worse, teenage suicides have been associated with these drugs......the jury is still out on that terrifying prospect.
Now let me introduce you to my friend ALF. He is my "Annoying Little Friend" (you may remember a cuddly, brown, hairy alien on tv, some time ago, with the same name? Well, you may like to think of him like that?)
Alf is my creation, he represents that inner voice in my head, the one we ALL have, constantly bugging us with "Automatic Negative Thoughts" (ANTS) throughout the waking hours; almost non-stop.
Did you know that Alf is not the conscious YOU? It's, in fact, your over-protective subconscious mind trying to warn you of potentially dangerous possibilities?
So Alf is continually telling you to worry; about the kids, your job, your health, you name it.
He will make you stress about something without fail......continually, if you let him. You may suffer "anxiety" from this, worrying about events in the future which usually never happen.
But I'm going to show you how to stop him. He's not the conscious, thinking, real you, remember?
Most things he tells you are negative suggestions..... should have done that, I regret, I can't do that, what will happen if... You get it? Nothing positive? Don't you experience Alf? Doesn't he stress you? He did me, until I found the solution and changed my life for the better.
Let me first tell you what Alf and his stressful thoughts do to our bodies; it's not good news I'm afraid.
Stress releases hormones (adrenaline and cortisol if you really want to know), which prepare us for "fight or flight": very helpful when we were hunter - gatherers about to be eaten by a predator! But not so useful these days because continued stress weakens our immune system, increasing our risk of heart and brain attacks plus cancers. Sorry to scare you but this serious risk is reducible if you follow some lifestyle changes.
So what should you do? Well, you mustn't "ruminate"(brood) on Alf's negativities, churning them over and over all day, every day. This is the key to alleviating stress. You need to practice noticing ANTS (automatic negative thoughts); that is your first step.
You can learn, through practice, to reduce Alf's presence but never completely. He is there for an evolutionary purpose, he is part of your genetic makeup and not your enemy. We need to learn to live with him but not listen to him.
Experts suggest we have a choice of tactics. First, we need to accept that inner voice is not our conscious, logical, thinking self.......it is not inner wisdom, giving us good advice (except occasionally, I'll agree). The first step is to notice by "checking-in" on our thoughts at regular intervals, say every hour or so at first, to notice that it's happening.
Then we have several choices. We may try to ignore Alf or we can talk to him, telling him "we are not playing today, thanks". Some authors suggest mocking him but this doesn't work for me because Alf is, after all, my annoying little friend; he thinks he's helping, doing his job, that's all.
My advice to you, is to notice him but never engage in self- talk with him. This would lead to rumination and the stress we are trying to avoid. I usually say to Alf, "Hi Alf, not today, thanks". Then I turn immediately to becoming ‘mindful’.
Mindfulness is very popular these days. It is simply the act of concentrating completely on everything we are doing at any one time throughout the day. It means not day-dreaming while undertaking an everyday chore or at work. It means concentrating on everything we are doing. If we are driving, be conscious or mindful of driving, nothing else. If cleaning, be mindful of the physical exertion involved, do not let your mind wander.
It's a simple form of meditation, one’s mind is focussed on the present moment. Our lives are composed of a series of continuous present moments; the past is gone forever and the future cannot be known. Mindfulness needs to be practiced to be effective, because we are used to letting our minds wander while performing routine activities. We need to change how we think. We need to think when WE want to think, not when Alf tells us to. That is the secret to living almost stress-free.
Just remember that within a few days of ‘noticing’ and not engaging and ruminating, you will feel a great improvement in your mood. Alf eventually gets tired of being continually rebuffed in a friendly way. Trust me it's true! You will feel a whole lot less stressed in a few days or weeks, but be warned, Alf will never leave you!
BREATHING AND MEDITATION
Let me deal with a common misconception about Meditation. It has been practiced by all religions throughout the ages, including Christianity. It is not solely ‘Eastern’ in origin and it is practiced by religious and secular (non-religious) people. For me, it's like prayer without asking for anything- there is no conflict as I see it.
I would like to tell you how meditation has helped me to get out of my depression.
I have found it calms my mind in just twenty minutes a day, promoting health, creativity and mental performance. Its practice enhances our ability to control Alf by enabling us to switch quickly to positive affirmations or a spiritual word/phrase or neutral words of love and peace.
There are so many ways to meditate but the essence is incredibly simple; relaxation in any physical position while clearing the mind of ANTS. Avoid any distractions if possible, then think about your breathing or, if you prefer, a peaceful word or phrase.
The breathing method is recommended because its natural, we know how to do it! We should breathe deeply, emptying the lungs completely to a count of about six inhalations to six exhalations. If you prefer words to breathing, then try my favourite, "infinite love and gratitude".
When you start for the first time you will find thoughts (Alf) invading your mind. That's normal, don't worry, don't give up as many do. Just let the thoughts pass like clouds in a pure blue sky and return peacefully to your breathing or chosen word(s). Take it easy, don't fight with or engage with thoughts, let them go as they will.
There's a beautiful method I like very much called the Coherent Technique, developed by the Institute of HeartMath (IHM). It takes a minimum of only five minutes per day, while sitting or lying comfortably. One imagines ones’ breath emanating from ones heart region, that's all. At the same time one imagines happy, peaceful thoughts. That's all!
Several authors I've read rave about the benefits of this technique which is claimed to calm heart rhythms and harmonise them with our brain. It is said to reduce feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger and despair. That's not bad for a mere five minutes, is it? In addition, it is said to reduce hypertension, atrial fibrillation and assists diabetics with mood swings.
I use the HeartMath method these days instead of the simple breathing-only technique; and I use the words "infinite love and gratitude". Can anything be simpler? Why don't you checkout www.heartmath.org for more information and research.
Always remember your subconscious mind will always tend to drift away to Alf's worrying thoughts. Take it easy, it's normal, just return to your special words, continue breathing slowly and deeply. Five minutes is all it takes but twenty would be ideal in my opinion. Try it in the traffic jam, or the supermarket checkout, or in times of stress, anywhere.
AFFIRMATIONS and SELF-HYPNOSIS
Hopefully, you are beginning to control ANTS. But what about substituting them with positive thoughts?
As a Hypnotherapist I believe- what we are convinced we believe, we can achieve. Notice I say ‘convinced’ because less than that just won't work!
All hypnosis is in fact self hypnosis because no one can be hypnotised to do something they don't want. So the therapist is an ‘authority figure’, acting as the convincer, he/she can do no more than help you with relaxation and ‘framing’ the beliefs and actions you yourself, want to implant in your subconscious. Your subconscious doesn't think, it obeys orders, good or bad ones. That's why Alf gives you negative advice, it's how your subconscious was programmed throughout your life, particularly in your childhood.
We can re-programme our subconscious with ‘Affirmations’, short positive statements repeated to yourself while relaxed at the end of a meditation.
We should carefully decide what it is we want, using no negative words in our short statement of the change we want; only, positive qualities or actions we wish to acquire or achieve. We merely think or say these words to ourselves while relaxed, or, anytime at all, you don't need to be relaxing.
To give you an example of this ‘waking hypnosis’, have you noticed how you can be convinced by a salesman, a pastor, a parent, a teacher, a politician, a person you respect or a person of authority? All that is required is three things: want it to happen, believe it will happen, see it happening. It is your belief which will make change happen. You must have heard about the ‘placebo effect’? A sugar-pill working as well as an active medication in the safety trials of new drugs. If the person strongly believes the sugarpill will work, then it does, sometimes, nearly as well as the active real pill.
One of the classic affirmations is: "Every day in every way I am getting better and better”. You can make them up for yourself. You might wish to achieve an objective or plan for your life. You might formulate an affirmation such as: "I am making progress on my objective/project/business plan every day". I'll tell you mine: "Every day I'm getting younger and younger, healthier and healthier, stronger and stronger".
FOOD AND DRINK
What I'm going to tell you now is going to put some of you off continuing to read this book. But it's important you know all the contributing causes of stress, anxiety and depression.
The following may be difficult to accept and even harder to do but it has worked for me, so it's worth considering- even in moderation.
It is my strong conviction and belief that we are being sold mostly unhealthy processed foods, lacking essential ‘vitanutrients’ and containing harmful chemical additives.
However, without criticising the bad guys let me, instead, rave about the ‘wonder foods’. I know you have heard about fish oil, containing Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 is largely deficient in our diets, unless we are eating very large amounts of oily fish and dark green vegetables.
Omega 3 is not found these days in grain fed meats or any other processed food, except fish, and there, only in inadequate quantities for brain health.
Most of the oils and fats we eat in processed foods are Omega 6 NOT Omega 3. This massive imbalance is the cause of inflammation and disease throughout our bodies and resulting in poor brain function.
To cut a very long story short Omega 3 is essential for optimum operation of neurotransmitters in the brain (heard of serotonin?) The latter helps keep us calm and is essential for brain cell renewal and regeneration. It's a must for adults and especially for kids to attain optimum brain function. It's not just for calm mood equilibrium but for enhanced mental performance too.
I credit Omega 3 with quickly lifting my depressed mood. It's recommended by many psychologists and neuroscientists for brain and heart health. And not just for stress and depression but also for a few other mental conditions.
Omega 3 contains two active components, EPA and DHA. Most experts recommend a minimum daily dose of 1000 mg of EPA, which automatically includes the recommended 600 mg of DHA.
Because of problems of heavy metals and active ingredients in many brands I'm going to recommend a specific product, available at Dischem. It is called ‘Real Thing Mega Fish Oil’. It's ‘pharmaceutical grade’, meaning it has been distilled to remove all toxic pollutants from the seas. It's nearly tasteless and one teaspoon is all that is required per day.....easy to give to your kids? If you are vegetarian you could use flaxseed oil but it's not as potent as fish oil- it has to be converted to EPA in our bodies.
Now, to be even more contentious I am going to talk about sugar, caffeine and alcohol. These are stimulants which cause stress directly by releasing hormones in our bodies. Nicotine is yet another but I hope you stopped smoking a while back.
Sugar, caffeine and alcohol create blood-sugar imbalance, causing the same damaging hormones to be released as if we had experienced an external stressful thought or event. So, on top of everyday worries we take coffee/tea with sugar to make matters worse. No wonder we are doubly stressed and our mental and physical health deteriorates. We even drink alcohol to unwind, compounding the stress even further.
Sugar is probably the biggest problem. There are huge amounts in soft drinks and fruit juices, sweets, cakes, biscuits. Even high GI white carbohydrates are soon converted to sugar in our bodies so we need a new low GI diet. No more six coffees a day, each with sugar. But be reasonable, even I have one coffee in the morning. Tea has half the caffeine, even green, but the latter contains the calming Theanine.
I've given up alcohol all together and feel the benefits of better mood and productivity but we don't all want to give up the joy of a good wine. I miss it I admit, but I put my brain health first. Experts suggest two units of alcohol per day is optimal for your health (never when pregnant). What scared me most were photographs of scans of heavy drinkers showing dramatic shrinkage of parts of the brain associated with dementia in later life. So, enjoy life but be reasonable, no binge drinking, stick to the guidelines.
Sugar is causing a world epidemic of obesity and diabetes 2. It's perhaps less well known that it is a major cause of stress leading to depression. The constant yo-yo effect of a short term ‘sugar fix’, followed by a blood- sugar spike and then more sugar craving leads to insulin resistance. The net effect is the weakening of the immune system. So, we get stressed, depressed and prone to other disease.
We need to also look at our non sugar sources of high GI carbs. White flour products are like sugar, try replacing them with whole grain products where possible. Eat fruit whole, don't juice it, the sugar is released more slowly. Chocolate is full of sugar and a caffeine-like chemical with similar stress related effects.
Try Freshpak Rooibos with Chamomile for a deliciously calming caffeine free tea which is full of anti-oxidants too. Valerian is a herb also recommended widely for stress and sleep. For a sugar substitute why not try Nature's Choice Stevia Elixir, reasonably priced at Dischem; and it's a natural product. Other artificial sweeteners, I feel, have questionable long term safety.
Last but not least, by just cutting or reducing sugar and high GI carbs you WILL lose weight. Two birds with one stone, less stress and a new shapely, more healthy, you.
There is an epidemic of physical inactivity worldwide, including South Africa. In the UK it is reported that one person in three has a sedentary lifestyle, equivalent, it is said, to the same longevity risk as smoking.
Exercise is not only great for the heart but it's also highly effective for reducing stress and lifting depression; if combined with my previous recommendations. When we work up a sweat, ‘feel-good’ chemicals (endorphins) are released by our brains.
Socializing with extended family and friends is also recommended by psychologists for lifting our spirits. So why not combine the two? Get off the couch, leave the tv, ipad, go out and do something active. It doesn't have to be organized sport, just physical activity, anything which keeps us active and on our feet. It has been found that even domestic chores (done mindfully?) like gardening or cleaning the car, walking to the shops, are as effective as the gym. So just get up, get active with friends and family outside in the sun. That brings me to my next suggestion.
Vitamin D is made by sunlight on our exposed, unprotected skin. It's a kind of hormone rather than a true vitamin and apart from promoting bone health, it is also found in the brain, where it helps elevate our mood.
People living in northern countries often get depressed during their dark, ‘sunless’ winters; they often suffer from SAD, a light deficiency disorder. This is a vitamin D deficiency treatable with portable light therapy devices.
Even here in South Africa those of us working in offices may be D deficient; and it's worse for dark-skinned people protected from UV light by their higher skin melanin levels. We all need daily sun exposure, half an hour for light skinned and double that for those darker skinned. Many of us try to avoid the sun so we are often deficient.
You can be tested by your doctor but I just take a safe dose of 1000 international units (IUs) of D3 available without a prescription. And I make a point of getting some sun exposure, without a sunscreen, at a safe period of the day. I feel this has helped elevate my mood and I recommend you try it; under medical advice if you are worried about skin cancer.
GOOD SLEEP IS ESSENTIAL
Keep in mind that everything I am sharing with you is what I do every day. It’s a package of lifestyle changes which has helped me become largely stress and depression free, without using medication.
And sleep was one of my problems. Psychologists will tell you categorically that good sleep is absolutely essential, for a productive happy life.
I used to drink coffee and alcohol before sleeping. No wonder I was awake half the night, often watching tv until the early morning.
I have since learned that the bedroom should be a haven for sleep and love. No distractions allowed, sorry! And not too much alcohol before sleep; it flatters to deceive. You think it helps, while, in fact, it disturbs your brain rhythms.....those necessary stages in sleep necessary for the brain's restorative activities.
People often go to bed late, have disturbed sleep, wake early still tired, grab a coffee and voila!....the stress cycle begins again. Blood sugar and insulin levels spike and soon decline until we get another ‘hit’ of more caffeine and sugar, plus a high GI snack of low nutrient content. It's often a vicious cycle throughout the day? Tiredness and craving followed by a coffee and carbs?
So, try to get at least seven hours good sleep. Use the HeartMath technique to help you sleep, it really helps. No tv, no radio in the bedroom if possible and turn off your cellphone to reduce exposure to electronic radiation (not proven but I do it and if you believe it, it will work). Don't drink any coffee or strong tea after midday because the half life of caffeine in the system is quite long.
I know you will say all this will ruin your social life. It's about healthy, lifestyle change. I was not happy until I made them. Now I'm better. Happiness is a choice we can make, it's there for the taking. Remember, what we BELIEVE we can ACHIEVE.
Do you now agree with me that stress can be caused by thinking? We think about real and perceived problems?
I believe real problems should be sorted if possible, and as soon as possible. Get professional help where necessary, don't ruminate! Take action! The sooner you can find a solution the sooner you will feel better and move on with your life.
Many problems or worries can be fixed, but we procrastinate? We make excuses not to do something? I still do that too but I recognize (notice) I'm doing it these days and have become more proactive without alcohol, which really does slow down our mental processes.
I now enjoy getting things done, I make a ’to do list’ and tick off my progress. I live by achieving ‘objectives’ and I see the results; like this book for example, which I had put off for years!
Of course, some problems are not real, they are imagined or perceived. This is similar to the ‘anxiety’ I mentioned earlier. It's about intense worrying about things which could happen, but statistically, probably won't. For example, are my kids taking drugs? Will my son fail matric? Does my partner still really love me?
The list could be endless and very debilitating.This is Alf doing his thing. We need to train ourselves by constant ‘noticing’ and practice to ignore ANTS. You may decide, however, to give yourself permission to ‘reframe’ your worries but I suggest you limit the time, say to half an hour. During this fixed time you permit yourself to plan remedial action on a real problem. It's most likely you will formulate one or two strategies within this period. Write them down and then STOP thinking about them. Now try to return to mindful living.
The more we learn to recognize ANTS, do the HeartMath technique, become more mindful and repeat positive affirmations, the less stressed and depressed we will become. You will indefinitely become more content, it will be unavoidable.
Did you know that if you have a good posture, standing up straight, head up, looking up not down, you trick the brain into feeling happier. If you can also smile more, even when stuck in traffic, you will feel better. Try it, it really works.
You've heard the expression ‘count your blessings’? It's about gratitude. Wanting more and more material things won't make us happy. As an economist I know the ‘system’ teaches us that it will, but it’s not completely true. I recently got a new car but the ‘high’ didn't last very long just as my psychologist friend, Deepa, told me it wouldn't. I agree I'm still glad I got it though! It's about moderation?
Try ‘wanting what you have rather than having what you want’. Make a list of five different things each morning for which you are grateful. Small things like having a job, food to eat, your family, your friends, your health. Having new material goods is not wrong, but we need to also appreciate the small things in life we tend to take for granted. Tell your partner and children every day you love them! Be kind, be friendly, try living with a smile on your face. Life is short; we need to live mindfully, enjoying the here and now.
The past is gone, the future is unknown, we live in a series of present moments, we need to enjoy all these ‘now moments’?
A FINAL WORD
Maybe you don't want to do all these things. I can understand that. This is my story, remember? Change is possible but uncomfortable. We are all stuck with habits. I had to change mine in order to regain my happiness. If any of my suggestions here can help you just a little, I shall feel well pleased.
Before I leave you I'm going to wish you one of my daily affirmations:
"Infinite love and gratitude"
Go well and may you feel less stressed and much happier in all the days to come.Please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org