Sunday, April 26, 2009

What Saved My Life

My severe depression lasted about 3 1/2 years and included many suicide attempts as well as self-injury. Many things helped me improve my health, but there was one thing that I attribute as saving my life. It's the same thing that has been recognized by the medical community as being one of the MOST successful treatments for depression; Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT for short). Unfortunately it took me a long time to know what CBT was and to truly understand it. When I began to reap the benefits of it, I lamented that I didn't know or understand this tool earlier. Unfortunately I think it's rarely explained in simple terms to those with depression to use themselves. Hopefully this blog can help others understand it.

There are lots of books to give you fancy and impressive descriptions of CBT, but that's not what I care about. I care about helping others with depression, so my explanations are going to be very simplified and uncomplicated by clinical jargon. Basically, CBT is thinking positive, but more importantly researchers have learned that when we force ourselves to have positive thoughts (even if we don't feel like it, or hate doing it), we can literally reprogram our brain and change our brain chemistry. Through PET scans they've discovered that when people use CBT (or positive thinking exercises) that the brain actually changed through this process. I started reading positive affirmations by the author Louise Hay. I didn't feel like it when I started, I just read them. I didn't want to think positively, and the idea of trying was appalling. But slowly as I read her affirmations I found myself quickly becoming less resistant to it. As I started seeing improvements I bought CD's and DVDs and would put a CD player next to my bed. Often when I woke up feeling depressed I would turn on the CD. At first the words and phrases would annoy me, but I allowed myself to be annoyed and listened anyways, and slowly I turned from annoyed to feeling somewhat optimistic. I kept getting better and better. Sometimes I would stop doing it and find myself quickly spiraling downhill again, suddenly realizing that I had stopped reading or listening to these positive affirmations, and I would start again.

Many therapists and counselors utilize CBT, but they don't necessarily explain to us how they're doing it. I wish that they had explained it to me so that I could have been doing it outside of my counseling sessions as well. Many of them will point out when we're having a negative thinking pattern and how we can look at it more positively, often we don't even realize what they're doing, but they're trying to teach us to look at things from a positive manner instead of negative. It sounds simplistic, but it's the "fake it till you make it" principal. Similar to how scientists have discovered that if you fake a smile your brain doesn't know the difference between a genuine smile and a fake and will release the happy hormones either way; when you create positive thoughts, even if they aren't genuine, if you repeat them eventually you will start believing them.

I think the hardest thing about using CBT for yourself is that when you're depressed, positive thoughts seem impossible and annoying. My advice to anyone suffering depression is to start by reading the positive thoughts of others (i.e. Louise Hay) because this is easier than trying to create positive thoughts on your own. Also, allow yourself to be annoyed by the positive thoughts, but keep going. By accepting your annoyance, you can keep going on, if you don't accept it, you'll probably quit trying. Slowly, the annoyance will fade and you will reap the benefits of the positive affirmations. Take baby steps, start by reading some positive affirmations, then try writing some of your own, then try saying them out loud. Don't try to push yourself too hard right away, just like physical exercise pushing yourself too hard too soon can be detrimental.

Here's a great article on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Also, one of the best books to read on the subject is "Feeling Good" by David Burns, however, if you are the depressed person I recommend you simply get his "Feeling Good Workbook" and do the exercises which are easier than reading all the clinical stuff.

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