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depression Gastrointestinal Problems Grief Hope Mental Health Psychology

Ruminating

How I Stop Myself from Spiraling

Maybe you’re in a low mood or you may be in a the midst of a deep depressive episode. Either way, ruminating on the past can be destructive to your well-being. You may find yourself wanting to focus on the present, but all of a sudden the mind gets triggered and goes down a dark road. Some days, it feels impossible to turn off the rumination.

In today’s post, I’m going to share with you a few tips on how I stop ruminating on the past. I hope they help!

As many of you know, my father died when I was twelve. I constantly thought about the days when he was alive. I didn’t want his memory to fade away, but it felt like I was living more in the past than in the present. Whenever things got hard, I would think to myself, “My life would be so much better if Daddy were here.” Or, “It’s not fair that he’s not alive anymore.” I would bury myself in schoolwork, but in my free time I would let my imagination run away with me. “If I could trade my arm for my dad’s life, would I give it up? What if I had to swim across the ocean? What about if I had to eat ten thousand live ants?” Every time I heard a song, went to a restaurant or park, or ate a new food, I would think, “The last time I did this my dad was alive.” I spent a lot of time reliving the past and letting my imagination concoct a strange dystopian world where my dad was alive if I had given up my eyeballs or my kneecaps. I ruminated on how good things were back then and how sad things were in the present.

Another time when I got caught up in rumination, was when I was sick. My teeth hurt from gritting down on them in fear and anxiety. Every muscle in my body was sore from clenching so hard, bracing myself for the worst. I wondered if this was my life now- bed ridden, diarrhea 15X per day, fainting from loss of electrolytes, malnourished, not being able to enjoy a bite of food, pain so bad I shouted once per day, crying myself to sleep, not seeing my friends, not doing anything but reading, watching Netflix, and waiting for my mom to deliver a few bites of white rice and a hardboiled egg to my room. Each night I cried about the life I used to have – one where I was healthy. With each month that went by, I wondered if this would be forever. I spent my time researching godawful, life-debilitating diseases to prepare myself for the worst-case scenario. I wouldn’t be able to sleep because I would tremble in my bed. I google imaged pizza, cake, and pasta. It felt like delicious food, or any food at all really, was a distant memory. Because eating food was my main coping skill (not a healthy coping skill, but hey, that was the reality) it was an especially hard blow. I got down on my knees and prayed to a God that I hoped was listening. I ruminated on my past health, unable to accept my dire circumstances.

A few months later, I moved back to Ann Arbor with my sister. Yes, I was still pooping my pants from time to time and couldn’t walk more than half a mile without having diarrhea, but life seemed a bit better. The GI specialist said I would be completely better in six months. A naturopathic doctor found a powder that I could mix with water to keep me nourished. I decided to enjoy life for what it was. I was as skinny as an Instagram model and I had just gotten into grad school. I felt proud of myself for accomplishing my goal. I was finally going to live up to my potential and study interesting things again! The weather was sunny and gorgeous. I spent my days working at a chill gelato restaurant, tubing down the river with friends, and dancing at bars. As shallow as it sounds, I spent the summer showing off my new rockin’ bod and dating cute boys.  And then six months rolled around… I was still sick. Not only that, I hated the counseling program so deeply. I couldn’t handle the burden of everyone else’s emotional trauma. I couldn’t focus on lectures, textbooks, or class discussions. All I could focus on was trying to get better. I spent hour after hour, night after night, ruminating on my Hot Girl Summer in Ann Arbor with my sister where I felt confident in my body and my capabilities. Can you believe it? I missed that time in my life when I was sicker than all get out. Also, I began thinking long and hard about my year in California. The ocean calmed my soul in such a profound way. All I wanted to do was move back. I began hating my life so much that I wanted it to end. It was nuts because I was falling in love, had amazing friends, and was living in a buzzing city- Boulder, with a view of the striking mountains from my apartment.  

Here are a few ways that helped me stop ruminating on the past. Let’s be honest, ruminating doesn’t help anything. It makes everything worse.

  1. Write, write, write!

Writing helped me make sense of the world. I carved out a time to ruminate on the past, but made it beautiful. I have an incredible memory, which helps me as much as it harms me. It allows me to write specific details and scenes. Writing is therapeutic for me and helps me better understand my feelings. When I wrote about my dad, I felt his spirit come alive. I wrote blogs about the awful symptoms of my gastrointestinal illness. After I wrote, I felt cleansed. I had purged all of the foul-smelling gunk. I no longer needed to dwell on it because I had just spent an hour writing about it. Sharing it with others has been empowering. I feel as though I might be making a difference to someone.

*Tip: Chronicling all of the negative things in your life will NOT help. Ex) My dad died, I got sick, I dropped out of grad school and feel like a loser. In order to move through it, you’ve got to talk about your feelings

2. Focus on your strengths

It will definitely boost your self-esteem to make a list of your strengths. For me, it’s making art through writing, my motivation to exercise, my vulnerability. Still, how does this help with rumination?

Let’s spin this into a strength. So, ruminating may lead to depression. When you do finally come up from this low episode (and you will! If you don’t believe me read my blog called A Glimmer or Sunlight…no matter how long you’re under there, you’ll ALWAYS come back up) how will you be a better person? You’ll be more understanding, empathetic, and compassionate. People may tell you that you’re a sourpuss or have a person filled with sorrow and melancholy by nature. This is NOT true. You’re just going through something right now. From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry you’re dealing with this. Don’t let anyone tell you that your sensitivity is a weakness. Also, if you spend a lot of time ruminating, you probably have a great memory. Having a good memory will help you out in life, trust me. You do well on tests, you can remember all those background details that your friends tell you, all of the great memories of your life stand out to you, and the people who have passed away will never truly die. Why? Because your memory never fades.

Gaining a new perspective on rumination empowers me.

Summary: Try to view your rumination as a strength

3. Let go of expectations

Expectation is the death of happiness. Having goals for yourself and living up to your full potential are both great! However, when your expectations get too high, it’s a recipe for disaster.

You know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? First, on the bottom tier, there’s physical needs – food, water, shelter. Then there’s safety needs – to not feel like you’re going to die on the streets or feel scared in your home. Moving up the ladder, there are belonginess needs- intimacy, community, friendships, love, belonging, connection. After that there are esteem needs – recognition, respect, prestige. If you’re lucky you may tap into self-actualization where you’ll live up to your full potential and understand the true meaning of life.

Many of us are caught in the esteem needs. This is where the ego dwells. Though Maslow may believe it’s a necessary experience that may propel you toward self-actualization, maybe it’s not so great after all. Letting go of your ego may be the best thing for you.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race. Let’s be honest, being hot and successful is intoxicating! We always want more and more – a new and better place to live, more money, to look thinner, a marriage to someone attractive and successful. This can all get shattered at any moment… Before you enter what I call “more-mentality,” think it through. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. You’re on the hedonistic treadmill… Your brain adapts to your current circumstances. After you hit your goal, you’ll make an even loftier goal.

You’ll find that it’s never enough.

When you let go of expectations, you may find that you’re happier.

I am happiest when I let go of my goal to be thin or attend graduate school. When I had those things, I wasn’t that happy anyway. I wanted more – to be thinner, to move on to a better program. Sure, I miss feeling hot and accomplished, but it’s time to let that go. I don’t expect to be as emaciated as I was when I was drinking water and powder or to be a therapist where I’m depleted of my emotional strength. Those expectations have come and gone. I don’t want to be a shallow egotistical person anyway. I’ve let my expectations sail away to make way for bigger and better dreams.

It’s time to appreciate what you do have. Which leads me to my next point.

4. Gratitude

Think about what you do have in the present moment. You may be overwhelmed with gratitude.

  • Maybe I don’t have a thin body, but I am healthy.
  • Maybe I have a GI issue, but I’m alive.
  • Maybe my family is far away, but I feel their love, support, and connection from afar.

You get the idea. In fact, don’t even list the negative part of that phrase. Just list the positives.

  • The sunny day
  • My sister’s laughter
  • The phone call with my friend

There is so much scientific evidence and empirical data on the power of gratitude. Studies show that those who counted their blessings felt happier than those who listed the negatives.

Let the gratitude course through your being. Keep a gratitude diary. After a few weeks, you may feel grateful to be alive.

Gratitude has the power to stop rumination in its tracks.

5. Appreciate the fragility of life and health

The truth is, we are human. Appreciate your vibrant life right now, because it’s fragile. We are mortals; death and illness are inevitable. It’s time to accept this. It won’t be easy, but it’s the truth. Getting caught up in circumstances is harmful.

It’s natural to not want to think about death and sickness, but it’s part of our reality. In the same way that you can’t be happy without the contrasts of low moods, we can’t have life without death. All of this energy will be recycled for the next generation, the next life. All you can do is be your best self and try to make a difference while you’re here.

6. Meaning

Victor Frankl once said that if you can find meaning in your life, you can get through most anything.

He lived through the Holocaust and developed a therapy – logotherapy- where you find meaning in your suffering.

I finally got to a place where I found meaning in my suffering. My dad died and my physical pain has shaped me into the beautiful, creative, sensitive person that I am. Readers, YOU are my meaning. I am here for all of you. When you read my words, you’re helping me feel that my life is meaningful. If my words helped one person today, I have had a meaningful existence. If someone out there relates to my grief and chronic pain, I will feel even more worthwhile than I did before I began writing this post.

Find your meaning!

7. Find the comedy

I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Yes, there was a point where I was barely hanging on by a thread. I literally sent stool samples to countless doctors and google imaged pizza. Yes, pizza. WOW. If that isn’t sort of funny, it’s time to lighten up! I pooped my pants at work and my sister had to bring me a new pair of underwear! When my uncle was alive, he put a funnel down my dad’s pants when he wasn’t looking and dumped water in it! My body went from Barbie to blahhhh. OH WELL. HAHA! Find the humor in how much it sucks. It’s not eloquent, but it IS funny. I am so thankful for my sister for helping me laugh instead of cry or ruminate about all of this.

We’re all on a weird journey together…and it’s sort of funny.

8. Awe

Fill your world with wonder and awe. Seeing a sunset or going on a stroll through the woods can do wonders. I find that when I see beauty in the world, my ruminating stops. The pacific ocean, the pink sky after the sun sets, the majestic mountains, or even the bird tweeting out of my front window.

When I’m awe-struck I remember that the world is a beautiful place filled with magic and miracles.

Instead of dwelling on the past, look around.

When you see all of the gifts that this world has to offer, you’ll feel connected and present.

One last piece of advice- I just want you to know that I still struggle with all of this. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the journey.

Thanks for reading, best of luck!!

Categories
depression Hope Mental Health Resilience Worthiness

Glimmer of Sunlight

“Nobody can protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away our punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was build by your own desire to heal.”

~Cheryl Strayed

We all run as far as we can from suffering. Feeling the pain is unbearable, so we do everything we can to run in the opposite direction. That’s natural, that’s human nature. After all, who likes pain and suffering?

Here is my secret : I want mental peace so so badly that sometimes I want to die to get there.

At times, I want the anguish, guilt, physical pain, anxiety to HALT in its tracks and take me out of this life.

I feel at times that I would break the hearts and crush the souls of loved ones to get what I’m after- for the pain to stop.

We all have our way out, often times that way is self-destructive. For some, it’s drugs and alcohol. For me, I eat and eat, mainly sugar and processed foods. I eat so much that I cry from stomachaches. I eat it when I’m happy because I want so desperately for the positive feeling to last, I want to chase the bliss. Also, I eat to numb my suffering. I head to the grocery store to get a cart full of cookies, pretzels, ice cream and doughnuts, when I sense that achey feeling in my body.

What is that achey feeling?

It’s the knowledge that this life will not last forever. It’s the realization that there is unspeakable suffering that takes place in this world.

Maybe depression is being unable to separate from that sense of suffering.

Everyone says “it’s okay to not be okay” or “feel the hard feelings,” but no one says how.

One day I was driving and I saw a dead deer on the side of the road. Chunks of its body was strewn around everywhere, but I could tell it was a deer because of its head. I felt deeply saddened and disturbed by this image, this dismemberment. For a few seconds I couldn’t help but imagine how much pain that deer endured. Tears erupted down my face.

Other times I feel blissed out by the world that we live in- babies growing inside mothers, seeds sprouting up into trees, examples of human compassion, like people helping other people out with nothing to gain for themselves. All of this reminds me that miracles do exist.

Normally I feel like I’m swimming around in this great big beautiful ocean. I pass dolphins and angel fish, I feel the sunshine on my back. Life feels utterly lovely. Then a storm comes and I get swept underwater. Pain seems to surge through every pore. Whether or not I thrash around or stay still, I’m held under the surface in the murky darkness. One thing I can count on is that the ocean will always spit me back out. Soon enough, I feel the sun on my back once again. I splash around again and everything goes back to normal.

But then a big storm comes and I’m swept away in the current, caught in the undertow. Moments pass, but I have faith that I’ll return to the sunny surface once again. Then hours and hours pass. I’m in the Depths of Despair. It feels unfamiliar…it feels unknown.

This time I go deeper and deeper. The water is so frigid that my skin turns blue. I see the monsters of the abyss feeding on lost hope down in the bottom. I begin to relate to them because I am losing hope that I will ever surface again. I’m deeper then I’ve ever been and I’ve been down here for way to long. I lose faith…

This is the new normal and it’s lonely and awful down here, in the Depths of Despair. Pure pain, total suffering.

And then seemingly out of nowhere, I surface. The goose bumps evaporate as the sun’s rays hit my skin again. I take a sigh of relief. No matter what I must never lose faith again.

But then another storm comes in…

It keeps happening over and over again, but each time those ominous, dark clouds roll in, I go under and this time for longer and longer. Attempting to surface feels like swimming through some gunky combination of molasses and glue. It’s too heavy, it’s too much, and it’s too hard. I’m sick of fighting. People say things like…

  • “Don’t give up. Become a fighter. You can do this!”
  • “Attitude is everything! Change your attitude and perspective and you can overcome anything.”
  • “It’s really not so bad. Do all of the things you love and you’ll start to feel better.”

I believe all of these things. But the problem is, when I’m down here in the blackness of the ocean floor amongst the bottom-feeders and real-life nightmares I’ve lost all faith, all hope, my strength, my identity, my passion, my will to live.

I lay in bed, watching reality TV, guzzling coffee and munching on chips and cookies. I don’t move for hours and hours, glomming onto any fraction of an endorphin rush. When I was sad before, I released the emotion through tears or sweat, but now, it feels impossible. It’s as though a dam was built, blocking me from letting the pent up emotion and energy course through my body. Instead it stagnates into a cesspool of filth. It’s become a breeding ground for lost hope, apathy, numbness, self-loathing and hatred.

If you haven’t guessed, this is what depression looks like.

When you’re down in the Depths of Despair for too long, your brain gets used to it. You begin to wonder, “Is this the new normal?” All of the surfacing and drowning again feels like too much to bear all alone.

I’ll tell you my story:

I’ve had some hardships in life- my father lost custody of my sister and I when I was ten or eleven due to his drug use and then died of a drug overdose when I was twelve. I had panic attacks as a teenager and went to a therapeutic boarding school my senior year.

Still, I’ve also had an overwhelming amount of support from my amazing mother, doting grandparents, sister, and my mother’s partner. I feel eternally thankful for their unconditional warmth and love.

I’ve seen the magic of life when riding my pony, hugging my mom, skipping through wildflowers, and catching glimpses of the twinkle of lighting bugs. But I’ve also grieved an immense loss and felt unspeakable pain. When my dad died, my heart changed for a long, long time. It went from a solid and sturdy organ that reverberated trust and lightness in the world into a heavy one that sank and pulsed with absence and grief.

Things seem to be going so well, but then I begin to have strange thoughts: I imagine myself at my own funeral, when I walk outside I imagine my body hanging from trees. I obsess about it all of the time and I begin to feel heaviness, I go under. First it’s for hours, then days, and then weeks.

When this happens, I tell my mom that I’m feeling unstable and then I go home and seek therapy and medication, which always helps.

One time I let it go on for over a year. I told myself, “This time will be different.” This time you’re in sunny California where the waves of the ocean evoke feelings of bliss and joy, where the Redwood trees bring a sense of tranquility, peace, and calmness. I remind myself that back when I was 23 I went a whole year without these weird thoughts, without feeling low and unstable. I hula hooped at festivals and hung out with my best friend everyday. Life felt simple and easy.

Here I was in California once again, paradise, heaven on earth. And still, it came. I felt the clammy hands of Despair beginning to pull me back down. I kept oscillating between feeling happy, social, receptive to the beauty of the world and then feeling true gnaw-at-your-skin deep depression that slams into you and hits you in your core. I told myself that I would be okay, I could handle these shifts.

But really, I wasn’t okay.

I wanted to jump off a bridge so the pain would end. That’s my dirty little secret that I’ve never told anyone.

I felt like a fool. Here I was without a problem in the world in California, living in a cottage beneath the gorgeous Redwoods for crying out loud with my boyfriend that I love to the moon and back, with a writing job that allows me to be creative, and still, still I feel this pain. What the hell is the matter with me? Why can’t I snap out of it?

Here is the thing-

Sometimes you can be beneath the surface for so so long that it rocks your world. It nearly shatters you.

But then, you surface again, and you feel the warmth of the sunshine. Oh, and look, there’s a pod of dolphins that makes your heart leap. All of a sudden, you hear a faint sound. It’s the chorus of loved ones at the island nearby cheering you on.

Moments like these make all of the unbearable darkness worth it.

If you’ve ever felt like me, get help. This is your depression, not your identity. There is help for you- be it therapy, medication, a shoulder’s friend to cry on, a beloved pet, or what have you.

But let’s get back to that Cheryl Strayed quote about suffering. There will be hardship and pain. You will suffer because of it. These are just the facts of this unpredictable life. Unfortunately, that gnawing achey feeling will return and you will be swept under the surface again.

If you let the years roll by, life teaches you how to live it. It’s about maintaining hope and faith. It’s not about turning blindly from suffering, but is instead about your journey.

Your journey and your life is meaningful, even if you may not think so right now.

When you get the help you need to get off your bed for a second and move through your emotions, maybe you’ll be able to express them. Maybe even share them.

Trust me, someone will benefit from your story. You’re not alone in this. That’s the fatal flaw: depression makes us think that we’re all alone. We’re not.

When the storm comes in, you’ll suffer, then you won’t, then you’ll be happy, then you’ll thrive, then you’ll go under once again, then you’ll come up once again- that’s life.

Don’t let your brain trick you into believing that you’re stuck- that’s depression. It’s all a trick. You’ll never ever be down there forever.

I can promise you this, that glowing morning sun will continue to rise each morning.

With love,

Annie