Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Those of you who've known me for a long time will know that I struggled with deep, serious depression for many years. Like, 25 years. A really long time that I really wanted to die, although there was only one time when I came close to making that happen, and that was in early 2000. Scary.

After that I escaped to Orcas Island, WA, a place that I thought would help me heal. And it did. But what really started the ball rolling was an early spiritual book, The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukov. I'd had the book for years, had read it countless times, underlined in different colors as each reading brought new understandings of the contents. Then, I chanced upon a paragraph that began the change. Something to do with the idea that we are able to choose how we react to any situation in any moment. What I took from that, after several careful readings, was that I could, and did, choose to not be depressed.

It wasn't that simple, of course. I could only sustain the 'not depressed' state for a few seconds, but those few seconds grew as I made the effort over and over, and then I could feel depression-free for minutes at a time, which also grew into longer periods. I guess it was my first experience with the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, although I didn't know that at the time. Pay attention to what's happening inside, choose how to react. Don't grasp at it or reject it. Just observe it with the understanding that it's impermanent. All that came years later, but this first effort was the beginning. I had some nasty reactions to a variety of anti-depressants along the line, including a couple of panic attacks, but then I learned that I could choose whether or not to allow a panic attack to take control. Not grasped at, or feared, or rejected, the attack would simply go away, and then stopped coming altogether. I stopped the meds forever -- worse than the depression!

By then, I was back in Oregon, but while in Orcas I'd also developed an interest in meditation, which eventually led me to Buddhist meditation, after trying other styles which simply didn't resonate for me. Another book, Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzburg, led to the next significant advance. And other than some brief periods when I could feel it wanting to return but remembered to just observe it, depression hasn't been part of my life.

All this as a preface to what happened last week. I knew and had known for awhile that I was experiencing a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety, and that only increased when I was in the forest (which is normally a very calming and healing place). Part of my troubles may have been lack of sleep, another was undoubtedly a resident with an attitude -- I could feel the anger and confrontational vibes coming from her. After a really tough day of driving and shopping and such, a combination of things made me want to leave, right then! But, Ayya Sobhana was out of town on a teaching tour and I didn't feel that I could abandon the place or the young anagarika (first stage of becoming a bhikkhuni) who was on a retreat in her kuti, and who I had to feed every 3rd day. The panic was awful, although it subsided quickly enough. But the need to leave stayed, and so on Friday morning I drove away. Sadly.

Fast forward to today. I'd written a note to Ayya and mentioned to her that I suspected the depression was returning, as I'd noticed a couple of early symptoms (poor sleep, crankiness). She sent me a link to a talk by Stanford Professor Sapolsky, on the subject of depression, which he says is as biological a disease as is diabetes, and connects it strongly with stress and anxiety characterized by the body's release of glutocorticoids, one of which is the dreaded cortisol that I've been trying to control for years. The talk was a real eye-opener for me, as he cited many other symptoms that I have that I never related to depression (including stress and anxiety, the lack of energy).

Unfortunately, he didn't offer any solutions, but Ayya has wanted to find a meditative solution to the various components he cited that are a part of depression. I volunteered to be her guinea pig if she comes up with any ideas, although I don't expect that to happen overnight. In the meantime, I feel a bit better simply knowing what's going on. I'm an old hand at depression, I once had great coping techniques and I remember what they were. I can cope, while I explore my own ideas and methods for beating this nasty state once again. Gratefully, I'm just at the early stages, not deep into the bad stuff.

My instincts were right, in that I knew stress, anxiety and cortisol were in control and causing me lots of problems. I just didn't connect them with depression. I've tried controlling cortisol with food, but haven't had much luck. I'm still not sleeping well, which certainly lowers the cognitive abilities, the thought processes. But this time, unlike the past, I have the luxury of not having to go to work, make a living. I can plan my time as I wish, according to what I feel the body needs. Right now, the body needs rest.

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