Walk or Don't Walk…

When you live with depression and anxiety life takes on an unusual type of chaos.

For those that know me well, you’ll know that I enjoy watching people. I find other people’s behavioral traits highly amusing. Not in the laugh out loud sense of amusing, which some times does occur. But in the context of an interesting diversion from the junk that usually rattles around in my head unchecked.

So it won’t surprise you when I confess that the behaviour of people who are waiting for pedestrian lights to change can be a fascinating study.

Of course for those of us who wonder about the types and levels of bacteria that live on those big metallic buttons, crossing the road can take on a multi-faceted risk factor. It’s not just getting to the other side that concerns us but the choice between dying as a result of a high-speed vehicle impact or a rapid onset assault of Necrotising Fasciitis (flesh eating bacteria)!

It’s a peril that can keep sufferers of emotional illnesses tucked up safely in their homes, waiting for the day their fears will miraculously vanish.   However, that’s not the point of today’s ramblings. In today’s attempt to reveal another unhelpful suggestion for people living with depression and anxiety I’m drawn to the time old classic: “If you stop dwelling on it, you’ll feel better.”

Did you know there are a variety of ways pedestrian signals can be activated? At pedestrian specific crossings, pressing the button will indicate you want to cross and the lights will change almost immediately.

At a busy intersection with traffic, your push of the button during peak periods will often have no impact. These pedestrian signals only become ‘operational’ in the sense that pushing the button will make a change to the sequence, in non-peak times.

And, in case you didn’t know, at some inner city intersections that big, silver coloured, bacteria attracting button is a prop, strategically placed to help you feel better about having to wait. (Strange but true!) Pressing the button has no effect whatsoever.

This is where you can start to wonder what all this means to someone living with depression and anxiety and how telling someone to stop dwelling on their worries might be asking the impossible!

Sadly, and for a very long time it’s been the general opinion of well-meaning people that depression is a state we think ourselves into. And, whilst worrying and dwelling on problems can be an inherent part of being human, it’s not usually how depression manifests.

For the most part, when life’s events happen they trigger a flood of chemicals to be released into our body’s internal communication network sparking an appropriate response. Metaphorically, in part, it’s like someone who walks up to a pedestrian crossing and presses the button in order to cross the street. The ‘event’ triggers an impulse that ‘turns on’ the correct response allowing you to proceed then, after a reasonable time the signals revert back to ‘normal’.

However, and for the most part, our body’s every day activity is dictated by unseen factors. Who we are and how we see ourselves, when we eat, sleep, poop and reproduce are involuntary activities over which no amount of button pressing will make a difference!

Because as humans we have a capacity for logic and self-awareness we can rely on memory to invoke a duplicate response in order to keep us safe. Memories of a dangerous event will always make us feel scared or nervous, just like memories of happy events will always make us feel happy or content.   However, the feelings will usually lose intensity through time. Our body’s overwhelming desire for homeostasis will usually recognise the memory as a fake ‘event’ and adjust the chemical release accordingly.

At this point, I should probably clarify the difference between sadness and depression. When I drop my ice-cream on the concrete, I’m sad. When, for an extended period of time I’m convinced there is no point in getting out of bed to eat an ice-cream, I’m depressed. (Or perhaps the only reason for getting out of bed is to eat ice-cream!)

So, I drop my ice-cream on the concrete and the event stimulates my internal communication network to respond in an appropriate way. The button’s been pushed, a change in the signals becomes imminent, and I respond to the event with sadness and perhaps disappointment.

Later when I recall the event, sadness chemicals pop up and say “have you dropped your ice-cream again?” Once my body realizes it cannot reconcile the chemicals to a new event, the chemicals are stood down and homeostasis is resumed. My ability to apply logic, tells me to be more careful when eating ice-cream in the future because if I drop it, I’ll feel sad!

Those pedestrian signals at a busy city intersection are unlikely to be controlled by the thousands of events that happen as people stand beside them pressing the button incessantly. That person who stands with their hand on the button – click click click click click, like many of the well-meaning people out there is convinced that more and better clicking will somehow make a difference to the outcome.  This is the “stop dwelling on it” argument that believes continued clicking on a sad memory will somehow ‘activate’ depression!

The most simplistic analogy is that as a woman, no mater how much I think about not having a baby, I cannot stop my reproductive system from working. It’s only if my body was designed with a ‘deviation’ from what’s considered ‘normal’ or with intervention (either chemical or surgical) that my body will do things differently.

Imagine at those busy city intersections, if the incorrect signals were installed. Every time the button was pressed it would cause the signals to change and traffic chaos would take over. This is how it can seem for people living with depression and anxiety. A new ‘event’ either happy or sad makes no difference to whether we’re depressed. Our internal communication network, whether as the result of trauma or being born this way, are produced at levels that are outside ‘normal’ range.

We do not have this illness because we’re always thinking about sad stuff. We think about sad stuff because we’re continually, like everyone else, seeking to contextualise our self-belief that we are useless, hopeless, stupid and lazy.

Next time you’re tempted to tell yourself (or someone else) to stop dwelling on it, think about whether you’re talking to someone who’s depressed or someone who’s sad. Sad is like pedestrian specific signals, if you push the button with a sad event you’ll get an almost immediate change that will naturally return to ‘normal’. If you’re talking to someone who’s depressed, the fact that they’re dwelling on sad events is a symptom, not a cause. They’re pushing the button because they must, not because they want to.

Today, something from Snoop Dogg: When I’m no longer rapping, I want to open up an ice cream parlor and call myself Scoop Dogg.

Deb Shugg is an awarded business woman, wife & mother, author and a sufferer of depression and anxiety.  To contact Deb click here.

If you need help to deal with your symptoms see your doctor.  If you need to talk to someone NOW call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

(Abuse of another person is NEVER okay.  If you are being abused or, if you are an abuser please seek help.)

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