A Simple, Yet Not-Always-Easy, Solution to Reducing Depression and Anxiety

Summer is right around the corner, which can be a stressful time for many. Maybe you have kids who will be out of school, which means your home will be noisier and days will be busier. Maybe you have a busy social calendar filled with trips, weddings, and barbecues. Maybe you are dreading the triple-digit Texas temperatures and having to spend more time inside.

During times of stress, healthy habits tend to fall to the wayside. Same is true if we find ourselves increasingly struggling with depression or anxiety. We do things that we think are helping us (i.e., sleeping more, eating more high carb/fat foods, drinking alcohol), and do less of things that actually help us.

Exercise is a powerful, but often overlooked, tool in managing these issues. Research indicates that an exercise regimen is as effective at treating depression as anti-depressant medication. Even better? The effects are immediate – most people feel the mood-boosting effects about 5 minutes after completing their exercise.

The mechanisms whereby exercise improves your mood is two-fold. When you exercise, physiological changes occur in your body that have a direct impact on your mood. Endorphins (natural painkillers) and serotonin (a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in happiness and wellbeing), increase, and stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) decrease. Exercise also contributes to improved sleep, which we know plays a key role in both depression and anxiety.

Psychologically, exercise contributes to a feeling of accomplishment (“yay! I did something today besides watch Netflix!”), increases self-efficacy (“when I feel bad I can do something to change it!”), improves healthy coping skills (“wow, a quick run makes me feel a lot better than a couple glasses of wine!”). For those that suffer from anxiety, which is usually marked by a lot of physical symptoms, exercise induces a lot of the feared physical symptoms (heart racing, sweating). The repeated experiencing of these physical symptoms helps you to become less afraid of them and attach new, more helpful, meaning to them.

However, exercise is simple in terms of concept, but not always easy to execute. To overcome this, I have a few suggestions. First, keep in mind the law of inertia. It is far more difficult to get something moving than it is to keep it moving. Try to get started on your new exercise regimen on a day and time that you are feeling most motivated or energized, for example, on Saturday morning after a cup of coffee. From there, set reasonable goals and be consistent. You are not going to be able to run at the same pace you did as a high schooler in cross country if you haven’t gone out for a run in years. Any exercise is progress and movement in the right direction! Also, keep in mind you are not always going to feel like exercising. And, the good news is, you don’t have to in order to do it! Keep a journal and write down the positive effects you feel after you exercise, and revisit those entries when you need some extra motivation. Lastly, be kind to yourself and expect that it isn’t going to go perfectly. You may miss a workout, or fall back into old habits. Acknowledge that this has happened, and resume your routine.

If you live in the Austin area and feel like you would benefit from support and guidance on managing depression or anxiety, please reach out to me via telephone at 512-521-1531 or email me at laura@drlaurawahlstrom.com to discuss your situation and see if I may be a good fit to help.

Moving On After a Relationship Ends

Your boyfriend or girlfriend has just dumped you. Initially, you feel numb and in disbelief that the relationship is over. As more time passes, you cycle amongst sadness, anger, and feeling okay. Despite the relationship being over, you continue to follow them on social media. On the one hand, it relieves the anxiety of wondering what they are up to, but you also recognize that it is keeping you from moving forward.

Does any of this sound familiar? Moving forward after the end of a relationship can be a long, painful, and frustrating process. In my blog post today, I will discuss the treatment approach I use when working with folks who are having difficulty moving on after a breakup, and provide some practical tips for how to cope.

When working with individuals looking to heal after the end of a relationship, I have found Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to be highly effective. The ACT approach centers on the notion that pain and suffering are an unavoidable part of human existence, and in spite of that we can cultivate a rich, meaningful life. Rather than identifying and changing your thoughts (as is the focus of cognitive therapy), ACT teaches you how to create “space” for your thoughts. This allows you do better evaluate what thoughts are helpful versus unhelpful, and have unhelpful thoughts have less of an impact on you. Having that space also allows you to do more of things that are important to you.

How can this help when going through a breakup? In the early stages after a breakup, and often times for a while after, your thoughts are consumed by that person. How are they feeling? Are they struggling too? Have they moved on? If it has been a long time since the breakup, we may feel shame or frustration for continuing to think about that person and try to push those thoughts out of our mind. However, this doesn’t work! Let’s say for example, I tell you not to think about a pink elephant. Think about anything except a pink elephant. What are you thinking about? A pink elephant! Because the act of trying to push something out of our mind involves thinking about that very thing.

Instead, try allowing that thought or image to be there, but in a different way. In ACT, we learn skills called defusion and mindfulness. Oftentimes we are so “fused” with our thoughts we believe we are one with them, that they are fact, or that we need to act on them. Not the case. Our minds generate something like 50,000 – 70,000 thoughts per day – isn’t that incredible? And imagine if we acted on every thought our mind generated. That would be pretty bad, right?

Instead, we learn to be aware of our thoughts, but not get “hooked on them.” We let go of the judgments about what it means we are having these thoughts, and judgements about the thoughts themselves. We notice that the thoughts are there, and this what our mind does – generates thoughts. And then, we allow them to pass.

Below are some ways to practice defusion:

  1. Put “I am having the thought that” in front of any self-statements.
  2. Imagine your thoughts typed out on a computer screen, and then imagine yourself changing the font and colors.
  3. Repeat a word in which you tend to use when judging yourself harshly over and over aloud until the word becomes meaningless.

Below are some ways to practice mindfulness:

  1. Imagine yourself sitting by a stream. Imagine your thoughts on a leaf in the stream, and allow them to float away.
  2. Imagine yourself sitting on the beach. Imagine your thoughts written in the sand, and watch the tide wash the writing away.
  3. Imagine yourself lying on a blanket in a field on a warm day. Imagine your thoughts on clouds, and allow the clouds to float away.

At this point you may be thinking, okay, so I am working to allow my thoughts to be there, but is that it? No, that’s not it! When we are feeling sad or anxious, our tendency is to withdraw and not let other see us that way – to hunker down at home, in front of the television watching Netflix, eating a bowl of ice cream. Those behaviors seem like they help us to cope, when actually they maintain depression and anxiety.

So, go against what your mind is telling you to do (defusion!) and get active! And don’t just get active, get active doing things that matter to you. A relationship (and subsequent breakup) can sometimes take you away from things that you value. Is health something that is important to you? Join a bootcamp or running club, or sign up for a cooking class. Is family important? Schedule lunch with a family member or, if they are far away, book a trip to see them. As I see it, you have two choices. You can feel sad or anxious and do nothing, or you can feel sad and anxious and be doing something that may improve your situation. Just because you don’t feel like doing something, doesn’t mean you can’t do it (again, defusion!).

If you are struggling with the end of a relationship and live in the Austin area, please give me a call at 512-521-1531 or email me at laura@drlaurawahlstrom.com to discuss your situation and see if I may be able to help. Below I have also included links to some ACT resources if you found my suggestions helpful and would like to learn more about it.

The Happiness Trap

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life

*Note: Defusion and mindfulness strategies are taken from ACT Made Simple by Russ Harris, PhD