During the first half of my life, I tried to find THE solution to my depression and anxiety — a cure that would forever eradicate my symptoms. I was a gullible consumer of dogmatic books and advice promising Nirvana: by balancing my gut bacteria, by committing to a daily meditation practice, by taking fish oil and vitamin D, or by sweating out my toxins through hot yoga six times a week.
While those are all pieces of my recovery program today, none of them alone provided the answer. After years of meandering down dead-end paths, I arrived at the hard realization that I would forever be with some symptoms. My mood disorder is simply complex and chronic.
So instead I attached myself to the words of Vivian Green: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Instead of fretting the sadness and panic, the interruption in sleep and concentration, I try to manage them. I try to live AROUND them.
This critical shift in my philosophy has resulted in more emotional resilience. However, it takes work to sustain. Here are some strategies that help me to keep dancing in the rain.
Integrate Your Body and Mind
Remaining calm in symptom flare-ups requires integrating my brain with my body. My natural instinct is to live in my head, a fascinating place where I make up juicy stories about what people think and why. While exercising my intellect helps me to craft cogent sentences, it worsens my panic. Like a helium balloon untethered to a string, my thoughts and emotions soar aimlessly through the air until they get stuck in a tree. My brain needs the grounding force of my body (the string) to keep it where it should be: in the here and now, in reality.
Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn asserts that your breath is the best portal to your body. In his book Full Catastrophe Living, he writes, “Probably the best place to start [going into your body] is with your breathing. If you can manage to bring your attention to your breathing for even the briefest of moments, it will set the stage for facing that moment and the next one with greater clarity.”
I use a very simple method where I count to four as I inhale, count to four as I hold my breath, count to four as I exhale, and count to four as I rest.
Pay Attention to the Negative Sound Bytes
Dr. Robert J. Wicks is a psychologist and a friend of mine who, in his own words, “does a special form of darkness for a living.” His specialty is the prevention of secondary stress (the pressures experienced in reaching out to others). He has written books on resilience for physicians, nurses, and psychotherapists on this topic, as well as three books for the general public (Bounce, Perspective, and Riding the Dragon) on self-care, resilience, and maintaining a healthy perspective.
When I asked him if he had a couple of key points about resilience that most people don’t think about, he said, “The challenges of life, especially for those experiencing clinical depression, are chronic. Most people in this world view the difficulties of life as acute negative sound bytes. And so, they are impatient with themselves or others who are having a hard time. Their voice might be saying the right words but the tone of it demonstrates impatience and the unspoken words: ‘Get over it! Be more grateful for what you have and stop being a baby.’”
Gather Four Types of Friends
Emotional resilience entails becoming aware of those negative sound bytes and replacing them with more helpful commentary. To achieve this, Wicks encourages us to gather into our interpersonal network different kinds of friends. Explains Wicks:
First, we need the prophet who asks us, “What voices are guiding us in life?” There are messages we received pre-verbally before we could speak and non-verbally that are false and need to be questioned later in life. The second friend is the cheerleader, who is sympathetic and supportive no matter what. The third friend is the harasser or teaser who helps us recognize that in taking important things seriously, sometimes we take a detour and take ourselves too seriously instead. And, the fourth friend or voice we need for balance, encouragement, and challenge, is the inspirational friend who is able to call us to be all that we are without embarrassing us that we are where we are at this point.
With such a balance of friends we can then persevere during the tough times that are part of the chronicity of life. As contemplative and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, once said to a friend who was feeling discouraged, “Brother, courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.” Good friends, the right combination of friends, can help us to hold on for the next supply.
Accept What You Can’t Change
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It’s the first part of the Serenity Prayer and I suspect the least favorite for anyone with a chronic illness. It certainly would not make a good advertisement slogan for a depression product.
Like most people with recurring symptoms, for the first half of my life I concentrated on the second part of the prayer, “the courage to change the things I can,” interpreting it as a directive to find a cure. However, after 20 or 30-something medication combinations, two green smoothies a day, and almost passing out in hot yoga, I finally arrived at acceptance, the key word of the first line. There was grief of course, “Is this as good as it gets?” But the new perspective provided a strong foundation on which I could learn how to dance in the rain.
In his book Resilience, Navy SEAL Eric Greitens writes, “When we accept what we cannot change – that some pain cannot be avoided, that some adversities cannot be overcome, that tragedy comes to every one of us – we are liberated to direct our energy toward work that we can actually do.”
Attach Self-Compassion to Emotions
Finally, to dance in the rain is to be kind to yourself. This comes naturally to some. However, this self-basher has always measured her self-worth by achievements and equated love with performance. So chilling out a tad and believing that I am enough as I am (without a New York Times bestseller or a wildly successful TedTalk) feels somewhat terrifying. It chips away at the protective wall of perfectionism that I have built over 40 years and leaves me feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Directing some loving kindness toward ourselves, however, is one of the critical building blocks of emotional resilience. In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff writes, “Self-compassion gives us the calm courage to face our unwanted emotions head-on. Because escape from painful feelings is not actually possible, our best option is to clearly but compassionately experience our difficult emotions just as they are in the present moment. Given that all experiences eventually come to an end, if we can go through its natural bell-curve cycle – arising, peaking, and fading away.”
Maneuver in the Wetness
Dancing in the rain is not for sissies. To be able to maneuver gracefully in the wetness of life is the gift the follows a series of humiliations and disillusionments. It’s the gold discovered after being humbled to your core. In dealing with treatment-resistant depression, I’ve found that by tolerating the moisture with a sense of humor instead of cursing it, I smile more when my feel get wet. I’d like to think that’s emotional resilience.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Wicks, R.J. (2009). Bounce: Living the Resilient Life. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Wicks, R.J. (2014). Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Wicks, R.J. (2012). Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times (10th anniversary edition). Notre Dame, Indiana: Sorin Books.
Greitens, E. (2016). Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life (reprint edition). Boston, MA: Mariner Books.
Neff, K. (2015) Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (reprint edition). New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks.