“Joy does not simply happen to us,” wrote spiritual author Henri Nouwen. “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
I find choosing joy and trying to experience joy to be among the most difficult tasks when you are depressed. And yet it is critical to try to reconnect with those persons, places, and things that were once able to give us enjoyment.
I am fortunate to be working with a doctor who has known me for more than 10 years. When I fall into a depressive episode, her solutions are much more comprehensive than just a medication adjustment or a suggestion for a cognitive-behavioral technique.
This last week, her instructions, written out on her medical pad, included:
- Exercise, but not too hard
- Time in nature — enjoy the flowers
- Light reading only, NO self-help
- Find ways to experience pleasure — old TV series, favorite albums, etc.
- No work this week
I took the assignment seriously, and it was much more challenging than I thought it would be. How hard can it be to find joy in your life? Yet when your amygdala (fear center of the brain) is under attack by a flood of chemicals and hormones, and a sense of panic permeates most of your hours, letting loose and soaking in the breeze requires a surprising commitment and perseverance.
My modus operandi is to reach for one or more of the following: self-help books, work, mindfulness strategies, intensive workouts, or more therapy to try to fix my symptoms. So this exercise was uncomfortable for me. I wanted to file her instructions with my list of household chores, like decluttering and going through my bookshelves and kids’ closets — to be done at a later time when I feel better.
But I told myself these directions were just as important as if she’d written out a prescription for a mood stabilizer. So this week, I made time to do the following:
- Listen to Frank Sinatra
- Play volleyball with my daughter
- Go on many nature walks
- Get a massage
- Bike along the Severn River
- Watch Anchorman, Minions, and reruns of How I Met Your Mother
- Have lunch and coffee with friends
- Pack a picnic
- Read for pleasure (Wild), not self-help
- Walk the dogs with my husband
I wish I could say that my symptoms disappeared with these activities. They didn’t. The death thoughts, panic, and sadness persisted — at least for some of the time. But I believe that our muscles have memory, and those memories will eventually help us to recover. For example, when I swim, even though I may be in a depressed state, there are subconscious memories of my childhood days swimming — some of my happiness days — and some great adult moments, too, preparing to swim across the Chesapeake Bay with friends. My body knows it has experienced joy before doing this activity, and that joy will return when I’m not in such a biochemical storm.
I remember the words of the psychiatric nurse when I was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins’ psychiatric unit. During group therapy one day, she had us all go around a circle and mention one thing that brought us joy — one activity that we loved to do when we were feeling well.
“You will enjoy those things again,” she said. “You must trust me on that.”
That’s the hard part: hanging on to the optimism that says that joy is near and that it will return, as long as we persevere and continue to do those things that once brought us happiness.
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Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.