Recently, one of my online friends and I were talking about the benefits I received from two simple exercises that I began on the advice of my counselors: keeping a list of successes and journaling.
The list of successes came about because one counselor saw that I frequently overlooked the successes I had achieved since my suicide attempt. He often found himself reminding me of those successes on days, and there were many, when I was doubting my progress. Consequently, he encouraged me to keep a list of my successes to act as a reminder when I needed one.
The list of successes is a simple way to counteract the lies that I face when I am in the middle of a depressive episode. While in the grips of such an episode, I am bombarded with lies that have the aura of truth. I believe that this is because my mind is attuned to see the negative more than the positive, and it quickly seems as if there is nothing but negatives to my days. The lies tell me that I have accomplished nothing that day, that I am lacking worth, that my day was nothing but misery. By recording a list of successes, however, I can see that I did, in fact, accomplish things notwithstanding all impressions to the contrary. I can see that I have worth. I can see that there are many positives in my day. The list of successes, which are facts, counteracts the lies which are only thoughts. In this way, the list of successes helps me to better practice mindfulness, one aspect of which is to accept that thoughts are merely thoughts and not facts.
Without my knowing it, elements of my thinking were expressed by Rick Hanson in his Tedx video. Dr Hanson states that the brain’s wiring is biased to the negative. He suggests that way to challenge this bias is to recognize, think about, and linger upon, positive experiences. He presents the acronym HEAL, for Have a positive experience, Enrich it, Absorb it, and Link it so that the positive soothes or replaces the negative. Enriching and absorbing are accomplished by allowing yourself to linger upon, and think about, the positive experience. Dr Hanson asserts that by doing this, you can teach the brain to recognize the positive.
After viewing Dr Hanson’s video, I viewed a Tedx video of Daniel Amen. Dr Amen, like Dr Hanson, believes that you can rewire and retrain your brain. He presents a compelling argument, showing before and after brain scan images to support himself. One comment in particular struck me: “The best anti-depressant is gratitude. If you write down three things you’re grateful for everyday, within three weeks you’ll notice there is a significant difference in your level of happiness.”
These two videos, plus the second recommended exercise, led to my starting a Gratitude Journal. I made it a practice to end each day by writing three things for which I was grateful. I lingered upon these three things, and meditated upon them, allowing the gratitude to be enriched and absorbed. In time, as Dr Amen suggested, I did feel a difference. My levels of stress dropped and I felt a greater sense of calm, a sense of contentment. As the days progressed, I found myself searching for these moments and experiencing gratitude as the event happened. In this way, my gratitude shifted from an appreciation of the moment in the past, to an appreciation of the moment in the now.
Moreover, by keeping this written record I had, like my list of successes, tangible proof that my day was not all negative, that my day had some positive moments that were worthy of recognition. This acted as a counter to the negative bias of both my thoughts and my brain’s natural wiring.
Alongside the Gratitude Journal I also started a more general journal charting my recovery. However, it soon became clear that it lacked an important aspect – keeping my son informed. It was, and is, important to both my son and I that he be kept informed of my progress. My solution was to transform my general journal into a blog, initially on Blogger and subsequently on two blogs hosted by WordPress. Like the list of successes, by writing about my recovery I counteract the lie that my days are only negative. Additionally, I can put things in perspective and see worthiness in both me and my actions.
Two simple exercises: a list of successes and journaling. From them I have gained perspective, seeing the truth about my days, seeing that they are more than merely misery. Each, in its own way, has shown me my worth. Each buttresses my practice of mindfulness, first by lending support to the idea that thoughts are only thoughts, not necessarily facts; and second by causing me to pay more attention to the moment wherein I recognize my successes, linger upon them and experience gratitude. I have received calm and contentment. I have been able to allay the fears of myself and my son, and give us both confidence in my recovery.
Two simple exercises and many tangible benefits.
About John Dickson
A lifelong battle with Major Depressive Disorder resulted in a suicide attempt. That attempt taught me the danger of being silent about my personal struggles with mental health. I’ve had to learn to be more open about my struggle. I now choose to reach out with the hope that someone will be inspired and end his/her own silence. I’m a dad, a blogger and a new convert to the power of social media.