“Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord.
Time heals all wounds.
Ever hear that saying, which often refers to a broken heart?
Well, it’s not really true. Yes, there are things that can help emotional wounds heal, but time isn’t really one of them. Oh, time may dampen and grey them somewhat, but the wounds usually remain, lurking somewhere in the heart, under the surface, ready to reappear under the right circumstances. You may feel as if you’ve recovered and left it behind, but most often what you’ve done is tried to forget about it or ignore it.
Many of you may be suffering depression from a variety of reasons: chronic illness, cancer diagnosis, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, rejection, or you battle a chemical imbalance in your brain. Your depression may also stem from anxiety, fear,
physical or emotional abuse, bitterness or guilt.
Since this blog is dedicated specifically to helping those who have lost babies in pregnancy, at birth, or soon after birth, I will focus primarily on that subject; although the information I am going to give you will help those suffering from loss of a spouse or loved one, or any other depression-causing event.
An issue we humans face is that God gave us the miraculous, beautiful capacity to dream. It’s what drives us to live, to love, to have interesting, fruitful lives, to produce and re-produce. We often order our lives around our dreams, expecting all of them to come true.
But when our dreams are snapped, or abruptly snatched from us, we break. We run. We try to hide. We fight back. We deny. We blame. We rebel. But no amount of fighting, reasoning, begging, clutching at, or bargaining, will restore those dreams and bring them back to reality for us.
Our initial fear stems partly from realizing we’ve lost control over our well-planned, ordered lives, and partly from having to face the fact that we’re frail human beings who have failed, or been exceedingly, profoundly hurt, and who really don’t have as much control over our lives as we thought. We don’t fully control our destinies; there are just too many fluctuating variables in our fallen world. (I think continually telling ourselves and our unsuspecting children that we’re “the captains of our own ships” only sets up for bigger falls and deeper pain when things don’t go our way.)
We’re stunned because we can’t understand how something like this could happen to us good people, even when we know (we watch the news and see) bad things happen to “good” people around the world, all of the time.
They just don’t happen to us!
When our baby or loved one dies, so do our dreams dedicated to them. We’re stunned into numbness. We feel lost, frightened, anxious, abandoned. Afraid. Terrified. We find ourselves needing to grieve the death of our dreams just as much as the death of our beloved child or spouse.
And that grieving can set up a cycle of recurring pain, depression, isolation, loneliness, and guilt that we find difficult, or impossible, to conquer or control. As hard as we try, it simply won’t go away, and we can become anxious and depressed about being anxious and depressed! It seems as though something outside of us controls our responses.
Something does control us, but it’s not outside of us. It’s part of us.
It’s our brain.
My desire is to give each of you hope of a promising future, free of overwhelming sadness and depression. My goal is to give you the tools to have victory over despondency and hopelessness. Let me first say, you can have victory! There is hope. And I will give you some concrete ways to heal and achieve that victory.
But before we venture into exactly how we can heal our wounds, I want you to understand what you’re up against. I want you to have an appreciation for just exactly how much the brain remembers, how and why it reacts to memories and events the way it does.
Let me relay the following story to get us started:
In 1906, Dr. Edouard Claparede was treating his patient, Aimee, (not her real name) in the French hospital, Asile de Bel-Air.
Aimee was a fascinating patient. Due to a brain injury, she had lost the ability to form new memories. While she retained all of her pre-accident memories, she was unable to remember anything that happened to her more than a few minutes prior to an event.
So every time Dr. Claparede visited Aimee during his daily rounds, he had to reintroduce himself to her because she never remembered meeting him. But one day, Dr. Claparede decided to conduct an experiment. Before shaking Aimee’s hand that day, he tucked a small pin between the fingers of his hand, so that when he shook hands with her, she received a painful (but harmless) stab in her palm. Of course, she was surprised by the stab and reacted as anyone would when poked by a hidden pin during an otherwise friendly handshake! She pulled her hand away.
After chatting with his patient for several minutes, the doctor left her, knowing that she would not remember meeting him that day. (He did, however, apologize for the rude, sharp shake.)
The next time Dr. Claparede visited Aimee, guess what Aimee did, even though she couldn’t remember ever meeting him? Aimee pulled her hand away. Her instincts told her to protect herself, so she refused to even shake hands with him. She didn’t know why she wouldn’t shake his hand because she couldn’t remember ever shaking his hand before. She didn’t consciously remember her pain, but some part of her unconscious brain remembered it and caused her to react in a negative way to his friendly greeting. To Aimee’s unconscious brain, Dr. Claparede was a threat. Her brain had used the stored information to “protect” her from harm, to prevent the painful jab from happening again.
But how Aimee responded to being asked why she wouldn’t shake her doctor’s hand is just as interesting: When pressed to explain why, she said, “Doesn’t one have the right to withdraw one’s hand?” In other words, the “thinking” part of her brain tried to rationalize what was going on in the unconscious, reactive part. As writer and brain function studies researcher Roseanne Bane says, “Your cortex [thinking, aware part of your brain] is probably busy making up stories to explain behavior prompted by your limbic system [unconscious, reactive and protective part] far more often than you realize.”
Have you ever felt like that? Someone asks why you reacted a certain way, or why you feel depressed, (or you ask yourself), and your response is, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just did.”
Repeated, painful events and habits can cause your reactions to be “permanent,” until something comes along (like you) to retrain your brain from continuing that automatic reaction. In Aimee’s case, she wouldn’t be able to do that, unless the doctor explained to her every time he met her what happened during the sneaky pin prick event, promising that he wouldn’t do that again, and then shaking her hand—maybe even more forcefully—to prove it.
Remember the neuroplasticity (new nerve growth and brain flexibility) I keep talking about? This is a perfect case. Your brain can be retrained to react differently, to not respond negatively to negative emotions.
The important questions for you, for all of us, become, “Why am I behaving or responding this way?” and, “How can I take control from my automatic, reactive, unconscious system, to bring my thinking, rational system into control? What do I need to do to make that happen?”
Let me give you another example.
I’ve been writing this blog for a little over a year. On December 13 it’ll be 20 years and 8 months since my daughter Victoria died. When I started writing the part about her death—rewriting the pain, anguish and desperation I felt during that horrible event—my brain swept my body back in time, like a violent, ocean rip current. I felt as if I were right back in the middle it, reliving it—crying, aching, regretting, grasping, and agonizing over her death, as if it had just happened!
It affected me so much, that my younger son said to me one day, “It doesn’t seem as though you’ve gotten over it.” I thought I had. But there it was: while the knowledge of her death remained in the conscious portion of my brain, the painful, devastating, disabling emotions lay stored in my unconscious. And it didn’t take much for them to be released through a chemical rush into the neural pathways, sending information back and forth through the brain’s superhighways. Before I could get control, my body responded by releasing uncontrolled sobs, and my brain relapsed into depression.
Did I want to return to that time, to those feelings? No. Was it productive for me to do so? Not really. What did I need to do to get out of it, to recover again? Just how do you gain control over your emotions and responses?
Without getting into a complex discussion today of how the brain functions, here’s the simple answer:
You stop entertaining the same self-destructive thoughts. You lay them aside or banish them, and then refuse to pick them up again. In the process, you’ll change the way you, and, most importantly, your brain responds to them. The fight—flight—paralysis (yes, the deer-in-the-headlights, freezing response) will wane and often disappear. While you may still experience the related emotions, you choose whether you will invite them in to stay, to entertain, feed and nourish them, causing them to fatten and balloon out of proportion in your thoughts and then wreak havoc on your entire nervous system, body and life.
If that negative response happens repeatedly, and you refuse to, or don’t try to relinquish them, your brain constructs neural pathways for the response, making it a response and behavior that the brain learns and stores. Those chemicals then race along your brain’s super highways to make it happen—over, and over, and over—until you feel as if you’re no longer able to control your response. (Next week I’ll tell you a rather unbelievable, embarrassing story about what happened to me to cause some irrational behavior I’m still trying to conquer!)
Your behavior and responses are determined by the activity going on in your brain as well as by what drives or dictates the brain’s activity. That fact means that you can change your behaviors and responses, by changing your behaviors and responses.
And one of the ways you can do this is through what’s called mindfulness.
What exactly does mindfulness entail?
First, being mindful means that you when you feel yourself reacting negatively, put on the mental breaks and use your thinking brain to really probe what’s causing you to react or feel a certain way. It’s like reasoning with your brain.
Ask yourself some questions: Is it rational or based in reality? If you’re suffering an anxiety or panic attack, take a deep breath and ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that will happen to me if it comes to pass? Do you have the power to change the outcome? If so, what can you do to change it?
What purpose will it serve to nurse my grief or my sorrow? (Let me insert here that if you’ve been with me for any length of time, you know that I am not a proponent of rushing through grief. I firmly believe you need to work through the grief stages, or the stages that personally affect you, and not expect yourself to hurry along at someone else’s predetermined pace. I’m speaking here more to the chronic sufferer, the person who feels stuck in sadness or depression, who is unable to wade successfully through their grief; the person who keeps hanging onto the past and finds it difficult to move forward. The person who learned and internalized negative behaviors and needs a new direction in thought or behavior.)
Mindfulness, as I’ve mentioned before, means really thinking deeply about what you’re experiencing, while you’re in the middle of experiencing it. Not just ruminating on it later, but feeling it now. Absorbing the moment, noticing and being aware of what your 5 senses are experiencing. Taking it all in, wondering about it. (When you are suffering from depression or anxiety, that is, I admit, a tough prescription. But work at it, even if you can only evaluate one sense the first time you do it. Keep practicing it. It will come to you over time.)
While we’ve run out of time today, we’ve just touched the surface of what I want to cover. Next week I will go into more depth and offer more tools for you to use to fight back against and squelch these negative, desperate feelings. If you’ve already read the mind-body posts, you can see where these activities and steps are intertwined. And you can definitely appreciate just how powerful the brain is when it comes to body responses or emotions. These activities are also the beginning of cognitive-behavior therapy that is helpful for people suffering from depression and anxiety.
I do want to leave you today with the encouraging fact that you can replace self-destructive thoughts. Even though time isn’t the magic key, all wounds can be healed.
One of the first major steps is wanting them to be!
Until next week,
Thanks for joining me!
Note: As I have stated in other posts, if you are in need of anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication, make sure you take it, and do not stop taking it until you see your doctor and he gives you a plan to reduce the dosage or taper off of it. You should never abruptly stop taking this type of medication! Sometimes this medication is needed on a permanent basis; often it is needed only for you to get over a rough time, to give your body a break while you work on healing and cognitive-behavior therapy. You do not need to feel guilty for needing or taking it!