How To… identify and manage depressive cycles.

Everyone gets down once in a while. Everyone can feel sad, emotionally unbalanced, tired or anxious. But if you find yourself repeatedly in these states, often for no discernible reason or for unbelievably petty reasons, then you may have a depressive cycle condition.

1: Is this you?

One day you’re on top of the world, or at least feeling fine. You break your shoe, but march into a store and get a new pair. It cost a bit, but they would have needed replacing some time or another and you really like your new shoes anyway. You get to your lunch date a bit late but after explaining and showing the offending shoe all is well. You enjoy the date knowing that they aren’t too upset by your lateness, part on friendly terms and agree to have a second date.

The next morning you wake up suddenly at four am feeling incredibly anxious. You’re not sure if your date was actually OK with your reasoning. Maybe they think you’re the sort of person who carries around broken shoes just so you can excuse your lateness? And now you’re not sure you like those shoes any more anyway. You preferred the old ones. You can’t get back to sleep and drink some coffee to calm a strange shakiness and ache that has appeared in your fingers, probably from the stress. Trying to make breakfast a few minutes later, you drop a whole egg in the pan and, frustrated, throw all of it away. Making a new omelet feels like an incredibly difficult task and you feel suddenly very tired, despite just having had a coffee. You sit down and try and put the TV on, but can’t focus on it. It feels pointless and dumb to be watching TV and nothing is interesting on it. You feel helpless and break down crying.

After crying you feel more steady. Your hands aren’t shaking and you have a little more energy. You still feel strangely empty and your joints have started hurting a bit again, but at least now you feel like making another omelet.

That is a fairly normal depressive episode following what may have been a normal mood or may have been very mild mania. Because you’ve lived with it most of your life, most people with this sort of cycle don’t really notice it as something that may be a problem.

2: Ups, downs or steady?

In terms of the type of cycle, there are three defining characteristics: what moods there are in the cycle, how long the cycle is and how intense the moods are.

Firstly we’ll look at the moods we have. There are three stages to a cycle. Most people will only experience two for any length of time and the other may not feature or may be very brief and mild.

-Depressive stage. The one we’re focusing on for this guide and the one that causes most people the biggest problem. You feel sad, angry or temperamental for no reason. You feel tired, lethargic, but also anxious and jumpy at once, you may have a very hard time sleeping despite feeling exhausted. You lose motivation and start having negative thought cycles.

-Manic stage. Can be a problem to some people but provides a welcome break for those with very mild mania. You feel on top of the world, excited and brimming with energy. Your outlook is optimistic and the silver linings seem very clear. You want to do everything at once and have a hard time stopping yourself from filling the calendar too much. You have a hard time focusing on any task at hand.

-Normal or flat stage. Not a problem in and of itself, but can make some people with depressive cycles feel worse about the depression.

If you have depressive and manic as your primary cycle, you could have: cyclothymia, bipolar I, borderline.

If you have depressive and flat as your primary cycle, you could have: dysthymia, bipolar II.

People with depressive and manic may find their lives are in more of a mess and others are more often hurt by their actions. People with depressive and flat may find themselves very alone and be at risk of self harm.

3: Serious or inconvenient?

The severity of the disorder depends on two things. Firstly, how intense the moods are. Depression can range from feeling a bit flat and sad to suicidal rage. Mania can range from feeling a bit lively and unfocused to impulsively buying an entire store and then burning it. The more destructive and hard to control the mood is, the more intense it is.

The second thing is how fast the cycle is. When the cycle is slow you can predict the buildup and get ready. When it’s fast your moods can flip uncomfortably.

In terms of severity, the mood disorders scale like this:

Borderline. Very sudden, unpredictable mood switches between full mania and clinical depression.

Bipolar I. Gradual, predictable mood switches between full mania and clinical depression.

Bipolar II. Gradual, predictable mood switches between hypomania and clinical depression.

Cyclothymia. Very sudden, predictable mood switches between hypomania and subclinical depression.

Dysthymia. Gradual, predictable mood switches between normal mood and subclinical depression.

Of course all of them vary a little from person to person, but in general that is the simplest way of explaining each of them.

And the main way of treating these episodes is to work out what exactly is going on. Not all depression is alike, so pinpointing the cause of an exact problem can help fix it.

4: Serotonin.

One cause of depression is when serotonin reuptake inhibitors stop working. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps relay messages around the brain. SRIs stop your body from absorbing too much serotonin. When they aren’t working we may end up with too little serotonin, which destabilizes our mood. On its own, this won’t always cause depression, but it leaves us vulnerable. Symptoms include:

-Difficulty sleeping.

-Irritability.

-Sudden urges to cry, laugh or crush things.

-Sensitivity to pain, normal touch feels uncomfortable.

Management includes:

-Meditation.

-Isolating yourself from others for a while.

-Engaging in calm and pleasurable activities, like watching TV, reading or listening to music.

-Asking your doctor about 5-HTP and SSRIs.

5: GABA.

GABA’s main role is helping us get into a nice deep sleep. When this sleep process is interrupted, for example by alcohol, REM sleep is worsened which can cause a downward spiral as though we weren’t sleeping at all. If you have poor GABA receptors you may suffer the same way someone suffers with a hangover. Symptoms include:

-Suddenly vivid and very memorable dreams.

-Anxious, edgy, twitchy.

-Panic and sickness at night.

-Turning to alcohol or drugs to get some sleep.

Management includes:

-Meditation before bed to unwind.

-A mild sleeping pill to promote REM sleep.

-Supplemental GABA.

6: Dopamine.

Dopamine is the reward driver. Whenever you do something that results in a pleasant sensation, like eating good food, relaxing, having sex or playing, dopamine fires out to tell you what a good job you’re doing and to remind you to do that more often. When your dopamine receptors aren’t working properly there is nothing in your body to tell you that you did well at being a human. Symptoms include:

-No lust for life.

-Nothing feels rewarding, everything feels like it’s draining you, even things you used to like seem pointless.

-Low or absent concern even for people you loved.

-Things genuinely start looking dull, grey and uninviting.

Management includes:

-Going somewhere new and exciting.

-Overwhelming the senses.

-Exercise.

-Supplementing l-phenylalanine.

7: Norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that is produced in response to stress. It is also a stress hormone, like cortisol or adrenaline. It increases the oxygen going to our brain, speeds up our heartrate and shuts down basic processes like digestion until the stress is gone. It helps send us into fight or flight. When the receptors aren’t working anxiety can build up, but the body becomes overwhelmed and has no energy to fight the stress. Symptoms include:

-Low energy for no reason.

-Poor motivation, persistence and focus.

-A desire to sleep for a long time.

-Boredom regardless of what you’re doing.

-Sudden spikes of anxiety, a feeling your existence is threatened.

Management includes:

-Exercise.

-A mild herbal antianxiety pill like valerian root.

-Caffeine to raise your energy through the day.

-Ask your doctor about SSRIs.

8: Hippocampus.

Many people with depression actually have a smaller than average hippocampus and long periods of depression can shrink it further. The hippocampus processes all your new memories and might play a role in deciding which ones are important to keep and which ones are for the short term. It also works with your spacial memory, helping you map your location and even remember what size your body is and what it’s doing. If your hippocampus is too small, it may become overwhelmed, causing poor memory function and proprioception. Symptoms include:

-Forgetting your daily plans.

-Forgetting what day it was, or things that happened in the past few days.

-Accidentally dropping or crushing things because you lost track of your hands.

Management includes:

-Mindfulness meditation.

-Keeping lists when you notice it happening.

9: The start and end.

Finally, you want to learn to predict when depression is creeping up on you, what type of depression it is and what the cycle usually involves. Keep a diary to find out what starts and ends your depressive cycles, what triggers an episode and what helps calm them preemptively.

And that’s how I manage depressive cycles. I hope that helps, or was at least informative if you don’t have depression.

TTFN and Happy Hunting!

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How To… prepare a “downer” kit.

Everyone gets a little down from time to time. Maybe you had a bad day, maybe you’re hormonal, maybe something serious happened or maybe you’re just born that way. And when you feel like that, there are things you want and need to help you feel better. As someone who lives with these feelings every few weeks and depressive bouts every month or so, I have more of less perfected the art of the “downer” kit. So here is how I make it.

This is part II of my ongoing “housekeeper’s kits” series. For part I, the household first aid kit, click here.

1: The container.

This is more important than it seems. You will need a moderately sized container, about as big as a large makeup bag or tiny backpack.

But it also has to have at least five compartments, if not more, be soft to touch, easy to open and in a soft, engaging colour like a pastel pink, yellow or green, bright white or something metallic. The reason for the compartments is so that it doesn’t need sorting, because the last thing you need is to dig through piles of things you don’t want looking for the one single thing you do want. The reason for the softness and easy-open is because when you are depressed your hormones are everywhere, which can cause crying (blurred vision and headaches) and wobbly hands (not best combined with fiddly clasps or sharp edges). And the reason for the colour is because you want something you can look at without hurting your eyes if you have a headache and that inspires energy and joy when you look at it.

2: Diet.

Far more important than you would guess. When you’re down you obviously crave certain comfort foods, but you also need to boost your micronutrients. Try keeping a balance of healthy snacks (dark chocolate, mixed nuts, Nakd bars, etc), healthy comfort food recipe alternatives (mac and cheese, pizza, meatloaf, spagbol, etc) and supplements known to help with depression (omega 3, vitamin B complex, St John’s Wort, evening primrose oil) in your bag at all times.

3: Exercise.

Keeping active helps you elevate your mood and distract yourself from depression. But fighting the lethargy can be hard. Make sure to keep some light weights and hand grips for armchair exercise and a yoga video to watch, to help encourage you to do five or ten minutes here and there.

4: Soothing.

Sometimes you’re feeling very shaky and just need to calm down. No appetite, no energy, no drive at all. You’re not exactly miserable at this point. You just look it and feel very tired or anxious. For these times, you need a soothing set. Keep at least two CD mixes or mp3 playlists with the most calming and happy songs you can find or tolerate when depressed. Have some sunglasses in case you need to go outside and even a sleep mask for when you’re home. Keep a bath salt mix in case the urge to soak in the tub strikes you, but the idea of mixing one is overwhelming. An inflatable neck pillow and a small hot water bottle may also help relax you.

5: Mood elevation.

For when you’re on your way up and need something to help you along or when you’ve just got out of rock bottom and need some distraction, keep some entertaining, exciting things around. A short book of jokes, a comedy or action film or some more invigorating music will help.

6: Human contact.

When you’re depressed, depending on why you’re down and how you deal with it, at some point you may not want to be alone. Try and keep a phonebook with names, house, work and mobile numbers and good contact hours for everyone who could help you in your time of need. This is very useful if you ever feel alone, panicked or paranoid and aren’t sure who to call.

Also, if these bouts are regular, try and have someone as your designated “depression monitor”, to call when you’re scared of hitting rock bottom or finding it hard to get out of bed. This should be someone who can just be there for you, encourage you and perhaps drive you to a new and interesting place to help kick you out of the smaller slumps.

7: Pamper.

Finally, you want to have things to treat yourself with. Massage oils, makeup, a hair styling set, a manicure set and some of your favourite childhood sweets would all be good for this area. Anything small and hard to get your hands on when you don’t even want to leave the house.

And that is what to put into a kit to fight depression, whether you’re just feeling a little down because of the weather or so bad you can’t face the thought of leaving bed.

What would you put into your “downer” kit?

TTFN and Happy Hunting!

8 Organization Tips to (Almost) Never Forget Anything.

I have a dreadful memory at times. Part of it is the same hormonal, mental, crazies problem that makes me want to sleep for days on end, hide from people, bite and break things or stare at walls rather than work. Part of it is just that I’m a forgetful sort of a person. With how long it takes me to learn names and get into routines and how hard it is for me to follow a set schedule, I’m sometimes surprised I’m functional. But I am functional, I do remember things, I do get things done (most of the time), and this is how I do it.

1. Lists.

I write lists for everything. Shopping lists, job lists, work lists, garden lists. Whatever you have to do, write it down and write it in context.

Good lists that I use regularly are “things I need to do today,” “steps to cleaning the (kitchen),” and “things to do in town.” Also, many websites have list functions. Not only do I have a list of blog posts to write, I make use of WordPress’s “Drafts” section on the dashboard to keep track of what I’m writing. I also use the beautifully organized “To Do” list on Fiverr and will flag any emails I need to respond to on Outlook. Lists do you good. Just remember to check and update them!

2. Strategic untidiness.

I’m hardly a minimalist, but I love to have a lot of clear surfaces, open floor space and bare wall patches in my house. However, I will strategically leave things in a mess on purpose. Why? Because that way I notice them!

When the pantry countertop is normally clear, but there’s a letter on it, I remember I need to post it when I next go out. When a wall is normally clear but there’s an ironing board with some shirts on it there, I remember I need to iron those shirts. When my sewing basket is normally in the wardrobe, but it’s next-to the sofa and a pile of things is on the coffee table, I remember I’m due a mending spree.

Plus, strategic untidiness also kills procrastination, because I can’t stand to leave things out of place a second longer than necessary!

3. Tell people.

Jon and I tend to relay things back to each other and ask each other odd questions all the time. We are basically walking dictionaries, encyclopedias, agendas and, in Jon’s case, a calculator for each other. But this will work on anyone who has a better memory than you or it will just increase the odds of you being reminded on time.

Tell someone what you need to remember. Try and make it someone who will be around at about the right time to remind you. It’s amazing how just by doubling the people who know something you increase the odds of remembering so much!

4. Fake deadlines.

Another one I do in part to curb procrastination, in part to remember things. If the deadline for an essay is Monday, my fake deadline will be Saturday or Sunday. If the deadline for booking an appointment is the 25th, my fake deadline will be the 20th. If the deadline for hoovering is 6pm, my fake deadline will be 3pm.

Simply set your deadline far back enough that it gives you time to remember it, panic and actually do it. That way you’re unlikely to be late or miss a deadline again.

5. Room by room.

A great way of reminding yourself of things is to sort similar tasks by room. Keep all your papers out in the office: one pile for things to send, one pile for things to file, one pile for things to copy, one pile for things to scan or transcribe. That way you get a visual reminder of what you have left to do at a time when it is convenient to do them.

Likewise with other rooms. Leave the ironing where your laundry dries or is folded once it’s dry. Keep the dishes in or by the sink for when you’re next washing. Try and think about what you would be doing in that part of the room and how you’d divide your time to make the tasks easier.

6. Notes.

Where lists fail, notes rescue you. Put notes everywhere. As text message drafts on your phone, stuck to calendars, next-to the things that need addressing, on your work desk, on your computer, on the fridge, anywhere and everywhere you will see them. The more important to remember, the more notes everywhere.

7. Folders.

For things that you need to remember on a monthly basis or even a quarterly or yearly basis, keep folders. The first thing in the folder should be a list of the last time you did it and what you did. The following pages should be records of the last times. This could be so you don’t repeat birthday presents, so you remember to save for the water bill or so you plant the vegetable seedlings out at the right time. Whatever it’s for, file it, label the folder and put a reminder on your calendar or phone that you need to check it a certain amount of time in advance.

8. Timetable.

Finally, timetables weren’t just good for school. Think about your typical week and write yourself a daily timetable. Do it hour by hour, so you can adjust things as you need. Write everything in it. Either print it out, write it on paper or do it on your computer, depending on what you’re more likely to look at.

For example, mine is on my computer because every day, first thing, I check my emails, student timetable and lists from the day before.

From around 4.30 until 5.15 I am seeing to the cat’s basics (food, water, litter, bedding), helping Jon get ready for work and doing any small jobs.

From 5.15 to 7.30 I am tidying the house, cleaning and doing odd jobs.

From 7.30 I am getting ready for work.

From 8.00 I am having lessons, writing for the blog, writing for money, writing my books.

From 16.00 I am tidying up, finishing my housework and cooking.

So usually by the evening I have done everything. And if I haven’t at least I have a few hours to finish everything.

And that’s how I try my hardest to remember everything. It isn’t failsafe. I still forget things. I sometimes forget to add something to a list or to check my list, even! But generally these tactics keep me organized, on track, low-stress and meeting all my deadlines.

How do you try and remember things? Got any tips or questions? It’s what the comments are for.

TTFN and Happy Hunting!