Lately I’ve been making the observation that I am getting better at stopping myself from spiralling when I have depressive episodes. I am more adept at pulling the right script or right memory to play in my head to pull myself out of these pervasive thoughts. It occurred to me then, that maintaining a state of well-being is all about being able to play the right narratives at will in our heads. The converse is true, that we go deeper and deeper into dark spirals because we are unable to stop repeating a certain narrative to ourselves. Just to be clear, this isn’t really a choice, at least not in the moment of occurrence:
“This idea states that in the face of trauma, such as watching a dog sink its teeth into your leg, more neurons in the brain fire electrical impulses in unison and make stronger connections to each other than under normal situations. Stronger connections make stronger memories.” – source
For me, the trick is to also form neuron connections for positive events or insights. Even if overriding the negative ones are not possible, at the very least we could create a repository of positive memories to coexist with the negative ones. It matters a lot – if all we remember are terrible events, life will always represent darkness. No amount of external optimism can change that sort of perception when everything we remember triggers a painful reaction in ourselves.
What I have learned about myself is that when I am in the throes of darkness, almost nothing can pull me out of it, perhaps with the exception of books if I am lucky enough to find one, or to even remember that I could resort to reading. Like most cases, prevention is better than cure, so what I have done for myself is to design a system where it does not rely on my will to be effective.
Neuron connections are stronger when repeated. Repetition causes the firing cycles to be shorter. That is because our bodies are designed for efficiency. It sucks when it is negative, because the body is so good at remembering trauma that we can’t help but feel the fear and anxiety overcoming us without being able to consciously intervene. The opposite is also true – why do we feel so comforted in certain places, why is nostalgia so powerful? It could be the smell of food, the sight of a certain memento that arouses profound warm feelings in us, because they remind us of a time when we were being cared for, or when joy is unabashedly present.
For most of my life I didn’t have many good memories to hold, and even if positive events did happen my brain wasn’t designed to remember them. I had only remembered pain. I also thought I didn’t have friends, I was very critical of myself, and I keep trying to lead a life that was against my own beliefs and values. Sometimes we don’t even remember what we stand for, because pressure from society is so immense. Till today I feel strong pangs of self-doubt, the pervasive feeling that I am insane because I am trying to hold on to my own values which are not the norm.
So I wrote up a google doc containing my deepest values, my guiding philosophy, a list of people I am grateful for (turns out I do have friends!), role models I wish to emulate, the motivations behind my major life decisions, a clear logical breakdown of some of my thought processes. For example, it reminds me:
“What I am investing in is the compounding effect of experiences and time, not money.”
You would think that by now I should have known this by heart and it should be embedded in my consciousness, but even I, am susceptible to the lure of having a steady source of money. Having to live with a strict budget is not fun at all. Except now I actually remember having to be stuck in a place for 40 hours a week without much agency is less fun comparatively to eating plain bread every day for the rest of my life.
Like any design cycle, iterations are needed. I wrote the doc, and I forgot to read it during times when I needed to. I only read it when I accidentally remembered it, which is almost never. But each time I remembered to read it, it was as if I was gifted with a full recall of who I am again, why I am doing what I do. So, I put a recurring monthly event in my calendar that will remind me to read it.
We all know advertising changes perceptions. Turns out it works for me if I tried to sell a vision to myself too. If I wanted a life that came with the space for creative autonomy I have to constantly remind myself of that and why, because it is so easy to return to a life rewarded by a monthly pay check. There is nothing wrong if that is what people want, the issue is I know that is not what I want, except it is really challenging to cope with my insecurities. We have to attempt to actively write the script for our own lives, or we’ll be swept into the scripts other people will try to write for us.
So, writing things to myself and then re-reading them is a way to rewire my inherent conditioning. If the media repeats certain messages to us we may start believing it, if we tell ourselves a new story again and again, it may become part of our accepted reality. If our brains are so easily influenced and deceived, we may as well use it to our advantage.