Many people have experienced the same dramatic healing that Sandi did using our unique method. We will lead you through the necessary steps that follow to fully free yourself from depression and anxiety. These steps will be achieved through a series of actions and exercises.
One small first step you can take (literally) to begin immediately to improve your physical health, stimulate your brain, and go against depression is to begin a walking regime, as Sandi did. Taking a friend along can greatly improve the antidepressant power of this exercise. We suggest you keep a Walking Log as a record of the experiences that bring you closer to nature, your body, and others.
Key Exercise: Walking Log
Take time every day to go for a walk. Aim for twenty or thirty minutes, though you may enjoy it so much you may wind up walking more. The goal is to enjoy the process of walking, rather than focusing only on the benefits. We suggest you invite a friend along whenever possible.
In a spiral notebook or on a computer, keep a daily record of each walk, noting the date, duration, and the route you took. List new and unusual things you notice on your walk. What, perhaps, do you see regularly that you experienced differently today? Note any colors, scents, and pleasant sounds. If you went with a companion, what thoughts and feelings did you share? What new sensations and changes do you notice in your body?
So far, we’ve seen that depression is the result of a number of factors, all having to do with relationships gone wrong in a dysfunctional society. The unsupported, troubled nuclear family is a breeding ground for trauma and, in the broadest sense of the word, abuse. These experiences alter the structure and chemistry of children’s brains and, along with possible genetic factors, predispose them to depression and its associated disorders, anxiety, and PTSD.
We’ve also seen that none of these changes is irreversible; you are not doomed to depression. The first step in peeling back the layers of depression is to see how you have re-created the very circumstances that will retrigger earlier traumas. These conditions keep you captive to and even exacerbate the illness. You don’t do this on purpose; in fact “you” don’t do it at all. These self-defeating beliefs and behaviors are learned and can be unlearned. They are not you, but they are part of a self-reinforcing system that has a life of its own. Its goal is to maintain your depression.
We call it the inner saboteur.
How Did I Get to This Point?
When forty-five-year-old Peter walked into Bob’s office in San Jose, California, he was dressed in a smart suit and was wearing freshly polished shoes. He looked as if he were about to attend the board meeting of a major bank. His voice was cultured.
Yet Peter started the conversation with “I’m a complete loser!”
“What makes you think you’re a loser?” Bob asked.
“I have a job I don’t like, that pays very little, and that I can’t seem able to leave.
I have no relationships and I don’t know what to do with my life. I feel totally pessimistic and blocked from making any progress.”
Peter’s tone of voice, which was alternately flat and irritable, would have given away his depression even if the words hadn’t.
“I’m not even sure exactly why I’m here. I’m not sure I believe you can really help me. I certainly know what’s wrong with me. God knows I’ve been through enough workshops and therapy to have learned that. I just don’t know what to do about it.”
Many people who come to see us for private sessions or to the Uplift Program believe that they understand their problems but are stuck on making changes. However, they often find they aren’t as clear about their self-defeating patterns as they need to be to combat them.
Several years before coming to see Bob, Peter divorced his wife of ten years. She was the driving force behind their successful accountancy software business. Brenda was also critical and controlling and had been having an affair for most of their marriage. Peter moved into an apartment nearby, got a low-paying job in city government, and saw his daughter only on weekends.
“How did I get to this point?” he demanded of Bob.
A Physical Presence in the Brain
We know that by the age of six our brains have been “programmed” in certain ways.
This program governs everything we do, think, remember, see, dream, like, dis-like, and feel. Our “personality” is largely formed by that age; it has been programmed in. But it can be changed.
For example, a New York City police crime report shows how the program works. A mugging had occurred on West 54th Street in broad daylight in view of four people. The first witness described the assailant as a tall, thick-set black man.
The second swore that the mugger was white and of medium height. The third was convinced that the criminal was Asiatic, but wasn’t sure how tall he was. The fourth witness was positive that the mugger was a woman disguised as a man. The villain was never caught.
Each of these witnesses was telling the truth: they really did “see” what they reported but it was filtered through the prism of their program. They saw what they were programmed to expect. This prism makes eyewitness accounts the least reliable testimony, even though they are the most relied upon in court.
To understand how our brains can trick us into perceiving a very narrow and often misleading view of reality, we need to go into a bit of gentle neurobiology.
What we refer to as the program is, in terms of brain mechanics, a series of synaptic connections in various regions of the brain.
When we look at pictures of the brain, we see the “gray matter,” which is where the main brain activities take place. The gray matter is made up of more than a trillion neurons, or brain cells.
At the center of the neuron is the cell’s nucleus, where all the processing that the neuron does takes place. Stretching out from the cell are feelers that look like the filaments of a spiderweb. These feelers are of two kinds: axons, which carry information from one cell to another, and dendrites, which receive that information and transmit it to the receiving cell.
When one cell wants to convey information to another, it reaches out with its axon and fires neurochemicals at the dendrite or the cell wall of the receiving cell through a small extension on the axon called a synapse. Connections between neurons are called synaptic connections.
Brain Cell and Synaptic Connections
Learning, thinking, remembering, and tying one’s shoelaces are all made possible because of the connections between neurons. Each neuron has the ability to make about 100,000 connections, which gives our brains a fantastic amount of raw computing power and an almost infinite capacity to learn.
This processing takes place in different regions of the brain. Our brain is divided into three major areas: the cerebellum, the cerebrum, and the central brain. The cerebellum is the least important part, as far as mood disorders are concerned, since it mostly regulates the motor functions of the body. The cerebrum is where the “higher” functions of thinking, remembering, and motivation take place. Near the center of the brain is the limbic system, the seat of our emotions and our arousal. This area also controls the central nervous system.
Scientists tell us that when we’re born, the cerebrum is pretty much free of connections, although the other areas have been working away for some time. As soon as we’re born, it begins its work. The cerebrum starts making connections that enable us to react to our environment, breathe, see, experience pain and pleasure, and relate to other human beings. Some of these early connections will remain with us throughout life and have profound influences on our behavior.
When a baby is given to its mother, for example, they make eye contact. A link is formed between eye contact and love and safety, which is unique to humans.
Through breast- or bottle-feeding, the infant makes a connection between food and safety and love. This is why asking someone you find attractive to dinner is such an important part of a courtship ritual, and why the old saying that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is so accurate.
These connections form part of our programming, particularly in regard to relationships. Studies of adults who had been born prematurely—in the days when “preemies” were whisked away and put in an incubator without early eye contact with their mothers—showed that their relationship-forming abilities had been severely compromised. We are programmed by our human genetic inheritance to need eye contact and gentle touch just as we are to need food and air. The deprivation of any of these contacts can have profoundly negative consequences.
Each time the baby is fed or eye contact is made, the established neural connections are reinforced as more cells get in on the act. You can think of this process in terms of a muscle building up strength. Exercise stimulates muscle cells to make connections with each other, and, as they do, the muscle increases in mass.
If a child is brought up in a Spanish-speaking home, then connections will be made between love and safety and Spanish. The child—and subsequent adult—will feel safer and more at ease among Spanish-speaking people. Similarly with music, a particular kind of music played in the home will be associated in the child’s mind with all the positive aspects of family. In fact, to a young child, all aspects of home are “positive.”
So if a child is born into a dysfunctional household, one where there is abuse, anger, alcoholism, or other damaging factors, then he will associate these with home and safety as well. This is why a battered woman will most often stay in an abusive relationship or, if she does leave, find another abuser.
We refer to these negative aspects of the program as the inner saboteur. It is a self-perpetuating system of connections between cells, a neurological presence that seems so intrinsic to us that we’re not usually conscious of its influence. You did not install the inner saboteur; it’s the result of what happened to you.
It may be difficult to unlearn what you have been taught, but it is possible.
Going back to the analogy of the muscle; if you stop using it, if you cease to do the exercise, the connections between the muscle cells will wither. So it is, we believe, with the various sabotaging aspects of the program. Once you identify and arrest these behaviors and ideas, the connections between cells will wither, and corresponding aspects of the program will fade.
Anything that can be changed is not essential to you. The program is not you.
The real you—optimistic, nondepressed, and able to form really supportive relationships—is waiting to be programmed in.
Bob discovered that Peter’s father had been a country-town shopkeeper whose business had failed. His dominating mother was severely critical of both Peter and his father, describing them as “ne’er do wells” who only survived because of her reliable job in local government.
The only other major figure in Peter’s early life was his uncle George, his father’s older brother. George lived in a small shack and made a precarious living driving the town’s only taxi. Unlike his brother, however, George read widely and could talk with some knowledge on topics as diverse as astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics. George did not care about material things; his sole love was of books. He never married and was a loner.
In his early years, Peter would often sneak over to George’s shack to escape his mother’s tongue and her not-infrequent physical assaults. His uncle would read to him and talk about things unrelated to the daily grind of shopkeeping or local politics. Later, his mother forbid Peter from visiting his “worthless” uncle. Whenever Peter neglected a chore, she would make the ultimate threat: “You’ll turn out just like George.” Peter’s mother also criticized his playmates and refused to allow them in the house. Since no one met her standards, neither of his parents had many friends.
Peter’s parents were also pessimistic in their outlook. In the rare event that his father added a new range of products to the store, he would mutter, “It’ll probably never sell, but nothing else works.” Peter could not remember his mother ever making a positive remark, even about herself.
Probably because of George’s encouragement during his early years, Peter did well at school and went on to study mathematics at CUNY. He discovered an interest in systems analysis and after leaving college he headed out West and took a series of jobs in computers. He always quit before he could rise within the firm, just as he left his successful business to Brenda.
Peter’s program, the root of his self-perceived failures, is made up of four components: neural specialization (how our brain makes us “specialize” in certain behaviors), idealization (and thus the lifelong emulation of childhood authority figures), the meeting or not of needs, and social influences. And so is yours.
As explained earlier, the child’s brain learns through a process of making neural connections. With each experience, a set of connections is made or strengthened.
If unenforced, these connections wither fairly rapidly. However, when the experience is repeated a number of times the connection grows stronger. The brain becomes specialized in certain behaviors. The inner saboteur is born.
The infant tries to come to grips with each new event and his brain attempts to devise a strategy for coping with it. Some of these coping strategies work and are retained. For example, if he is criticized by his parents, the coping strategy may be to act “bad,” since this is the only way he can make sense of the situation. He will develop “bad” behaviors to make his parent right. A child who is ignored may find that he gets attention when he is ill; thus illness or accidents will become an unconscious coping mechanism.
In this way, Peter “learned” to be a failure, accept criticism, be overly docile, and have unsupportive relationships. These strategies may have worked in childhood to blunt his mother’s anger, but they are dysfunctional in an adult. However, they are his “specializations,” developed to cope with the particular set of circumstances that he found himself in as a small child.
Anyone with a specialty (say a doctor with a specialty in tropical medicine) will, subconsciously, look for environments in which that specialty can be used. For the physician, it could be very warm climates; for an abused child, the environment could be a climate of abuse, criticism, or abandonment.
If Peter were to list the self-defeating behavior patterns that developed from his coping mechanisms, it might look like this:
“I assume I’m going to fail, so I don’t try.”
“I act as if nothing good will happen to me.”
“I find it hard to trust anyone.”
“I criticize people and expect them to criticize me.”
“I find it hard to make friends with anyone.”
“I reject people who are good to me or try and help me.”
“I avoid confrontation and situations in which people may judge me.”
In almost every situation, Peter will use one of these behavioral strategies. They will hold him back and prevent him from having good relationships or a worthwhile career. Peter, like all of us, was born with the capacity to learn an almost lim-itless set of behavioral responses. However, the neural specialization formed by his reactions to situations over which he had no control severely limited his options.
Behind these standard responses of his lie a set of beliefs, most of them unconscious:
“People will not like me (at least, no one who’s worth anything).”
“Nothing will really turn out well.”
“Everything I do is wrong.”
“No matter what I do it’s never good enough.”
“Only intellectual pursuits are worthwhile.”
“I really am a failure.”
“People who are nonjudgmental or nonabusive are boring.”
“I deserve to be punished for my failures.”
Take a moment to consider some of the behavioral patterns and beliefs that tend to sabotage you.
(extracted from) Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, Based on the popular Uplift program, written by Bob Murray Ph. D., and Alicia Fortinberry, published by Mcgraw-Hill