Are You Feeling “Up the River”?


This morning when the alarm went off I hit the snooze and drifted back to sleep, not back into a sound sleep, but that interim state, somewhere between sound asleep and wide awake.  Like many mornings, my brain spent the first few moments figuring out what day it was and what my agenda might be like for the day.  It is Monday morning, the first day back to work after a long Thanksgiving weekend, and as my brain begins to process the past 4 days.


Per usual, my thinking ‘automatically’ took off down the path of evaluating my ‘performance’ and ‘productivity’ over the long weekend.  Per usual I was ‘coming up short’ on my ‘internal performance evaluation.’  My brain was ‘automatically’ focusing on what I didn’t get done.  Once my brain got started down that path, it was as if that spark of negative thinking ignited a flame. 


Before I even seemed to realize what was happening, I had rifled through the usual negative thoughts about myself: “I should have done this…”  “I didn’t get that done either…” “I didn’t get the garage cleaned, ran out of time to fix the toilet…” “I should have spent more time, pushed myself further, not spent as much time relaxing, watching football…”


It was as if I had been standing in the shallow water at the edge of a raging river, slipped on a rock, and suddenly found myself in the middle of the turbulent water, heading for the dam.  All of a sudden it hit me.  “This feels like depression.”  In that moment, I realized that I am really no different from the many clients I have dealt with who struggle with depression.  This is the essence of what it feels like to be mired in a torrent of negative thinking.  No one can convince me, even for a minute, that how I felt in that moment was any ‘less’ depressed than anyone else.  I’m just not buying it.  I know how lousy I felt.


So what did I do?  I immediately set to work to get ‘out of the river.’  It wasn’t easy, mind you, but I went to work without delay, identifying my negative thoughts and, one-by-one, registering the ‘positive’ counter thought for each negative representation.  Fortunately, I have built the ‘positive’ infrastructure of thinking over the years, so I have ‘positive’ thoughts ‘at the ready’ to slide into the slots that were initially being occupied by negative thoughts.  Next I got on my exercise bike and started pedaling like crazy.  Within a relatively short period of time, I was able to ‘swim out of the torrent’ and back to the calm waters at the ‘edge of the river.’  Whew!!


It is beyond the scope of this article to tell you, specifically, how I made it out of the river this morning.  Suffice it to say that it is a learned process that can be taught to just about anyone. 


As I reflected on my experience, I couldn’t help but wonder how many folks have no idea how to ‘get out of the river’.  Had I let my negative thoughts go on, doing their dirty work, I am sure that at some point I might be convinced that I was in serious depression and probably ‘needed an antidepressant’.


Pharmaceutical companies have done a phenomenal job of marketing antidepressants.  They have completely sold most of America, and probably most of the world, on the idea that depression is related to a deficit of serotonin in the brain.  Theoretically, antidepressants work by slowing down the serotonin ‘re-uptake’ function in the brain, thereby making more serotonin available in the brain for processing ‘positive’ messages.


How do researchers support claims that antidepressants work to lift depression?  Quite simple, really, if a person is feeling ‘depressed’ and he/she takes an antidepressant, and they feel ‘less depressed,’ then the drug has worked.  That seems to be enough proof that antidepressants are ‘effective’ for treating depression.  Have you ever noticed, though, that researchers are careful to avoid the claim that depression is ‘caused’ by a deficit of serotonin in the brain?  Look for it, you won’t find it anywhere.  Folks in the ‘know’ are careful to not make claims about things that they cannot prove for sure.


There is little doubt that serotonin is a major player in the phenomenon, but what really ‘causes’ depression is still very much open for debate.  We know enough about the brain to be able to say that serotonin is ‘related’ to the feeling of depression, but the nature of this relationship raises questions.  Does a serotonin deficit cause the ‘depression’? Or is it the other way around?


It is my contention that it is the other way around in many (if not most) cases.  How can I say that with any degree of authority?  Simple, I use the same logic that is used to support the efficacy of antidepressant drugs.  It goes like this:  If a person is ‘feeling’ happy, we can empirically prove that one will find an elevation of serotonin in the system.  Therefore, feeling happy ‘causes’ a rise in serotonin levels and feeling depressed ‘causes’ just the opposite.


Consider this: Let’s say you bought a lottery ticket this morning, and you just found out it was a million $ winner.  How might you feel?  If I were able to pull a blood sample from you, immediately prior to and in the immediate aftermath of finding out you won the lottery, I could prove to you that there was a marked spike in serotonin levels in your brain.  What caused this? Or let’s suppose you just received word that a loved one died.  I would, conversely, find a marked decrease in serotonin.  Did the sudden rise or drop in serotonin cause the feelings of elation or sadness?  Of course not, it was exactly the opposite.  What if the information about the lottery ticket or the death of a loved was completely fabricated?  Would I still find the fluctuations?  Of course I would, the perception alone of winning or losing will cause the change, whether or not it is actually true. So there you have it.  The perception of an event can be proven to change serotonin levels in the brain. 


Let me make it clear here that I am not saying that antidepressants don’t work.  I am simply saying that one’s perception can be proven to cause significant changes in serotonin levels in the brain.  Change of perception, my friends, is a powerful antidepressant that each and every one of us has the ability to employ each and every day.


The problem lies in how to change one’s perception.  It is a bit more complicated than one might think.  Simply deciding to perceive something in a different way is not the answer.  If it were, I could hand you a new perception, and send you on your way.  Changing perception is a process that takes instruction, proper technique, coaching and time.  It is not much different, in essence, from learning an art form, such as martial arts.  It is easy to understand why people reach for a pill.  It is quicker, easier and seems to work quite well.  But do you really want to be messing with brain chemistry if you might not really need it at all?


In several prominent, well documented research studies, antidepressants were found to be no more effective than a placebo 80% of the time.  Wow!  This means that of 10 people taking antidepressants, as many as 8 could be ‘feeling better’ not because of the pill (it’s a sugar pill) but because they have the perception that they are taking an actual antidepressant.


I am not, I repeat not, telling you to stop taking your anti-depressant.  I am telling you to seriously consider getting to work on learning how to take charge of shifting your own perceptions.  Think about it.  Even if your antidepressant is ‘working’, how much additional benefit could you gain from also learning how to be in charge of your own perceptions??  Why would one want to leave such a powerful tool in the bag?


Want to get out of the river – for good?  Give us a call.  Take Charge today!


All Rights Reserved.  Copyright: December 2008.  Take Charge Counseling and Consulting.

Author: Miles Nitz, MS, LMFT