Journaling Away the Holiday Blues

It may sound strange, but the best part of showing up for the Eleventh Annual University of Louisville (U of L) Depression Center Conference wasn’t the continuing education credits. I was invigorated and inspired by the day-long program focused on the treatment of depression and other mood disorders, including approaches to help families deal with a suicide attempt.

Still, as I found myself confessing to Jesse Wright, MD, PhD, director of the U of L Depression Center, I felt like I was going to the dark side. I admitted, “In a few weeks, those of in us in the helping professions will gear up for what I’ve come to think of as ‘selective negative focus’ on the holiday season. How long have we been focusing on ‘surviving the holidays’? Twenty, thirty years? I wonder if it’s actually helping. Could we possibly be making it worse by priming ourselves to expect ‘It’s going to be really bad,’ like a self-fulfilling prophecy?”

Fortunately, what I feared didn’t happen. Jesse, the author of Getting Your Life Back: The Complete Guide to Recovery from Depression, which was chosen by Self Magazine as one of the eight best self-help books, didn’t judge me as dismissive or insensitive to those whose depression is exacerbated during the holidays.

I realize that the “ain’t it awful” mentality is just a natural reaction to the other extreme of “perfection focus” — the notion that an acceptable holiday can’t be “perfectly okay” unless it’s truly perfect.

So, if both of these extreme mindsets are inaccurate, unrealistic, and a setup for a letdown, what’s the solution?

Integrating opposites creates balance and harmony, but it’s trickier. It’s inherently more complicated, more interesting, more fun (paradoxically), and not as hard as you might think. So, let’s get started. Here are two opposite approaches to emotional regulation. They work best when you give yourself permission to freely draw on either or both.

Let It All Hang Out

Sometimes, you must clear out the negative, so the positive can get in.

A simple, discreet way to discharge negative emotions, so you don’t have to haul them around all day or inflict them on others, is a writing exercise. This one, I adapted from Charles Pennebaker’s research on journaling as therapy in conjunction with a writing technique by author Julia Cameron, which she calls Morning Pages:

Write three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing
Write whatever comes to mind, right off the top of your head, without any concern for grammar, reader interest, or good writing skills – because no one will see what you just wrote, not even you.
Do not reread these pages or allow anyone else to read them.
Destroy them immediately after writing them.

The complete privacy of your writing will help release your inhibitions, so you can process without judgment whatever thoughts or feelings come up. Don’t edit anything out no matter how silly, shameful, or insecure.

I think of this as a practical, applied form of meditation—a mindful writing meditation, if you will. But that term sounds too nice and therefore inhibiting, so I prefer to call it the Morning Core Dump.

The Morning Core Dump corrects the misperception many people have that meditation means “think only positive thoughts.” The point of mindfulness isn’t an obsessive avoidance of negative emotions or an obsessive pursuit of happiness, it’s about emotional balance and equanimity. Loosely translated, that means “comfort and joy.”

This paradox is highlighted in a recent study by Amanda Shallcross at the University of Denver. She and her colleagues found that an acceptance, “allowingness,” and curiosity toward negative thoughts and feelings may help people reduce their feelings of depression or stress.

One of the things I like most about Morning Core Dump is that it creates a “container” to process your thoughts and feelings in private. It can also help you emotionally regulate and prepare yourself for interactions with others. For guidance on how to handle an anticipated conversation, see my article Learning from our Worst Conversations in issues #109 and #110 of MD-Update and at my website blog at www.DrJanAnderson.com.

What’s the Big Deal About Gratitude?

Psychologist Martin Seligman, whose research is among the most-cited in the world, is an international expert on learned helplessness, depression, and well-being.

He observes, “Human beings have evolved to spend much more time thinking about negative experiences than positive ones. We spend a lot of time thinking about what has gone wrong and how to fix it, or how to do it differently next time. In the past there may have been an evolutionary advantage to this way of thinking, since it seems to be innate. However, for modern humans this negative bias is the source of a lot of anxiety, depression, and general lack of wellbeing.”

So, how can we regulate our emotions and keep ourselves in better balance? One of the evidence-based interventions, developed by Seligman, is a deceptively simple exercise called Three Good Things.

What happens after a week? Seligman says, “Most people like it so well, they just keep doing it.”

For a week, before you go to sleep, write down three things that went well today.
Then reflect on why they went well.

Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania determined in a series of well-designed research studies that this tool works because gratitude gives you a break from focusing on what goes wrong in life and keeps you from taking for granted the good things. This results in a chance to regroup mentally and recharge emotionally with a fresh perspective and more resilience.

Who would have thought something so simple would become an evidence-based intervention for anxiety and depression? Of course, there’s an app for it called Three Good Things.

Another helpful app is the Five Minute Journal by Intelligent Change, which offers options for a morning and/or evening entry. I prefer the Five Minute Journal app, rather than the paper journal, for two reasons: It’s free and I can add a passcode for privacy.

If you’re susceptible to negative thinking when you first wake up, I recommend you do the gratitude entry in the Five Minute Journal first thing in the morning. That way you can get a jump on things and set the tone for the day, before the negative news cycle infiltrates your psyche.

Keep experimenting until you hit on the variations or combinations of journaling that work best for you and can easily be incorporated into your lifestyle. As life goes on and things change, periodically review and adjust your approach to help yourself from keep from getting stuck or giving up entirely.

Emotional regulation, especially the processing of negative emotions, can be tricky. If you’re not getting good results from either of these journaling techniques, there’s a possibility that you may be more than mildly depressed or anxious. If you or others around you are concerned, do yourself, and thçem, a favor—consult a professional. You won’t be alone. So many Americans are affected, at some point in their lives, by depression that it’s now considered the “common cold” of behavior health issues.