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Anybody Else Depressed Out There? I Know I Sure Am

Here's the one cure that works for me.

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Photo Illustration of three hands catching raindrops
Margeaux Walter
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Hey! Anybody else depressed out there? I know I sure am. Pandemics depress me. Politics depress me. Global wars and turmoil depress me. Toss in everybody’s doctor reports, family tensions, supply-chain issues and the cost of an avocado these days and misery meters are blowing up all over the place.

“How are you?” my cousin Kim asked me.

“Do you really want to know?” I replied.

“Probably not,” she said.

“How are you?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know.”

In the first months of the pandemic, depression among adults in the United States tripled from 8.5 percent to 27.8 percent, and according to the Boston University School of Public Health, that rate is still climbing, now affecting 1 out of every 3 American adults.

Just reading these statistics depresses me. It’s pervasive — this feeling of ugh. Too much pessimism. Too much glumness. Too much worry. I used to devour the news — online, on TV. I’d start reading the Sunday newspaper on Saturday night. Now I want to say, Please…go away! There’s a mental health condition called GAD that, despite its adorable-sounding acronym, stands for generalized anxiety disorder. It’s what you get when you find it nearly impossible to control your worrying; you just worry about anything and everything nonstop. I used to think the name for this tendency was Vivien Yellin: my mom.

But I googled GAD and (this is not a typo) 1,890,000,000 results popped up! I did not have time to read all of them, but I’m pretty certain now that there’s an excess amount of worrying going on.

So, how can we be engaged, caring citizens of the world without going down a rabbit hole of existential doom? How do we keep the day-to-dayness of life from turning into grayness?

Lorra Rudman is a psychotherapist in Evanston, Illinois, and one of the wisest people I know. Her advice? “Focus on what’s good in your life. Keep a personal go-to list of things that make you happy. If you start feeling down, read your list. Anyone who’s flown on an airplane knows the rule: You have to put on your own oxygen mask first. It makes taking care of oneself an obligation. If you don’t, you won’t be able to take care of anyone or anything else — including the world.”

Rudman is also a big fan of mindfulness — a practice of intentional awareness of what you’re seeing and feeling right now, of being in the present moment, to help calm the mind and the body.

My attempts at mindfulness have historically been less than stellar. My mind is rarely cooperative when it comes to focusing on, say, breathing or walking or eating — things I trust can happen without my monitoring them.

But one technique, called the Three Senses exercise, is so simple even I can manage it. First you tune into three things you can hear right now. The dishwasher’s running. A dog is barking. Your cellphone is buzzing. Ignore the phone and now focus on three things you see. A folding chair. A sock on the floor. A pile of mail that needs opening. Ignore the mail and turn your attention to three things you can feel. The sofa you’re sitting on. The fuzzy slippers on your feet. The portable fan blowing on your face.

I learned this technique from a website called Anxiety Canada, and it may be why I think of Canadians as being much calmer than I am. The site says, “It’s impossible to do this exercise and not be present and mindful.” I agree. It works — as long as you don’t stop to open your mail or check who’s calling.

“It’s easy to get stuck in our own heads,” says New York psychologist Mindy Greenstein, the author of Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging, a book I highly recommend about calming the fears of aging. “One of the best ways to transcend our worries is to focus on helping someone else,” Greenstein observes. “Doing that can get the spotlight off ourselves and the world at large. Another is to set realistic goals with different time frames. For example, something you can do today, like clean out that closet you keep meaning to, or more long term, learn an instrument you always wanted to, which can help you regain a feeling of control over something, even when the world feels like it’s off its axis.”

My own, nonexpert advice is, cut back on social media and the news. Despite what the cable news networks or headlines or Twitter may lead us to believe, not everything is breaking news. Some stories are just plain old regular news.

Do we really need to learn about every world event the minute it happens? It might be OK to get the scoop 20 minutes later. Or if it is a major incident, somebody is bound to call or text you. If you want, I’ll text you. Just please do your blood pressure a favor and turn off the news flow. Instead, watch a comedy; read a soothing book; take a walk and look at trees.

Or as Greenstein says, “Seek out things you find beautiful, like sunsets or birdsong or a favorite artist, to help you feel connected to a world that can’t be all that bad if it has such beautiful things in it.”

The next time my cousin Kim asks me, “How are you?,” I want to first pause in the moment, focus on fuzzy slippers or blow a fan in my face like a Canadian, hear some birds singing, then tell her: “Great. Fine. As good as can be.”

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