Over the years, I’ve experienced both the highs and the lows that come from facing life with a unique set of challenges. And like many, I have discovered that while living with a disability can be full of the discoveries that come from looking at the world from a vantage others may not often see, it can also be challenging and filled with emotions of isolation and sadness.
Studies show that people living with a disability are often at higher risk for depression. It is also surprisingly common for those of us who are living with a disability to report lower quality of life than our able-bodied counterparts, particularly in our younger years when social isolation and bullying can be prevalent. At times, this leaves us to deal with feelings of loneliness, sadness, and sometimes even more serious levels of depression.
For me, finding my way out of my own periods of depression came slowly, and were not without fear of other people’s perceptions or where the journey would lead. Yet, amidst my uncertainties, I came to discover some tools that continue to reinvigorate a passion for life, even today. If you are among those who have faced this side of reality, here are some foundational steps to help you reconnect with the potential richness that life has to offer.
1. Perhaps the most well-known and immediate tool to lift one’s spirits when feeling down, and is often reported as a key in alleviating symptoms of depression, is to increase one’s physical activity, even slightly.
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While often spoken of as activities to elevate the heart rate and endorphins, there is no need to make physical activity into a grandiose gesture. Something like taking a stroll outside for 20 minutes may be enough to get the blood circulating and the mind off of its ruminations. For those of us who use power chairs, it may also be useful to focus on small movement patterns with the arms, legs or head that can be done from a seated position. If physical activity isn’t helpful for you, here are some other alternatives.
2. Mindfulness. More and more, researchers and clinicians are becoming aware of the subtle and beneficial practices of mindfulness when it comes to shifting one’s internal landscape. Simply put, the practice of mindfulness is learning to place your attention on, and appreciate what is immediately before you. This can have a profound effect.
When you are feeling down or have some emotional experiences that are not immediately pleasant, our typical reaction is to try and run from them, looking elsewhere to find solace or escape. Yet, if we pause and become aware of the physical sensations inside our body along with our interaction with the mental thoughts and images that run through our minds, we can begin to differentiate ourselves from what we are feeling. This allows us to gain some distance and perspective on it.
Set aside 10 minutes a day to look inside and track your physical sensations is a way to begin to build this mindfulness muscle.
3. Ten-second micro-break. An easily accessible variation on mindfulness practice is to take a 10 second pause at any point during the day to become curious about our immediate physical sensations. During moments where we find ourselves overwhelmed by an emotion, we turn our attention outward and ground ourselves in some sort of physical sensation.
For 10 short seconds, if we can place all of our awareness and curiosity on the breath flowing in and out, or the soft touch of our clothes against our skin, we can shift away from the intensity of what we may be feeling inside. When practiced regularly, these ten-second micro-breaks can add up building momentum and increasing our ability to orient in the present moment. This does not necessarily have to be a physical sensation. Focusing on sights or sounds of what is around us also works in a similar manner.
4. Reconnect to your purpose. It has been my experience that when I feel most lost and wallowing in a state of less than pleasant emotions, I lose sense of why I am here. Connecting at even a small level with the sense of purpose can provide us with the lens with which to approach our current situation.
This by no means needs to be some grand life purpose or vision. Finding a reason to do the next task at work or figuring out one goal to reach for by the end of the day can be effective. Not only does this reinforce and ground you in an immediate action, but is also provides the hope in moving toward a goal.
5. As clique as it may sound, nothing has been more well-documented for shifting the experience of something in depression than finding a way to support or serve others.
For me, when I am in my worst states, the simple act of going out and finding a way to serve another human being immediately gets me out of my own head and puts me in touch with the benefits of giving back.
We are not necessarily looking to transform the world with this action. An act of service may be taking an extra moment to open a door for another person, beginning a conversation with them about what they are up to, or even offering a smile even if you don’t feel like it. These acts offer the opportunity to shift our focus away from ourselves and onto another. And for that brief moment, our own internal feelings take the backseat allowing us a momentary respite form whatever it is we may be feeling.
Of course if you find yourself in a situation where your emotions go beyond the normal ups and downs of life it is usually very helpful to reach out to another person who is willing to listen with a nonjudgmental ear. This could be either a close friend or loved one, or it may be someone more professional.
No matter who you choose, remember that there are people and resources available, and know that you are NOT alone! Everyone Matters.