the body and reinforcing the brain

Recently I took a day off of work because depression had been kicking my ass all week and I just could not make it out of bed again. It’s a frustrating part of being this low–I have no energy to do basic things and fulfill my responsibilities, but enough energy to feel horrible about not doing those things. Still, a day off is sometimes inevitable during these periods, and I do my best to accept where I am.

Often when I have to take a “sick brain” day, I end up doing nothing. I sit on the couch and watch TV literally all day. The only thing I’ll do is walk to the convenience store or order delivery food so that I can binge while watching TV. It’s really not healthy or productive to making myself feel better. It’s just a pattern of behavior that I’ve settled into and somehow convince myself will make my mood improve. When it doesn’t, which it never does, I feel like shit for wasting a day, but I often don’t have the skills to interrupt the pattern.

This day, though, I did it. I walked out of the house this morning with the plan to go immediately to the convenience store to buy things to binge on and then rush home to eat them. For some reason, this time I decided to take a bit of a walk first. The weather was nice and cool and moving slowly but consistently seemed to be helping my mood. So I walked.

I walked right past the convenience store, looking at it, but thinking I could stop there on my way back. Then I decided to try to find another store to go to, maybe further away. I kept plodding along.

Eventually, I was about a mile from home and I thought of a coffee shop that I really like. I thought it might be nice to get breakfast and coffee there and sit in the sunny window and read. So instead of worrying and being embarrassed, I walked in and I ordered the things I wanted. I got a savory scone and a cup of coffee without thinking about who would be watching me while I ate or if it was a healthy enough choice. It was what I wanted in the moment and I got it. I sat down at a table and read, pausing to take slow bites of my scone and savor my coffee. I stayed for about an hour and half, indulging myself mindfully. After a while, the shop filled up more, so I decided to leave.

I walked out, not feeling good, my mood still down and a bit judgmental, but feeling more human and much less impulsive. I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to binge.” But I also was afraid to give up the opportunity, so I walked in the direction of the convenience store. By the time I got there, I realized something amazing: 1) I didn’t really want to binge and 2) I wasn’t required to follow through on that behavior even though it’s my habit. Whoa, that thought was revolutionary. So I walked home, still slowly, still feeling down, but proud of myself for treating my desires with respect and treating my urges with careful skepticism.

As my therapist always says, every time you act on an urge, it reinforces the routes in your brain that make that behavior easier. So when you make a choice to pursue a positive behavior, you are literally helping your brain to make this choice easier in the future. It’s hard, but it works.

I’m going to work on reinforcing this pattern. My depressed brain is slower and less able to learn new things, but it doesn’t mean it can’t do anything. I think maybe next time making a choice like this will be slightly easier.

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