Winter is coming! The year is winding down to its final months – thoughts of holidays will now be upon many of us, and of course before you know it final exams will be given. If you are anything like me (hey I don’t think that’s a bad thing), you are already experiencing the decrease in sunlight as the days grow shorter and the nights ever longer. There are real psychological as well as physiological changes we experience at this time of year, perhaps you find yourself a bit more exhausted at the end of the day and wanting to retire earlier. Your eating habits may have changed as now your body craves more comfort foods such as pasta and soups, or you may be eating more carbohydrates than you care to admit, as those extra pounds add up!
You may also be experiencing an increase in anxiety and or depression. The holidays, while a time for celebration and cheerfulness, can be quite difficult for others. Society puts an awful lot on people and expects us to act in certain ways – holidays are fun and you need to have fun – you MUST have fun, right? Thank our parents for that or the marketing gurus, either way it is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. If you’re dealing with any sickness be it yours or a loved one, if you are ending a relationship, if you are wondering what you are going to do after graduation (Will I find my dream job, or for that matter, any job?), all these things and so much more seem (for many) to carry a greater emotionality, an intensity which happens around this time of year. Add into that mix those final exams that I mentioned, and dealing with all the other “stuff” that is going on in the world is quite a witch’s brew.
The sad fact is this – depression and anxiety is growing in the midst of our college students. From an article titled “Depression and Anxiety Among College Students,” authored by Margarita Tartakovsky and Dr. Jerald Kay, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at The Wright State School of Medicine, says, “There is no question that all of the national surveys we have at our fingertips show a distinct rise in the number of mental health problems.”
From the same article, Dr. Harrison Davis states, “If students do not feel adequate or prepared to cope with the new environment of a college campus, they could easily become susceptible to depression and anxiety.” Dr. Harrison is an Assistant Professor of Counseling and Coordinator of the Community Counseling Masters program at North Georgia College and State University.
Of course it is not just our college students feeling the stress of everyday life. The other day as I began my lecture I happened to notice some students were fidgeting more than usual and they didn’t seem “engaged” in the lecture. Being quite versed in the interpretation of body language (the silent language), I asked if everyone was ok. Most of my students complained that they were stressed, or were not feeling well, or didn’t get enough sleep and so on. I told them I understood, and then I went and opened my classroom door, stopped, looked back at my students and said, “I have two bags out here that I left standing up against the side of the wall, let me make sure they are still there.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, “they are still here and they are waiting for me and man are they heavy.” I went back to my desk and before I began to pick up where I left off I told them that those bags were filled with a variety of my personal stresses, anxieties, and worries. What I was trying to convey was this; I’m not much different than you.
So if we really want to be truthful we are all dealing to some degree with the issues of anxiety, stress, depression, anxiousness, worry, etc. So what can we do to help ourselves in a world that at times seems helpless and out of control, and every bit of news we hear is negative?
Besides the standard therapies of psychological counseling, and/or pharmaceutical intervention, there are other ways we can manage our stresses, lower our levels of depression, increase our overall self-image in a positive way, and basically enhance and balance our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being. The old adage, think positive thoughts and positive things will happen, may have a lot more power and influence over our lives than we tend to believe.
Many ancient cultures already know and have for thousands of years the power of mediation, positive thinking, and so forth. In the west, modalities such as these are finally catching up and becoming a larger part of our daily routines, such as mediation, yoga, and deep breathing to lessen anxiety and depression. Lately, though, new research (particularly from the west) has surfaced about positive thinking and how it improves your physical health and emotional health; it is called neuroplasticity.
As Marie Pasinski, M.D., states, “Perhaps as a neurologist I am biased, but, what could be more important than understanding the potential of your most precious gift, your brain. Regardless of age, your brain has the ability to make new neurons and construct new neural pathways throughout your life. Improving the tenor of your inner voice begins by listening to what it is saying. When you experience a distressing thought identify its true nature and give yourself the choice to think and feel differently.” She further says that “getting into the flow of things can happen through meditation, prayer, yoga, and/or tai chi.” So, anybody up for some positive thinking?
Isn’t it amazing that we can actually change the physicality of our brains, which in turn affects our emotional barometer, just by doing, saying, or thinking something good and positive? So, again the old adage – think positive and positive things will happen to you – is now being proved through the science of neuroplasticity.
Of course it is not always easy to be a positive thinker. It takes work and a whole lot of it at that. Most of us have (since childhood) been indoctrinated into feeling guilty for this or that, or shameful, or fearful or whatever – anything but positive. We easily slip into the negative mode seeing our world as less than loving, less than fair, and things become fear-based for us; and what’s really sad is this: Most of us are so accustomed to this way of thinking, we begin to think it is normal!
Yes, there is plenty negative “stuff” happening all around us each and every day. There are plenty of reasons to be stressed, mad, sad, depressed, but … plenty of reasons to at least try and change that lens and see things a bit differently.
I know I am working extra hard to change my lens. Yes, change is often difficult and sometimes it takes a whole lot of courage to muster up. Perhaps (and I hope it is soon) I will enter my classroom, stop for a moment, go back and open the door, and tell my class I have several bags out here that I need to check – and when I go to lift them I will say, “Hey, they are not as heavy as I’d thought!”
David L. Podos is an adjunct instructor for the Center for Social Sciences, Business and Information Sciences at MVCC.