Depression: Part I – My Journey

Hello lovely people!

I hope you’ve had a terrific week! Today I want to share with you a topic that is very close to me: Depression. As I have personally experienced depression for many years, and also studied and conducted research on it, I have quite a bit to say on the topic. For this reason I’ve broken this topic down into two parts. The first of which that I will share with you is my personal journey with depression. The second part, which I will post over the weekend, will discuss some of the scientific evidence relevant to depression.

When I started writing this piece I wasn’t sure exactly where to begin. I feel I have so much to say on this topic and so much knowledge to share, it’s tough to decide what to focus on. For the purposes of keeping this somewhat brief, I won’t go into a lot of detail. However, if there’s something you read that peaks your interest and you’d like to learn more about it, please leave a comment, email me (genuinelyjulie87@gmail.com), or contact me on the Genuinely Julie Facebook page, and I’ll be happy to chat more with you about it.

To give you some perspective on the prevalence of depression among cancer survivors and the general population, according to the literature both cancer patients and survivors tend to be at a greater risk for developing depression both during treatment and afterwards (Harrington et al., 2010; Raison & Miller, 2003; Spiegel & Giese-Davis, 2003). The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that among the general population, approximately 8% of adults will experience a major depressive episode at some time during their lives (CMHA, 2015). Depression is one of the most prevalent illnesses and the leading cause of disability worldwide (WHO, 2015), and has considerable economic, social, and personal implications.

The first time that I became depressed I was about 16, and its onset was triggered by a stressful family life event. I simultaneously developed an eating disorder, which I later realized was a maladaptive coping mechanism, that I struggled with for two years. When I turned 18, I was prescribed antidepressants for the first time. This did help some with my eating disorder, however I continued to experience low levels of depression, and struggled with a very negative self-image; I did not like myself and I hated my body.

Then came my stage IV laryngeal cancer diagnosis, which was a highly stressful and traumatic event, triggering another and more severe depressive episode, which would last for several years. The combination of the physiological along with the psychological and emotional trauma culminated in me becoming extremely depressed. At times I even recall contemplating suicide.

I also developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the trauma I experienced with my cancer, particularly the surgical aspect. Losing my voice, and having to adjust to a different way of breathing and speaking, along with the quite noticeable physical markers (ie. my scars and tracheotomy), was very difficult. As I had fairly severe body image issues prior to my cancer diagnosis and treatments, the new circumstances I faced only magnified my insecurities and self-loathing.

For those who have never been depressed, I realize that it can be difficult to comprehend the experience of it. However, I caution to withhold judgement as it’s difficult to truly appreciate how it feels to have no hope for your future, to feel as though no matter what you do you will not be able to overcome adversity, to feel completely alone, and to suffer tremendous emotional pain. But that is how severe depression often feels.

For many years I was angry to be alive, had little confidence in myself and minimal hope for the future. So what changed? In short: my attitude.

Aside from my longstanding fascination with behaviour and the mind, I expect a key reason I went into psychology was because I’d finally decided to try solving my own issues, because medication wasn’t doing the trick and I was sick of being depressed. In 2011 I began my studies in Psychology at Brescia University College. The experience and knowledge I gained in my three years there helped me to learn and grow tremendously, and slowly I began to overcome my depression as I gained confidence in myself and my abilities. I realized that just because I only had a tiny whisper voice, that didn’t mean I couldn’t achieve success. I excelled and graduated with honors one year ahead of schedule.

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Graduation from the Honors Specialization in Psychology Program at Brescia University College, London, ON. (2014)

I then began my master’s degree where among my many research interests, I became fascinated with learning more about inflammation, the gut microbiome, and its role in depression. This led to my interest and passion in nutrition, for which I am now taking a program to be certified as a Holistic Nutritionist. I’ve continued to educate myself on the role that nutrition and diet play in depression, overall health, and wellness, and slowly I made positive changes to my diet and lifestyle.

Along side my educational experiences, I began seeking out different resources and approaches to help facilitate my healing. This led me to yoga, meditation, and learning to practice gratitude daily and embrace kindness, which have been tremendously helpful to me in overcoming depression. I also read many books. Two of which that I found to be most helpful were “Happiness” by Buddhist monk and scientist Matthieu Ricard, and “Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression” by Miriam Akhtar.

Here I am now, nearly 10 years after my cancer ordeal; I have overcome a lot of obstacles, one of the most daunting of which was depression. I have not only survived, but have learned how to flourish, cultivate happiness, and embrace life; and I know that regardless of your circumstances, YOU can do this too!

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Embracing life and learning how to flourish! (Photo: Emerald Lake, Alberta. 2015)

I now want to say to those struggling with depression: I know it may feel like you are alone and that there is no hope, that you can’t overcome it, and that your suffering will never end. But you can overcome depression, and you will. However, achieving recovery requires that you truly want to heal. This point is critical to understand:

Recovery and healing are a choice. You must both want it and be open to it.

For many years I wasn’t open to healing, and so my suffering continued for far longer than it needed to. I had a pessimistic attitude and my perspective was that life was cruel and unfair. I had victimized myself, and so my depression persisted.

It was not until I decided to take accountability for my circumstances and an active role in helping to heal myself that my life began to change positively. No one could make me do that, except for me. The same is true for each of us.

It is your choice to pursue recovery, healing, and to flourish.

No one can do this for us, we must do it for ourselves, recognizing that this is part of our own unique journey; a journey that will likely not be easy, but rather quite challenging. But the reward of gaining back and embracing your life, and of learning how to flourish and cultivate happiness are undoubtedly worthwhile!

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Step outside of your comfort zone, say yes to adventure, flourishing, and happiness!    (Photo: Ucluelet, BC. 2015)

I am content that after many years of taking antidepressant medication, I am now off of it and feeling better than ever! That being said, I want to be clear that I do not advocate nor advise for anyone to stop taking medication they are currently on; that is an important discussion to have with your doctor. What I do want to emphasize however, is that medication is not a cure but instead addresses certain symptoms temporarily. This is accomplished by altering specific neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain (Meyer & Quenzer, 2005). Moreover, the effectiveness of antidepressant treatment can vary greatly from one person to another, and depends on several factors such as genetics (Papiol et al., 2007), environment, and lifestyle choices. For some people a reduction in symptoms may be experienced, for others there may be no effect, and still for some symptoms may actually worsen.

Depression is a multidimensional illness involving physiological and psychological, including cognitive and emotional, components. This is why a holistic approach to treatment and recovery, which addresses both physiological (eg. nutrition, stress management, physical activity, herbal supplementation, etc.) and psychological (eg. emotional wellness, cognitive and behavioural treatments, stress management, etc.) aspects, is most likely to be successful (Greenlaw, n.d.; Hollen et al., 1992; Williams, 2001).

Ultimately though, one must first decide that they want to recover, and be willing to take action to facilitate this.

I am not so naive as to think that I will never again face depression. I know that I am more susceptible to it due to a variety of reasons. However, I have also developed confidence in my ability to overcome depression, along with an understanding of how to recognize what triggers may cause it to resurface. I have developed effective, healthy coping strategies and ways to counteract depression when I feel it trying to take hold again. The great news is that these are skills that you too can learn and develop!

Unsure of where to begin? A good first step is choosing to be open and honest, both with yourself and others, and realizing that it’s okay and natural to feel vulnerable and insecure. I’ve discussed both of these topics in more detail in previous posts which you can find here: insecurity and personal growth, and the value of vulnerability.

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Embrace your journey! (Photo: Ucluelet, BC. 2015)

Remember: This is your journey. Embrace it. Discover what works for you. Learn and grow.

I will end here with a quote that I remind myself of daily: “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become” – C. Jung

This quote has become somewhat of my mantra as it reminds me that no matter what life throws in my path, whatever my circumstances may be, I always have the opportunity to decide how I choose to respond and the extent to which I allow circumstances to affect me, and so do you.

xo Julie

Insecurity and Personal Growth

Happy Saturday everyone!

This post is a more personal one. Some of you may relate to this, others may not. With so many big changes recently happening in my life, thoughts of insecurity and fear of the unknown have often come to my mind. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for many years and I’m no stranger to the insecure, self-defeating, negative internal dialogue that tends to pervade the thoughts of those struggling with these conditions.

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Feeling happy (and a little chilly) at Emerald Lake, Alberta Canada (2015)

Fortunately I’ve found ways to overcome these challenges, which I’d like to share with you. I also want to share my experience as I know it can often feel like you’re facing depression and/or anxiety all alone. You know there are others struggling but the experience can feel extremely unique to you, and you may feel isolated and as though no one can truly understand how you feel. I get it. I’ve been there too.

I used to be very insecure. I placed far too much value on my own appearance and developed a near obsession with maintaining control over all aspects of my life. While rigid control gave me a false perception of comfort, it was not until years later that I realized I was actually closing myself off from the world and from life. In the wake of challenges that life was presenting me, I’d forgotten how to live and how to enjoy life.

I suppose it was my pervasive need for control and my vanity that ultimately facilitated the development of an eating disorder. During that time I recall being very unhappy, anxious, and depressed. Then came my cancer; a stage IV tumor that had nearly engulfed by larynx (ie. voice box). I was on the path to an early grave within a few months. Fortunately, I survived the aggressive surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments and slowly my physical health began to return. However, now having no voice and the physical challenge presented by the tracheotomy, my insecurities and lack of confidence in myself became more pronounced than ever before.

Again I fell into depression and this time it was much worse. I remember feeling entirely hopeless, consumed with grief because I felt like I lost a part of me and that my situation would make it impossible to connect with others and achieve my ambitions in life. For many years I struggled with this. Trying slowly to pick up the pieces of my life and put them back together. To get back to who I was. But this wasn’t possible because having gone through these experiences how could I ever be the same person I was before it all happened? Looking back now I laugh because it seems so obvious to me that this was a pivotal event in my life that beckoned an opportunity for growth. However, at the time it felt like a black hole sucking me into darkness and I had little hope.

This went on for years, until finally I began to realize that I would never again be the Julie I was before and that I was in control of how I chose to let my circumstances affect me. I started putting the pieces of “me” back together, while adding the new pieces I’d gained in the years since. I learned to let go of that rigid need for control. I realized that there are far more important things than physical appearance. And I finally had to confront my anxieties and insecurities regarding my feelings of inadequacy.

I sought out alternative treatments, approaches, and experiences which opened me up to the world again. I found yoga and meditation very helpful in the healing process and read several books (“Happiness” by Matthieu Ricard was among the most influential for me). I’ve learned much about how diet and nutrition influence inflammation and how it can either enhance or minimize anxiety, and especially depression.

For instance, accumulating evidence suggests that inflammation is likely an underlying factor in depression, and that one’s gut microbiome and diet can have major impacts on the development and severity of depressive symptoms. I suppose this is one of the major reasons I’ve become so interested in nutrition and diet and seek to share this life-changing information and nutritious recipes with others.

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Eating a nutritious, anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce inflammation in the body and may decrease symptoms of depression (Black Cherry Avocado Smoothie Bowl Recipe)

Coming back to my discussion on insecurity, today I consider myself to be a pretty confident person and have worked hard to minimize my insecurities. But don’t get me wrong, many still lurk in the back of my mind and occasionally try to again gain control. When faced with a new challenge or endeavour I might find myself thinking things like “You’re smart and you’d be good at that, but how could you do it without your voice? You can’t”. However, my years of education in psychology have taught me how to recognize these negative thoughts, and I’ve developed strategies to stop them in their tracks and alter the content to reflect a more positive (and realistic) perspective.

When I begin to have negative thoughts telling me “I can’t” or “you’ll fail” or “they won’t like you”, I immediately challenge them in a way that allows me to alter the pervasive thoughts, followed by subsequent behavioural modification. This approach is a strategy used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

As an example, my internal dialogue might then go something like “Okay, if you “fail” what can be learned from this? What constitutes a “fail”? I then reason through my thoughts logically to challenge the negative and destructive cognitive patters. This allows me to view the situation in a more realistic way, altering my perception of the circumstances and facilitating a more positive approach to tackling any situation.

The main reason I wanted to share this post is to emphasize that we all have insecurities and lack confidence in a few or more areas of life. And this is completely okay! It is perfectly normal to feel doubt, particularly when you begin to tackle something new and push the boundaries of your comfort zone.

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Exploring Emerald Lake, Alberta, Canada (2015)

One thing I’ve learned more recently regarding pushing ones boundaries is that each time I step outside of my comfort zone, I grow tremendously as does the confidence I have in myself. At one time I’d have been terrified of traveling alone. Now having done it a few times I realize I actually quite enjoy the experience. I’ve learned to embrace the unknown and the uncontrollable.

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In Ucluelet, BC, 2015… One of the most enlightening travel experiences I’ve had yet!

I realize that building confidence and learning to be secure with oneself is both a process and a challenge, but it’s absolutely something you can achieve if you truly desire to do so. This is because confidence, and subsequent alleviation of insecurity, is something that you can learn once you have the appropriate tools to develop it!

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on how to tackle insecurity and build confidence was actually from this TED talk based on scientific evidence that basically said: “fake it ‘til you make it”. And what do you know, it works!

Life is a journey and we’re not meant to know what’s coming. That was one of the toughest life lessons I’ve learned to accept (being a “recovered control-freak” and all hah). Presently, the thrill of adventure and exploring new places, the unknown, and meeting new people is something that drives me forward; seeking out new opportunities to travel and explore the many marvelous things this life has to offer.

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Exploring Beautiful Tofino, British Columbia (2015)

Helping others brings me tremendous satisfaction and happiness, giving me a sense of purpose. By opening myself up to the world and to life, I’ve become passionate about fostering my own personal growth and helping others to do the same!

Until next time, wishing you health, happiness, and personal growth

xo Julie