I tried to think of several different ways to open up this post, but there really is no other way than to state a simple truth - I deal with depression. Yes, I deal with it. I don’t say, “I am depressed,” because I refuse to accept it as something I am, innately, in a constant state. Dealing with my depression sounds more like what it feels like; a constant negotiation between emotions and my ability to respond to them in a healthy manner.
This post, however, isn’t about a simple confession, but rather to share one “tool” that has helped me combat it. In 2020 and beyond, I don’t think it’s all that strange to have someone say they battle with depression or any other form of mental health issue. Accepting our mental health issues continues to become less and less stigmatized and ever more present in a year that has brought on more challenges than many of us are prepared to deal with. It’s no surprise to see increased levels of depression, anxiety, isolation, and just overall degraded contentment. That is why I decided to share this post.
When navigating feelings of sadness and isolation, the one thing that I've found helpful is the ability to manufacture joy for myself. Due to the pandemic, it has become increasingly difficult to find comfort and healing in our usual activities. It's not as easy to connect with friends and loved ones, or even just go and spend time outside. I’m going to share one psychological exercise that you can do from the comfort of your bedroom, or anywhere else you may feel the need that can help bring healthy emotions to you at any given moment.
It’s called the “Arsenal of Joy”. This isn’t something new and it isn’t something I invented. I wish I could remember what book I read this in since I would definitely recommend it because I have found it so helpful, but in reading up on it after-the-fact, the psychology behind it is real. It is exactly what it sounds like; a collection of weapons of joy that you can pull out from your mental repository when you need them. Here is how you go about creating and using your Arsenal of Joy.
STEP 1 - CREATE YOUR ARSENAL
Take out a journal, notebook, or anywhere you can write something down to reference later. Take a moment to think back on your favorite memories. All of us have at least one or (hopefully) more moments, however fleeting, where we felt genuinely and truly happy. They don’t have to be long, drawn-out memories. It could be literal seconds where you felt good in the world. Write them down.
As an example, I’ll share three of mine:
1. When a friend hugged me.
I won’t share their name here because it isn’t necessary for the purposes of this post, but I did when I wrote it down in my arsenal. You want to be specific when writing it down and include what you felt at that moment. My love language is touch, so the feeling in that moment, while not romantic in nature, was strong. Whenever this friend gave me a hug I felt warm, cared for, and safe. I felt sheltered. I wrote all of that down.
2. When my kids showed genuine, unsolicited affection towards one another.
Thankfully, I had several occasions to choose from. Since the idea is to focus in on a specific moment, I picked a particularly strong memory of my oldest daughter making a snack for her little sister and then sitting down to help her with her homework. This memory was strong for me not only because seeing them love each other is beautiful, but also because I felt extremely grateful for her help with her little sister and it reminded me that it was okay to consider myself a success as a parent.
3. When I received praise from my boss on a particular project.
I have been extremely lucky during my career to have had a series of really great bosses. One of them in particular I will forever be grateful to because he always allowed me to explore, develop, and put into practice new skills even when there might not be an immediately obvious need for them. In that particular position, a lot of what I did was troubleshooting workflows. Figuring out how to make things better without a whole lot of direction or guidance. After implementing a new workflow that ended up helping alleviate a tension point, he was not only appreciative but was able to make my efforts feel genuinely worthwhile. It was a very proud moment where I felt valued.
You’ll notice that all three of these were different kinds of joy - safety, love, and pride. Write down as many or as few as you want, but try to identify what emotion was the strongest in the moment as well, so you can choose the right memory to pull out of your arsenal in the future.
STEP 2 -PRACTICE
Read each one of your moments, close your eyes, and try to put yourself in the moment again. Don’t just think about it, but actually remember what you felt in different parts of your body. What else do you recall from the moment? What did you hear, smell, touch? Remember the moment through all of your senses to the point where you can recreate the emotion physically in your body.
This might take some practice, but it is important to try to “feel” the memory in the present, not just remember what it felt like in the past if that makes sense. Practice doing this several times a week. Pull out the list if you need to, but if you do it often enough, at some point you won’t even need to read the list to recall what is in your arsenal.
As an added bonus - and this is where some of the psychological tricks come in as well - while you are doing this, for each memory decide on a touch and implement the touch as you practice recreating the feeling. For example, for my first memory, I placed my right hand on my left shoulder while I remembered it. For the second, I squeezed my right earlobe between my fingers, and for the last, I would place my left hand on my right forearm. The reason you would add in this touch to your memory exercise is that our brains actually begin to correlate this trigger with the memory itself, and if you practice it enough, using the trigger will bring back the emotions of the memory itself without having to concentrate on recalling all of the details.
The point is to get so good at re-feeling what you felt at that moment, that you can pull out this memory at any given time to give yourself those feelings of happiness, well-being, and joy whenever you need them. You have now created your Arsenal of Joy.
STEP 3 - USE YOUR ARSENAL
Use your arsenal. It may seem silly and possibly even unhelpful at first, but if you stick to it, it can truly work once you get past the doubt. The next time you feel alone, pull out a memory where you felt surrounded by love and caring. If you feel anxious, remember a moment of peace and calm, and so on. Recreate the feeling in your body by concentrating on the specifics of the memory. Use the associated touch to cement that memory to that trigger. The more often you use it, the more effective it becomes.
Also, don’t be afraid to update your arsenal as you continue to have joyful moments. The more present a memory is, the easier it is to add it to your arsenal.
I hope that this exercise will be as helpful to some as it has been to me and that we can find the courage to find ways to help ourselves out of unhealthy mental states. Recognize them as such - just mental states - they do not define us and can only cage us if we don’t seek out healing. I’m wishing everyone health and happiness!