Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Q & A: Can Distraction and Work Save You from Depression and Worry?

A reader of my blog asked me through the live chat window:

Hi Douglas, first time reading your blog. Very interesting. A question that you may be able to answer; when I am bored my mind tends to wander to the negative...I can really work myself up into a sweat and shivers and feel really awful. I have noticed that if I can manage to keep myself busy and distract from my depression I can feel this possible?

Hello, aimguest1645505 (Great name!) Thanks for reading my blog. I'm glad you find it interesting.

What you describe is very common in people with ADHD. In fact, negativity is a key diagnostic trait of ADHD. Hallowell & Ratey list it as criteria number ???. Some people with ADHD tend to worry and ruminate. Their minds fixate on things that can go wrong and, like yourself, they can become quite worked up over it. This can sometimes be misdiagnosed as an anxiety panic disorder. This was the case with me ages ago. The solution you have found is one very effective way of combating the negative ruminating, but it has a downside as you may have discovered. It can be very exhausting to keep the mind revved up and engaged at all times. Then, when you crash, you begin ruminating again.

Here's how I licked this problem.

  1. The first thing I did was train myself to know that the anxiety was just me getting worked up over nothing. Negativity didn't help solve anything. In fact, the anxious worrying often made my life worse. Most importantly, though, was knowing the negative thinking was a trick of my mind.

  2. Letting go of that anxiety and negativity was the next step. I tried many things over the years, but what worked best for me was to have a list by my bedside. My list was electronic in the form of a Palm Pilot. That PDA saved my life. I could jot down all the things I suddenly remembered needed doing and relax in the sure knowledge that I would not forget them (again). A pad of paper and a pencil could have done the same thing, but I was a geek and the PDA was the gimmick I needed to work the change in my thinking patterns. Obviously, this is how the negative anxiety personally affected me. You will have to find your own way of dissipating the anxiety.

    My ruminating occurred just before I went to sleep. I tended to start going over all the things I hadn't finished yet right when I was supposed to call it a night. This nightly panic was destructive to my life. It made me a raving, ranting insomniac and turned my sleep schedule upside down. I would frenetically work on projects into the night to prove to myself I wasn't a loser, or I would wake my wife up and make her write down notes (for fear I would forget them). Oh, the happy days of our early years. Only a young, beautiful newlywed woman in love would put up with such antics.

    Yes, that PDA saved my life and my marriage.

  3. As you discovered, if I could keep myself busy and productive I could avoid the negativity. I could fight off the depression those negative thoughts triggered.

    The key to this being successful instead of just being a manic or obsessive impulse is to
    1. Learn to have goals in your life so that the work is not just busy work but fulfilling.
    2. Begin with the end in mind. This will help you not lose yourself in work or distractions and allow for other things in your life.
    3. Train yourself to not work out of self-hatred/loathing or depression. That means I would purposefully keep my mind engaged instead of doing it in a destructive panic. The distinction may seem subtle, but it made all the difference to my self-esteem.

  4. Reward yourself for every little success. You deserve it.

You posted your comment then left the page so I didn't have a chance to reply to you. I hope you wander by again to see what I've written. What you described is not only possible, but a key component to mastering this part of yourself. I focused mostly on the boredom/ADHD angle, but Depression, too, was a part of this struggle for me. Good luck!