The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Using Feelings-Thought Connections with Caregiver Depression

Mary is back this week. She's George's caregiver. Mary, like most dementia caregivers, has periods of depression. No surprise! This was not what she had looked forward to in her Golden Years. Instead of the Caribbean cruise she and George had planned, she's cleaning the bathroom floor. Instead of playing cards with friends, she's watching TV alone while George sleeps restlessly in the next room. Instead of the intimate lunches she and George used to enjoy, she's dealing with George's delusions of her supposed infidelity. And so on. Day by day, she watches the person who was once her major support disappear further into his Lewy fog.

Past blogs have discussed the way George can't change the way he responds to his feelings. Mary can. Mary can choose to make changes in her daily life that will decrease her depression. In the 9/25/14 blog, exercise, socialization, being positive and medication were suggested. Today's blog focuses on the connections between emotions and thinking, and how Mary can use these to decrease her situational depression. (See the 9/25/14 blog for the difference between situational and chronic depression.)

Negative emotions are motivators. However, when they become overpowering, they may, like too much stress, be immobilizing. It's sort of like PD rigidity, where the brain demands that the body move faster than it can move. With Mary's depression, she is experiencing more uncomfortable negative stimuli than she can deal with, and so her feeling center shuts down. Mary's negative aren't so stressful anymore, but sadly, she also doesn't experience those warm, fuzzy happy feelings either.

In the past Mary buried her unwelcome feelings, thinking, "Why should I give them space in my life? I'll just not think about this and it will all go away." But they don't go away. Mary's buried feelings simmer like a pot of soup on the back burner of the stove. Then they boil over when Mary's stress is so high that she isn't able to keep them in tamped down, causing even more stress. But there are some things that Mary can do.
  • Talking about those negative feelings reduces their power. When Mary gives names to her negative feelings, the action moves from her brain's feeling areas to its thinking areas--and her view of the event becomes more objective than personal, and therefore, less painful. Mary needs to put her feelings into words, even if she does it by talking to herself. (Mary should NOT do this with George; he will take her feelings personally, expand on them, and make them worse for both him and Mary.)
  • Talking about positive feelings increases their power. It causes the brain to secrete serotonin, a chemical that increases happiness. One might think that since talking about negative feelings reduces their power, it would do the same with positive feelings. But this isn't the case. Sharing them with George will cause his brain to secrete serotonin and he'll feel happier too! And of course, Mary should not limit her sharing to just George. Like yawning and measles, happiness is contagious. But unlike those, it is a great thing to catch!
  • Writing about difficult stuff makes it easier to handle and writing about good good stuff makes you happier. Like many caregivers, Mary keeps a daily diary where she documents all the things she may need to show to a doctor or family member later. It is also a good place for Mary to vent--and to share her successes and other positives. This is another way for her to get those negative feelings into words and decrease their power. Writing about the positive experiences will cause Mary's brain to secrete serotonin just as it did during the event itself. Reading it later will too!
Next week, I'll add a few more feelings/thought ideas for decreasing depression. Remember, these ideas aren't the whole answer. They are just some suggestions that might help.

For information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia

Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a physician's advice.

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