Lovely Little Hens

It was all Peter’s idea. “Fresh eggs,” he said. “Every day.” We were talking about getting chickens, of course. Not the kind in the plastic wrap at the grocery store—no, these would be real ones with feathers.

“What about the dogs?” I asked.

 “I’ll build a dog-proof pen,” he said.

 “What about early-morning rooster crows?”

 “We won’t get a rooster,” he said, “Just hens. They only cluck.”

 “OK,” I said, and soon Peter was busy building a large pen in the middle of our yard with electrical wiring around it to fend off our two dogs, Lucky, a lab, and Gypsy, a Rottweiler.

 “What if the chickens fly out?” I asked Peter.

 “I’ll put a net over the top,” he answered.

Soon our seven clucking full-grown chickens arrived, and after a day or two of getting acclimated, they began laying eggs. How cool is that! Want to make an omelette for breakfast? No problem. Deviled eggs to take to a cookout? Natch!

Nowadays when you hear about the salmonella risks of eating eggs from factories, you can appreciate the benefits of raising chickens at home even more. Plus if you’ve paid any attention at all to the fresh-food movement, you already know that eggs laid by free-range chickens taste exponentially better than the kind that come from sad chickens, crowded into wire crates, who never see the light of day.

Our chickens are happy chickens. Peter and I love to sit on the veranda and watch them scratch for bugs in the soil, chase each other around, and generally do the things that chickens do. We also ordered some chicks and, when they were big enough, added them to the brood, bringing our total to 14. Unfortunately, a couple of chickens managed to escape, and sad to say, Gypsy’s instincts kicked in.

One of them was Peter’s favorite, a hen with a strong mothering sense who used to sit on the unfertilized eggs, waiting and hoping. Peter, who called her “Mama,” would gently scoop the eggs out from under her while she scolded him with gentle clucks. When Gypsy got Mama, it was a sad day in the Sijswerda household.

Now Peter is talking about goats.

“What do we need goats for?” I asked.

“To clear out the vegetation in the woods,” he answered.

“Then what?” I said.

“How does roasted goat sound?”

“Hmmm, dunno,” I answered.

I have to admit it’s kind of fun to be cottage farmers. Peter and I are fortunate to live in an agriculturally zoned neighborhood, so having small livestock is OK. Most suburban neighborhoods don’t allow chickens, for example. That’s a shame. I would love to see a local movement whose goal it is to change those city regulations. The truth is a few hens don’t cause any problems at all. They’re not noisy, and they provide rich natural fertilizer for lawns and gardens.

Last summer Peter and I traveled to Denmark to attend an au pair’s wedding. The groom’s parents were cottage farmers as well. Besides growing vegetables in their gorgeous garden and greenhouse, they raised a cow and a lamb each year, which ended up in their freezer, feeding them for the next twelve months. The obvious advantage to raising your own meat is you know that the animals are happy, healthy, and properly fed.

This is not to say that raising your own animals is necessarily economical—just as planting your own garden might, in the long run, cost more than buying produce at the corner stand. But doing it yourself gives great satisfaction and well being. It takes the food chain away from the mega-corporations, who are more interested in profit than anything else, and brings the relationship we have with the animals that feed us into perspective.

In today’s crazy tumultuous world, such simple pleasures offer a soothing antidote as well. Like when Peter and I sit on the veranda and watch the chickens do their funny little dance as they scratch for bugs. Or when we sit down to enjoy a spinach and goat cheese frittata for dinner and know those lovely little hens created our meal.

Bon appetit!

Peggy Sijswerda is editor & publisher of Tidewater Women.


Keep Up the Good Work!

The results are in! Tidewater Women readers voted for a variety of area businesses for the 2010 Ladies’ Choice Awards, and we proudly present the winners to you in this month’s issue (see p. 10). We loved discovering where you like to do business as well as reading the readership surveys you also completed, which helped us find out more about you. Your answers offered insight into not only what you like best about Tidewater Women, but also what kind of women read TW each month. You’re an interesting lot!

For example, TW readers reach across a broad spectrum of ages from 18-80. It’s gratifying to know that the magazine’s content appeals to women from their early 20s to seniors and all age groups in between. It’s probably because our articles not only celebrate local women’s achievements, but also offer important information geared to helping  you be the best you can be. And with all the doom and gloom these days, inspiring stories serve to boost our morale and keep us striving for bigger and better things ahead.

Another interesting thread that runs through the surveys we received is how hungry women are to read articles of substance—not fluff and puff pieces, but articles that make you think and question what matters in life. Nearly two out of three readers say they read each issue of TW cover to cover, and one in three share their copies with friends. I loved reading comments from readers like: “More information and a bigger magazine…Make it longer so I can read, read, read.” Another reader wishes we would publish TW twice a month: “It doesn’t come out often enough.”

Other suggestions include: an employment section; more younger people’s views; more family articles; more color; classifieds; coupons; articles about living on a budget; wider availability; smaller format. Some of you wrote simply,  “Keep up the good work,” “It’s perfect,” and “I love this paper!” A few suggested TW needs a better website, which we are currently working on and hope to unveil very soon. Thanks for sharing all of your suggestions. It helps us know what’s important to you and how we can continue to serve your needs.

After eleven years of publishing Tidewater Women—and seven before that as publisher of Tidewater Parent, I am gratified to have such a meaningful relationship with my readers. And in the past few months, many of you have written and called to show support for my memoir, Still Life with Sierra, which is now available in paperback (see p. 6). Thank you for your kind words and wishes.

Here at TW we plan to “Keep it coming!” as one reader wrote. But we need your help. With the economy still in neutral, advertising has decreased across the board, and we too have felt the pinch. As readers you can help by calling and visiting TW advertisers and letting them know you appreciate their advertising support. Try to patronize at least three advertisers from each issue. It’s called “voting with your dollars” and ensures that TW keeps bringing you inspiring information each month. And advertisers can help, too, by choosing to support this community-minded magazine with their marketing dollars. Regular advertising in TW is affordable and targets your marketing to an amazing segment of the population.

A heartfelt thanks goes to all of our regular advertisers. You’re tops! And thanks, too, to all of our loyal readers. Remember if you want to achieve something, you have to send out an intention. Well, I just did. I want TW to reach as many local women as possible, to brighten their lives, and help them enjoy a more successful and rewarding life. Best wishes!

Peggy Sijswerda is editor & publisher of Tidewater Women.


The Mule’s Approach

My father was a businessman, but he also raised beef cattle on the family farm. His wisdom came from these rural roots, and he enjoyed passing it along to his kids. He told me once about the difference between horses and mules. The smart farmer, my father said, would not buy a horse to plow his fields in the old days. Instead he would get a good mule if he could.

The benefit of a mule over a horse is the fact that a mule will stop when it tires while a horse will work itself to death. A wise farmer knew that for the momentary inconvenience of a stubborn mule that refused to work further, he got an automatic protection on his investment. A mule is not about to work until it expires.

A mule is not a beautiful animal. It is big like a horse, but not graceful, and donkey-like without being cute. What a mule does have is an uncompromising respect for its physical limits. In spite of its strength and hardiness, it balks at an overload. It does not care how mad you get or what you think of its character. If it is more than the mule can do, it won’t do it.

The horse, on the other hand, noble animal that it is, takes its cue from what its owner wants. If the job is to keep working no matter what, it will. Horses will work or race until they drop, just because they can. The horse will ignore its exhaustion in order to keep up. By the time a horse knows it has done too much, it is often too late.

This characteristic of horses is one reason why little girls on the cusp of puberty fall so deeply in love with these beautiful, big-hearted animals. Little girls are probably intuiting something they have in common with the sensitive horse: grace and power used unstintingly in the service of other people. Young females have an affinity for anything that gives up its wild freedom in order to belong to and care for others.

You don’t hear much about girls falling in love with mules, but maybe we ought to push this. Instead of encouraging little girls to focus on flowing manes and tails, we could tell them to use their strengths on their own behalf. Freed from the great distraction of being so beautiful, mules have learned to pay attention to their insides. Women can, too.

Whether daydreamers or tomboys, little girls are originally filled with their own agendas. Before they are taught to be so self-sacrificing, girls are as naturally full of themselves as anybody else. Like the mules, they have no interest in working long hours for nothing, and they are always looking for ways to enjoy themselves. But when the cultural pressure starts to define their worth by romance, girls lose their nerve. They start thinking they are going to be left behind in some great race if they don’t get other people to love them. Social belonging begins to matter so much that they will disregard how they really feel.

These girls turn into women who give up too much. They learn to feel proud of self-sacrifice, trying to be good wives and devoted mothers. They will keep going in the service of others until their big hearts break from the loss of themselves. Like the over-worked, loyal horse, they lose their spark and health, but do not understand why they feel so bad. Customs have fooled them into believing that if they do a good job sacrificing for others, they will be happier and more fulfilled. It is like telling a horse that the harder and longer he runs, the better he will feel.

Exhaustion and listlessness are nature’s way of saying you have given too much. Sickness is often the only guilt-free way a person can be excused from running herself to death. If you become mentally or physically ill, you finally have permission to pay attention to that little voice that told you years ago you should have stopped. Unfortunately, women hope that the people who love them will rein them in before it is too late. They wonder why no one is noticing they are about to drop. Is no one paying attention to what this race is costing them?

No. Nine times out of ten, no one is paying attention. Only they can do that. And that self-checking is just what horses do not do. Horses like to be forcibly prevented from running their hearts out; they prance and pull, asking for more when they should have quit hours ago. They love to look eager and strong, even when they are on their last atom of reserves. Think about the definition of a good woman. It is the woman who keeps on giving, not the woman who keeps on living.

I prefer the mule’s approach. The mule just stops. He might be willing to work more later, but for right now, he could not care less what that field looks like. His animal wisdom says that if he wants to live long, he better pay attention to what his muscles are saying.

Women need to do the same thing. The hard part is that so much of women’s energy is spent on emotional work. It is not like having a sore muscle or pulled tendon. Instead it is an energy experience of feeling emotionally drained, zapped, exhausted, or whipped. Women’s life force is experienced emotionally rather than physically. When she has given too much (or said too little), a woman feels the life seeping out of her. But because so much of what she does is not visible or measurable in terms of workload, she does not know how to justify stopping. No one but her can see what it is costing her. By the time others notice, it is probably showing up in the form of depression, anxiety, or a host of psychosomatic illnesses. By the time these symptoms arrive, I guarantee it is late in the last quarter of the race, and someone has kept moving her finish line further and further out.

To have a healthy mule mind, you have to keep asking yourself, is this too much? Am I getting tired? What is making me so tired, and how can I do less of it? Believe me, you do not have to worry about becoming a lazybones because family and culture will never stop driving you on. You are the only one who can plop your mule-behind down in the field and refuse to go further. Remember, no farmer is stronger than a mule that has had enough. It won’t kill the farmer to accommodate once in awhile, but it might kill the mule to do it all the time.

Pay attention to your inner signals of fatigue or depletion, and take them seriously. Nine-tenths of life is a field that can wait, not a race to be won.

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.


Fairy Tale Wisdom

There are wolves among us, as Little Red Riding Hood found out. We often think of the wolf stereotype as a predatory male who goes after unwary girls. Our culture has such abundant images of this sexually predatory wolf that everyone knows to look out for him. Most girls are given a heads-up that those charming guys may be out for themselves when it comes to romance. But there is another kind of wolf we should know about, too.

First let’s recall Red Riding Hood’s story. Her mother sends her into the woods to take food to her old grandmother. A wolf stops her and inquires nicely about her destination—a casual chat, no pressure. Red Riding Hood naively tells him about the grandmother’s cottage, and the wolf hurries off to beat her there. He swallows the grandmother whole and dresses up as the grandmother in bed, waiting for Red Riding Hood to appear. When she encounters the wolf wearing Grandma’s bonnet and nightgown, she hesitates and expresses her amazement at Grandmother’s eyes, ears, and finally teeth. Her uncertainty gives the wolf time to try to eat her, too. Just then a woodsman hears her screams and dispatches the wolf, cutting open the wolf’s stomach and rescuing Grandma as well.

In this version, it is more about food than sex.

This wolf wants to nourish itself at the other’s expense, and it uses interpersonal subterfuge to lull and confuse its victim (I’m just a fellow traveler in the woods. I’m a helpless invalid in bed.) The wolf’s goal is to gobble up Red Riding Hood’s life energy in order to replenish his own.

There is a breed of human wolf that does the same, but unfortunately we are unaware of them, and so do not protect ourselves. Our society does not emphasize the destructiveness of this kind of wolf, and so we are sitting ducks for their wiles. This wolf likewise uses camouflage to get its way and usually dresses up as a person to whom you cannot say no—kind of like a helpless grandmother.

These wolves can masquerade as caring friends, respectable mothers, or needy victims of a tragic life. Unlike the seductive male version, these could be called relationship-wolves. Whatever their disguise, the message is the same: you should care about me. The relationship-wolf always offers the same deal: give unstintingly of your energy and attention to my needs. Wolves are voracious. They are always looking for their next meal, and enough is never enough. Extended interactions with these people always leave us feeling tired and on our last nerve, as though interacting with them requires a Herculean effort to stay nice.

The reason relationship-wolves are so draining is that they don’t sustain a true relationship connection. They are briefly emotionally available, and then they are not. Their offer of relationship is not really reciprocal, even though they initially may lure you in with their attentiveness and interest in your life. They seem to promise intimacy and bonding, but attempts to open up and truly share yourself with them land like duds. Instead of empathy, they may give you advice or switch the topic to themselves and their experiences. You end up feeling strangely thwarted or rushed, as if you only have a few moments to get your stuff into the conversation. You can’t really connect with them in any way that is energizing, comforting, or replenishing to you.

Relationship-wolves are interpersonally seductive by presenting themselves as extraordinarily interested in you. What big eyes! What big ears! Why, the better to focus on you, my dear! They convince you that you are a very important person in their life. But this is the opposite of what happens once you get involved. Those attentive eyes and ears disappear, and the relationship-wolf will have the lion’s share of your efforts and attention.

You will find yourself thinking about them and their problems all the time. You will find yourself feeling guilty about not giving them more time. You will secretly dread hearing from them.

The secret weapon used by these stealthy wolves is the cultural assumption that you should care deeply about certain people in certain roles or in certain predicaments. Victimhood, illness, and family relatedness are some of the trees they hide behind in order to gobble you up. They seem weak and needy, unassailably entitled to receive whatever they want. Your problems could never begin to approach the level of theirs.

In all fairness to these wolves, we must realize they were probably raised by wolves themselves. Nobody ever really listened to them or related intimately to them at an emotional level. They probably have huge unmet dependency needs as a result.

But the point is that it is not up to you to meet these needs. It is okay not to care about them. It is okay to withdraw involvement with them. I guarantee you they will find someone else. They led you to believe that you were their only hope to give them what they needed. But that was just their greed dressed up in a bonnet and nightgown.

If the person you are involved with is not a relationship-wolf, you will look forward to spending time with him or her. You will come away from interactions feeling like you got something back. You’ll be glad to see that person, especially if you just had an encounter with a wolf.

Think of the woodsman. He is the type of person who is alert to other people’s needs and comes forward to help. He is interested, protective, and can spot a wolf at a hundred yards. He thinks of other people and shows up when needed.

In addition to the wonderful woodsmen-people we can have in our lives, we all have an internal woodsman we can call on when we get in trouble with a wolf. It is that part of our personality that is strong, self-valuing, and very protective of our emotional energies. This effective part of the personality could care less if the wolf’s feelings are hurt or if the wolf goes into a rage when thwarted from gobbling others at will. Your inner woodsman will keep a safe distance around you because he sees the wolf as emotionally destructive.

Don’t be sucked into playing the role of naïve and caring Red Riding Hood with the relationship-wolves. Excuse yourself politely before you end up in their stomach.

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.


Changing Family Realities

A fascinating experiment compared children and young monkeys in a problem-solving task. They were shown a transparent puzzle box that yielded a treat when certain levers were pulled. Although there was obviously one lever in front that would release the treat, the experimenters first demonstrated a series of useless moves, pulling levers that did nothing, before finally pulling the right one. Even though the children could plainly see that only one lever released the treat and that nothing happened until this lever was pulled, they followed the experimenter’s lead and first pulled the nonproductive sequence of levers as they had been shown. The little monkeys, on the other hand, quickly sized up the situation and disregarded the experimenter’s demonstration. They went straight to the right lever and got the treat immediately.

We might think the monkeys were the smart ones, but this would be true only in simple situations. When things are more complex, humans have an enormous advantage. Children’s willingness to learn from older humans, even when the evidence of their senses says otherwise, opens them up to a vast storehouse of adult experience. Humans have progressed because of their children’s readiness to learn a culture, even if it seems counterproductive or silly. With their uncritical and trusting minds, children can absorb in a few moments what their forbearers took centuries to develop.

Human groups can go anywhere in the world and thrive in practically any environment because their children learn survival tactics and social customs so quickly. This primal urge to learn makes children believe their family knows the only right way to do things. The tragedy is that this early learning may be applied across the board to every new situation even if it does not fit. Nevertheless, people do not think to question these early premises. Instead they think the problem is the fault of their new environment or the new types of people they encounter.

We all are raised to believe that our families have the corner on reality. This is especially true in the ways we learn to handle emotion and to interact with other people.

Our old learning is so automatic that it feels like reality. Once you are convinced of a certain emotional reality, you assume others should agree with you. We can see this distortion easily in other people, but we are less likely to see how our family emotional style from childhood can undermine our happiness in adulthood. Even if we may have observed firsthand how destructive a parent’s behavior was, we may have unconsciously come to believe that this is a necessary form of interaction for any family.

As adults, we may apply old family emotional distortions to our new lives. Then we are surprised when others react negatively. If teasing and putdowns were amusing in our families, then we may be confused when our spouses don’t get the humor. If a parent was a workaholic, we may see nothing wrong with neglecting our families, as long as we bring home the paycheck. If we grew up with family members who coerced each other with emotional pressure, we may do the same when a little extra power is needed.

But none of us is condemned to repeat childhood emotional situations over and over. All we need for change is the consciousness that our early emotional learning was the best we had, but not necessarily the best we want for our adult relationships.

Emotional intimacy with others in adulthood depends on what we learned as children about how safe it was show our deepest feelings. When we can share our true needs and express our feelings to a loved one, we feel a security and relief that bonds us strongly to each other. When we can accept another person’s feelings without criticism or anger, that person will want to open up to us more. Such relationships of mutual openness give us a sense of well being that boosts our energy levels. We can have more rewarding relationships in the present if we analyze old family habits with fresh eyes.

We become more adaptable and successful when we are curious about learning new ways of doing better. We actually change our brains, not to mention our relationships, when we cultivate a childlike openness to learning in new situations. It is not good for us—or our children—if we pretend our parents and grandparents closed the book of life once they were done writing in it.

We do best when we are willing to be changed by new ways of seeing things. It is a dead-end life mission to try to prove that our family’s view of reality was the only right one. Unlike the monkeys who see only the obvious, we can sit back and watch carefully in case there is something new here we have missed. We can become the kind of people who enjoy understanding instead of rushing to judgment.

Our human heritage means that we have the power to reflect on what is happening and how it affects us. In the great puzzle box of the heart, we can be willing to watch and learn. When we learn new ways to deal honestly with our emotions, we then may discover a deeper, truer reality than we were originally taught.

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.


Expressing Yourself

Psychological health is like a fountain, a beautiful movement between water and air. Healthy happiness has an outward flow to it, a kind of self-replenishing loop in which the energies of life circulate outward, then back into our core, then up and out again.

Psychological disorders, on the other hand, are like swamps and whirlpools. We use words like “down” and “agitated” to connote depression and suffering. Psychological suffering has an aimlessness to it, like a stagnant pond with the oxygen sucked out of it, or a churning froth going nowhere.

All healthy children and animals live in fountain-mode, expressing their feelings and wishes freely from the core of their being. A baby’s first act in life is to cry out for connection, and self-expression is the two-year-old’s full-time career. If caretakers are kind and welcoming enough, children learn that things go well when they express themselves, and they learn to be ever more effective at getting their points across. The two-year-old’s tantrum gradually gives way to verbal pleading and case-building, and we learn to get along with others while still trying to make ourselves happy. Our methods improve as we become socialized, but we still need to express what is inside us, one way or another.

When we are healthy, we express ourselves in the form of interaction, creativity, or productivity. Our internal fountain circulates and flows freely, our energies unimpeded. Like a fountain, we become an uplifting sight for others as well. Other people enjoy being around us when we are bubbling and flowing along our chosen path, creating tiny beauties in our wake.

Unfortunately, some of us learned early in life that being a fountain was a dangerous thing. It made people mad, made people withdraw from us, or got us sent to our rooms. Of course, we didn’t give up right away; it takes a lot to gum up a fountain. But there was a pivotal moment, a negative aha, where we grasped the nature of the game and hesitated to express. We reversed our flow and started holding things in. Instead of being naturally expressive, we became overly receptive.

Being receptive in moderation is not a bad thing at all. It helps us to learn and to empathize with others. But we are not made to be solely receptive. The urge to express is at the heart of our connection to other people—and our connection to ourselves. If early life experiences have made us passive and stagnant, this can lead to depression and anxiety. Depression is a swamp of unexpressed feelings, and anxiety is pent-up energy that wants to express, but has too much fear of what might happen.

Instead of depression, some people choose rebellion instead, becoming either passive-aggressive or angrily defiant. But there is little real expression in rebelling for its own sake because rebellion by itself is reactive instead of creative. If you are caught up in a rebellious attitude, other people still rule your creative energies because resistance to them takes the place of true expression. Rebelling is a form of healthy expression only when it is in the service of creating a better life for oneself.

If you often feel down or lacking in confidence, you probably have lived in situations where your natural flow of expression was criticized. If your expressiveness got squelched, you may find yourself chronically swallowing other people’s wishes and ideas rather than expressing your own. It may seem like a good idea to hide our true feelings in order to keep the peace, but our bodies and spirits will not tolerate this suppression indefinitely. If we stay too long in chronic expressive reversal, we will become physically and emotionally symptomatic.

Self-expression is necessary to getting your liveliness back. You can start by sincerely asking yourself what you really feel or think about something. At this initial point, you are not expressing anything to the outside world; you are just privately getting to know yourself again as an expressive person. Thinking your own thoughts and knowing your true feelings are the first steps toward getting your fountain started up again. There might be a lot of algae and muck holding you back at first, but just keep asking yourself what you really feel.

The next step is to start small by being willing to say little things that want to pop out. By relaxing the internal censor a bit, you allow yourself to comment or joke when you feel like it. Even if it comes out wrong, you will know it’s worth it because you are deliberately working to get your expressive flow going again. Making mistakes or mildly ruffling a feather or two is to be expected at this stage. You may feel more like the halting spurt of an old school water fountain rather than the Trevi fountain, but we have to start somewhere.

The final step is to reverse your reversal, by stating your feelings and thoughts responsibly after you have realized them. Other people may have grown accustomed to your abnormal receptivity and self-denying kindness, and they may not like to hear your side of things. They may even try to criticize you back into the emotional swamps and whirlpools, but all you have to do is keep intending to flow outward. Expressing yourself clearly and tactfully is not a crime against anybody. You will not become obnoxious to other people; you will be appreciated as an authentic person, and it will change the way you feel about your life and other people. A fountain is not a bully; it is a beautiful sight.

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.


Escaping the Right-Brain Trap

If there is one way that depressed people make you feel, it is that you cannot reach them. Try as you might, the depressed person seems to be stuck in an emotional swampland, with no sense of the way out. If you try to give the depressed person a brighter perspective, he or she is likely to look at you as though you just don’t get it.

The catch-22 of dealing with depressed people is that the only way they would feel totally understood would be if you agreed that the situation was hopeless. This of course is not helpful to depressed people. But why do they not reach out for the offered hand of hope? Why do they seem to believe that things cannot change?

Call it the brain trap. In the book, Why Love Matters, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt cites brain-scan studies showing that in depressed people the right brain hemisphere is more active than in non-depressed people. For the person who gets stuck in his or her right brain, little things take on huge emotional significance. Also, because the right brain has no time sense, the person feels that whatever is happening now will probably go on forever. This part of the brain lacks planning and feels easily defeated because it focuses on old patterns rather than ideas for the future.

The right brain is emotional; it is the part of the brain used by artists and creative people This part of the mind quickly sizes up other people, sees patterns and connections, and knows the value of feelings. But if it is not tempered by the guidance of the left brain, reliance on the right brain can lead us into an emotional fogbank.

In most people, the left hemisphere is the more active part of the brain. This brain area gives us logical thought and a sense of time. It is focused on current reality, yet has an eye on the future and makes plans for it. This is the brain of the capable adult, and it takes time to develop. Babies and young children live solely in their right brain and only gradually learn how to use their rational-thinking left brain.

But why do depressed adults get trapped in their emotion-dominated right brain? It is because depression usually starts with prolonged uncontrolled stress. Under stressful conditions, the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, ideally should prompt the left-brain to begin planning what can be done. Most of the time, this takes care of the problem and lowers stress. But many depressed people have faced unmanageable stress for a long time, and their left brain efforts have not helped.

Our highest levels of cortisol occur when we feel a loss of power or have no control over events. This sensation often occurs when our closest relationships are highly negative and makes us vulnerable to depression. When our cortisol levels are very high and prolonged, our right brain becomes much more highly active than our left-brain. With an underactive left brain, we are no longer able to think in ways that are cheerful, positive, or socially outgoing. Once we sink deeply into right-brain mode, we feel spellbound by negative emotions and unable to chart our course. Without the left brain to throw us a rope from reality, we can feel pulled into a whirlpool of negativity and helplessness.

Once a person feels super-stressed, it is easy to get bogged down in the emotional right brain. That is why any kind of positive interaction with a left-brain person can be helpful. Left-brain dominant people are always thinking of ways to make things better. Because they are not trapped in their moody right brains, they can reason their way through frustrations and difficulties.

One reason why psychotherapy is helpful to depression is exactly because it is based on talking, the province of the verbal left brain. Asking a person to talk about what is bothering them automatically puts them into logical word-mode and gives them a little observational distance from their feelings. Therapy also helps because it encourages depressed people to think about their thinking. They have to step outside their right-brain experience in order to see how their negative thinking is amplifying their depressed mood.

Writing or journaling helps for the same reason. You have to use your left brain to form sentences and use logic and critical analysis to evaluate what you are saying.

Exposing a depressed person to a new environment may also help because new circumstances tend to activate the left brain. Coping with new events can dissipate old patterns that made a person feel powerless. Presenting the brain with new tasks makes it that much harder to stay stuck in the right-brain doldrums.

Humor is great for loosening up right-brain tunnel vision. We laugh when left-brain logic is activated, then suddenly tricked into silliness. This is why watching genuinely funny movies can shift our mood easily, making the future seem brighter.

If you find yourself getting trapped in a negative mood, it helps to take constructive action. Do anything that has a beginning, middle, and end, even if it is as simple as just taking a walk. Talking to upbeat, left-brain people can be a huge help, too, because their realistic thinking can help put your negative mood into perspective.

Of course, a serious depression may not respond to these simple measures, and professional help may be needed. But all of us are prey to falling into the right-brain trap when we are overly tired or depleted in some way. It is important to know what is happening in our brains at those times, so that we can master our moods by deliberately shifting our brain activity. Taking a mental step sideways into left-brain thinking can spring us out of the brain trap.

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.

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