As a counselor I’ve noted that many of my clients with depression suffer from a lack of connection. They may be disconnected from themselves: their purpose, passions and body and from others: intimate relationships and the community at large. Most are also disconnected from the natural world due to excessive time in front of screens and erratic sleep patterns. Their disconnect could be a root cause or symptom of their depression but either way, one of my goals is to help them stop living in fear, make healthier choices and reengage with the world. These changes may start with small steps like journaling, calling an old friend, or time in the sun but little by little as clients reconnect their mood improves.
I think my transient depression after Chattajack was due to withdrawal after a weekend of intense connectivity. Connection to people was the most profound. During the 8 1/2 hours the race course was open, 300 racers and a similar number of volunteers, sherpas (people providing support to a specific paddler) and race organizers were focused on getting the racers safely across the finish line. People from different states and countries, different career paths, different socio-economic status were connected by a common purpose. My role was to get myself to the finish line while helping and encouraging other competitors and showing gratitude to all the volunteers. The flow of support went both ways and I received cheers and shouts of inspiration from people I didn’t even know.
In the midst of this I’m paying close attention to my natural environment, the current in the river, the wind, air temperature and cloud cover. A change in one of these factors would necessitate a change in paddle technique, dress or hydration so couldn’t be ignored. The entire race I’m also acutely aware of the beauty of the Tennessee River Gorge, the slope and height of the mountains, the rock formations and of course the fall leaves. In the last few miles when my body was ready to stop, I focused my attention on the trees lining the riverbank, lingering on the ones with exceptional yellow, orange or red. These vibrant colors were the inspiration I needed to get around the last corner where the finish line was in sight.
Finally while being mindful of other people and the natural world, I’m dialed in on my mental and physical status. Am I hungry? Have I been drinking enough? Are my feet numb? My mental state fluctuated throughout the race, the first and last 5 miles being the most challenging. During these times I used a positive mantra and focused on my gratitude for the opportunity to have this experience.
All the connections I experienced during Chattajack 31 made me feel alive, engaged, part of something greater than myself and so the absence of this intensity created passing depression. I know it’s unrealistic to maintain the stoke of last weekend every day, but we certainly have room to improve the connections in our daily life.
- Connection to nature - Those of us who paddle have a built in connection when we get outside on the water, but there can be simpler ways to do this. Spending time outside is the key whether it’s walking around a parking lot at lunch, sitting on your deck with a cup of coffee at sunrise, or just noticing the resilience of grass as it grows through the crack in the pavement. Nature is everywhere and is here to heal us, we just have to pay attention. After all, we’re a part of nature so connecting with it returns us to our source.
- Connection to others - This is more complicated. We can be around others, interact and even help them but still not feel a connection so simply being with people is not the answer. I believe the answer is a combination of compassion and authenticity. In a paddle race we raise a paddle when we need help but what sign do we use when struggling in life? Often people who need help become socially isolated, angry, sad or anxious. When we come across folks with these symptoms rather then being irritated, we should show compassion. Most likely we’ve been in a similar place at some point in our life. We should swallow an angry retort and walk away, offer words of encouragement, a smile, or assistance with a task. How we respond will depend on who we’re dealing with but coming from a place of compassion rather then defensiveness will make all the difference. At mile 29 last weekend, I passed a man cussing himself out. I can only imagine it was to motivate himself. Rather then be offended at his language I silently sent him energy. This is what we need more of in daily life. The second part of this equation is authenticity. For others to connect to us we must be genuine and share all aspects of ourselves, good and bad. Trying to please others or acting happy when we’re not creates a barrier. Make efforts with people who’ve earned your trust to be genuine and vulnerable. If you reflect, you’ll find that your most intimate relationships are those where you feel free to be yourself. Being participants in Chattajack connected us last weekend and being participants in life should connect us as human beings everyday.
- Connection with yourself - We wake up in our body and live in our heads every day but that doesn’t guarantee a physical and emotional connection. We can lose ourselves taking care of others, meeting demands at work and and in our community, not to mention the constant stimulus of texting, social media, television. Our environment provides easy distractions that our brain will hungrily partake of, especially when we’re experiencing physical or emotional pain. The most important way to reconnect with ourselves is to SLOW down and create time to be, even 15 minutes can make a difference. Use journaling, meditation, or just staring at a candle’s flame to quiet your mind and take notice of your emotions and body. I find that most clients I see have the answers for themselves, I just provide a space away from distractions to reflect and process. It’s important we do this for ourselves on a daily basis and occasionally set aside several hours or entire days alone to reconnect with our dreams and passions without the influence of others. Last weekend on my paddle board, I had no option but to recognize and cope with my physical and emotional pain. This contributed to my success in the race and will do the same for us in life.
"We are water people and the water connects us.” John Beausang, The Distressed Mullet