Yesterday morning I saw the most beautiful thing, a perfectly spun spider’s web hanging between…
Something rather upsetting happened at the park today. The dog I was looking after, Ilsa, caught a duck and killed it.
At least, that’s what the people screaming from the bank and throwing stones at the dog told me.
‘Is that your dog’? An obviously very upset woman asked me, crossly. I remembered her from earlier in my walk. She was ahead of me on the path. A man walking a very large dog whacked it hard on the bottom to make the dog walk by his side. I knew this had upset her because she was staring after him. It upset me too. I don’t like seeing dogs being thumped.
‘Is that your dog’? She repeated to me.
‘I don’t know, I can’t see it. But I am looking for her…it could be her’. I hurried over to the little group, the angry woman, a young woman pushing a pram and a man with a bike. They were standing on the bank, staring down at the creek. The angry woman continued to yell, hurling rocks down the bank.
Funny thing was, I couldn’t hear anything other than her shouts. No splashing, no quacking, no barking, no screams of pain.
Ilsa, a retriever, enjoys swimming in the creek. She’s a pretty good swimmer, but not very fast. She often chases the ducks but hasn’t a hope in Hades of actually catching one. They’re far too quick for her and as they can fly, she has no chance against them.
‘Is that your dog?’ the cross woman repeated as I approached. ‘Cos he’s just killed that duck’.
She didn’t wait for me to speak. She shook her head angrily, muttering obscenities and stalked off.
The man rode away but the woman with the child was still nearby.
‘Did you see what happened?’ I asked her.
‘No, I didn’t. That woman, she said the duck was a rare breed and she’d been watching it for a while’.
I was shaken and started gabbling as I can do when I’m nervous. ‘I never thought she’d catch one. I mean she likes chasing them…I feel terrible for the duck…I’m a good dog owner, really…are you sure she killed it…?’
The young woman smiled kindly and said again that she hadn’t seen anything, and wandered off.
Ilsa came up the bank, the dead duck in her mouth. I put her on the lead and tied her up, going back to examine the body. It was a fairly ordinary brown and white duck.
Gently placing my hand on its breast, the body felt completely cold. The feathers were dripping with water. They were absolutely sodden. I turned it over. The feathers seemed to be coming out of two small areas of its back. I parted the feathers and found two punctures. The wounds were clean and bloodless.
‘Hmmm’ I thought. ‘If this duck was newly killed, shouldn’t it be warm? It’s absolutely soaking, as if it’s been lying in the water for hours. Aren’t ducks ‘water proof’? And if these wounds were new, wouldn’t they be running with blood?’
Ilsa had not killed this duck. This poor duck had been dead for some time. The dog had simply done was she was bred to do; retrieved it from the water.
I felt the hot blood rushing to my face. The only thought I had was to exonerate Ilsa in the eyes of that angry woman who thought she had seen the dog killing the duck. I was angry that she had thrown stones at Ilsa, potentially hurting her.
I headed deeper into the park in the hope of finding her and explaining what had happened, but I couldn’t find her. My feelings subsided and I returned home.
Has that ever happened to you? You thought you saw or heard something and it really upset you, only to find later that it wasn’t like that at all?
I remember, when I was in the depths of my chronic low mood, going over and over conversations and events trying to understand them.
“…what she did…what he said…how they upset me…why did he do that to me…why did she say that to me…?”
Perhaps they didn’t do or say anything. Not about you, anyway.
Perhaps you interpreted them in the light of your beliefs.
She could see the dog in the water with the duck probably in her mouth. She saw the limp body of the duck. That woman believed my dog was killing a duck.
She thought it was the duck she looked for each time she came to the park. She was interested in, even fond of the duck. She was clearly an animal lover. The idea of the duck being brutally killed by a dog naturally upset her.
But it wasn’t true.
This duck had died long before my dog had found her.
But the woman had seen something and made it mean something, without looking carefully at the facts.
Misunderstandings based on conversations half heard and actions half witnessed are the stuff of comedy shows. The audience knows the full story – what she really said, what really happened – but the main character doesn’t. Eventually, over the course of the show, the full story comes out, but only after more sticky or amusing situations have resulted.
And of course, dramas can be based on half-seen or heard snippets as well, sometimes with dire consequences.
Do you remember adults telling you to ‘think before you speak’?
It’s actually quite wise advice.
Tricky when you’ve been experiencing persistent low mood because your thinking patterns tends to make you see the worst in people, situations and conversations. It also makes you relate what you’ve seen or heard to yourself, usually in a negative way. So you hear a snippet of gossip or someone doing something which you believe may concern you and you feel the emotions rising.
I used to be quite self-conscious and hated people looking at me. If I was walking down the street and saw a group of teenagers standing around laughing, I was absolutely convinced they were laughing at me.
If all the staff stopped talking when I entered the tea room I was convinced they had been talking about me.
I used to share a house with a good friend and whenever she was in a bad mood (which was often) I used to wonder what I had done to upset her.
My depressive ways of thinking prevented me from looking at the situation objectively. I had such low self-esteem that I believed I was the butt of jokes and gossip and the cause of other people’s problems.
When we’ve been experiencing low mood for a long time, our brains tend to show less activity in the pre-frontal cortex, that part of the brain that sits behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex is involved in thinking through our experiences, analysing them and problem solving.
Instead, the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped region of the brain which is involved in emotional responses and for initiating the fight or flight response, is very active.
What this means is that when we are depressed, we find it more difficult to process our experiences calmly and rationally. Instead, we get emotional and our stress response fires up.
Here my five steps to calming yourself and thinking things through, when you’re feeling upset at something you have seen or heard or experienced.
Deep breaths will help shut down the fight or flight response. Keep taking long deep breaths, focussing on your inhalations and exhalations, until the feeling of panic or upset subsides.
Walking towards the group of people who were apparently watching my dog kill a duck today I felt my heart begin to race and my breath start to come faster. I took some deep breaths to calm myself as I approached the situation.
Now, be open to the possibility that you are wrong in your interpretation of the situation, conversation or event.
Say to yourself, ‘I think they were talking about me. In fact, I’m fairly certain they were. But I’m open to the possibility that I might be wrong. I’m willing to look at this situation, conversation or event from all angles to see if there is a different explanation’.
‘Is this your dog?’ the angry woman shouted at me. Because I couldn’t actually see the dog I answered, ‘I’m not sure’. It could have been, but I couldn’t be certain. It might have been someone else’s dog.
Look for the evidence that it meant what you think it meant.
I carefully examined the duck and decided that in fact, Ilsa had not killed it. It had died some time before, as the evidence of its body temperature, lack of blood and drenched feathers showed.
Think about a situation that’s been on your mind and to which you’ve given a certain meaning. Especially a meaning about someone else in their relationship with you.
“They hate me, they’re laughing at me, they’re talking about me, they think I’m stupid….”
How can you be certain you are right? It’s important to be really honest with yourself and the situation. Be aware that your thinking styles have become skewed towards the negative.
Also, be open to the possibility that you may have some role or responsibility in the situation, without feeling guilty (difficult, I know)!
Ask yourself, ‘What other reasons could there be for her to say that? I wonder what is happening for her
in her life?’ Or ‘I wonder why he did that? Could he be scared/upset/worried about something I don’t know about?’ Try to put yourself in the shoes of the other person.
The situation may have nothing to do with you. Or it may have something to do with you.
You need to be willing to look at it from all angles.
Ask yourself, ‘Did I do something to upset her? Am I responsible in any way for this situation?’ If you are not, don’t claim any responsibility for yourself. In other words, don’t feel guilty or ashamed.
If you may hold some responsibility for the situation, don’t feel angry, ashamed or upset at yourself. Treat yourself with compassion. If there is a need for an apology, apologise and let it go. Click To Tweet
If I could have found that angry woman I would have told her what I had discovered about the duck. As it was, I couldn’t find her, and so I just went home and made myself a cup of tea and sat down with my book.
If you’re feeling upset about a situation, distract yourself from your thoughts by taking some small action.
Rumination, or churning the same thoughts over and over in your mind is stopped in its tracks by taking some small action, whatever is possible for you in that situation: make a cup of coffee or better still, pop out for a coffee, chat with someone else, listen to music, clean the house or file some papers, listen to the radio or do the laundry.
Taking a deep breath, being open to other explanations, looking for the evidence and then taking action to snap out of rumination or over thinking are the key steps to avoid getting upset over situations or conversations.
Remember that we cannot take responsibility for what other people say or do. That’s their business, really.
All we can do is decide how best to respond, bearing in mind how depression may be encouraging us to be overly emotional, judgemental of ourselves or others, or rigid in our thinking.
We don’t have to listen to our negative thinking patterns. They’re not usually very helpful. Enlist your inner detective or scientist and go look for the evidence!
If you'd asked her 15 years ago if she believed life could be a wonderful as it is today, Vickie would have answered, 'I just don't know, but it doesn't seem likely.' Now she knows that if she can turn her life around, it's possible for you too. Ask Vickie how she can help you design the life you'd really love to live and say goodbye to depression forever.