by Liza Andrews

In the photography therapy method I created, "before and after" pictures are not about shooting someone with and without makeup or in different outfits. It is documenting new routines that will help you boost your self-esteem, become more confident and improve your life-style. This exercise is for those who are bored, depressed, in need of a change. Sometimes, our circumstance won't change and the frustration can swallow us and keep us awake at night. In any case, consider this: whenever you can't change the world, challenge your body. New sports, new adventures, new exercise programs. Physical challenges create a chemical response that stimulates your brain and gives you back the drive to find new options and having a happier life. 

Try this: Create a new routine and make it into your personal project. Set up your camera using a tripod and take about 5 pictures of yourself on DAY 1. Body and face. Don't pose. Don't force a smile. Think about how you feel now and let the emotion - good or bad - be reflected on your expression. If you have been angry or frustrated about your job or personal life, let it show. You'll do this photo session once a week - it takes less than 10 mins. And hopefully, after one or two months you will start seeing a visual progress in your body. Muscles, lines on your face, skin quality and a more refreshed expression. Keep a "scientific journal" to write the physical changes you see. Don't write about your emotions, just describe how they reflect on your body: eyes and facial expression. How your thoughts and feelings change along the weeks after you've engaged in new habits and activities. Write any results you see. Remember that while observing your photos and writing your reports, you are not yourself. Don't be sorry for your pain or frustration. Be the observer; as precise as possible and treat the experiment as something you've done dozens of times and always works. Be persistent. 

At some point in life, all of us face a moment where deep suffering or lack of purpose drive us to despair or stagnation. Before trying antidepressants, there are some natural alternatives that ( if done consistently) have scientifically showed results: exercises, meditation, exposure to sunlight, laughter, to say a few. I'm focusing on exercising here. Vast researches from numerous universities have stablished that regular exercises make the brain produce endorphins and give us a sense of happiness and well-being. For this life-changing project I propose, going to the gym may not be enough. Unless you do it daily and have a strong purpose, such as losing weight or increasing muscle mass. Otherwise, your goal should be finding a type of exercise that is also challenging. For the body, find something that requires movement, burns calories. If you are not in your best shape or recovering from injury, you can always start slow and add new steps later. But it is essential that your activity is mind challenging.

 I tried fencing as exercise. It is aerobic,  with all its back and forward movements to attack and defend yourself, and it requires strength, so it also encouraged me to work on my muscles. Mind-wise, because it is competitive, elegant and exciting, I was far more prone to attending fencing classes, than keeping my previous routine of weight lifting and spinning. Exercising more often and harder changed my brain chemistry in weeks, bringing clarity to overcome my problems. Challenging my body also brought up new facets of me that I hadn't seen or had forgotten. The change I saw in me as I studied my photos, created a change in the scenery, increased my hope in better times to come, and made it a lot easier to deal with what was bothering me at the time. Going through this process is life-changing, but you'll need reminders to encourage you during possible fall-backs. That's when photographing the process makes all the difference. That rainy Monday after work, when you just want to watch TV and eat chocolate? Take a shower to wash out the bad mood and stagnation and go watch your photo journal. See your progress. See that you who's been exercising, trying something new, aiming self-improvement. Don't break the cycle. When you are down is when you need to go out and exercise or, at least, go for a fast-paced walk.

When I studied psychology in college, I was always discussing with my professors different ways to battle grief, depression and all those sinking feelings that kept people from fully living their lives. In my own experience, I discovered that a very effective way out of such feelings was trying activities that took me completely out of my comfort zone - even scared me a little. I tried different ones, along a twenty-year period and they always brought me back to balance.  Some of my clients tell me that they reignited their fire trying ski diving, and other radical sports. For others, the challenge was gradually increasing the level of difficulty of their hiking, or perfecting a hard position in their yoga classes. Others, started training for a marathon. The bottomline is: don't wait for life to change. Look for something out of the box to change your mind set, whenever you cannot change the circumstances. Find purpose again. When you start changing yourself, you regain the joy of living and have more strength to fight for what you want. Consequently, your environment will change, or at least, your perception of it will. 

Here's my latest personal project using this method. Feeling depressed after the loss of a loved one,  I tried jet-skiing. I had always found speeding exciting, but too dangerous (and irresponsible) to try in a car or motorcycle. Jet-skiing is like riding a motorcycle and not getting (too) hurt if you fall. You can reach really high speed and it's very exciting.  For me, it did the trick because it also offered that hint of fear.  I can swim and I'm constantly in boats with friends and clients, but I'm afraid of the sea. Something related to watching "Jaws" when I was 7, I guess!

So, here's my advise: if you'll try something that scares you, make good use of the power of photography. Before my first ride, I sat on the jet-ski and asked someone to take my WEEK 2 picture. My DAY 1 picture had shown a sad woman, with dead looking eyes and no willingness to get out of her couch. But she had decided to go on that adventure to find her "lost self", or perhaps, a most evolved one, shaped by her grief. I looked at my photo by the jet-ski and imagined myself riding that thing. It was a mix of fear and excitement. What if I did something wrong? What if I hit something or worse, someone!? Very uncomfortable, but that was the spirit. I had been upset for too long, and if I wanted to break free from that mind-set, I had to put all my mental focus on something that would bring new emotions. I drove with the instructor first and it was scary-fun. Then, when I tried it by myself, it was scary, period. There were rocks, boats and jet-skis around. I had to drive fast, consider all those variables and try to forget that I was in deep waters, with zero visibility of what was under me. I did not give up. The faster I went and the deeper into the sea, the harder I trembled. As it had happened before, the adrenaline rush made its magic and started to change my mind set.

Trust me, when you face any type of physical danger, you realize that life is truly too short to waste in grief, anger or dueling over the past. You don't need to survive a hostage situation to realize that. And then, while you are at risk, you don't care about a big purpose or the lack of it. My only purpose while driving that jet-ski, flying over the 60-mph mark, was not getting myself or anyone else hurt. On a second stage, which I thought would never come, I experienced a new type of control, and started to have some fun with the adventure. The combination of excitement and fear was a powerful injection to the veins, and it brought me back to my best. After three weeks, I could see a happier face on my photos. Once you feel good enough, you can engage in other exciting activities that are not so over the top. I did not want to become addicted to the adrenaline rush, just using it to break free from unhealthy mind sets. In my case, fencing could be the stimulating weekly activity for my body and mind. Jet-skiing worked so well for my depression that I stopped before I became comfortable with it. The hint of fear remains, and flying over the waters continues to be my big crisis plan.