Life really is beginning to get you down. Everywhere you turn you find the same old drudgery, the same old problems and the same old heartache. You can’t sleep, you don’t eat properly any more. Everything you do seems to take twice the effort it used to and as if that wasn’t enough you ache from head to foot. If there’s a virus going around you’re sure to catch it and you just know it’ll take forever to shake it off. Congratulations – you’re depressed.
Of course that comes as no surprise – you know damn well that you’re depressed. And what’s more you know why. Nothing seems to have gone right for such a long time. Your family don’t care about you. Friends are never there when you need them, there’s always far too much month left at the end of the money and to cap it all the weather’s lousy as well.
Nobody seems to understand. Of course you’re depressed. Anyone would be if they’d been through what you have. How could you not be depressed? You’ve been through the mill, you’re still going through it now and you’ve a perfect right to be miserable. People tell you to snap out of it because they find it tough dealing with your misery but so what? They don’t care about how bad you feel so why should you care if they find your depression difficult? Let them put up with it for a while longer – maybe then they’ll understand. This is your depression – you’ve earned it and they’re just going to damn well have to put up with it!
If you can relate to the passages above then you owe it to yourself to read on. You’re falling into one of the most common emotional traps there are. Yes, it is a trap and once you get caught up in it things can only get worse.
In the beginning the trap seems perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t feel like a trap at all. If we’ve had a hard time It’s normal to feel bad about it, after all everybody gets fed up at one time or another. The trap opens the moment we start justifying our misery to ourselves. We begin to tell ourselves how reasonable and indeed unavoidable our depressive feelings are. Once we do this It’s as though we’ve opened the door to our own little prison – a very dark, gloomy prison with nothing inside but misery and depression.
At first friends and family rally around and try to cajole us out of our misery. They sit and they listen, perhaps trying to think of ways to cheer us up. Sometimes they try to argue us out of our depression and come up with all the reasons they can think of why we shouldn’t feel so bad. Typically the depressed person answers with the “Yes but….” approach and it quickly becomes clear that no matter what anyone else says the depression is here to stay. If you hear yourself using the “Yes but…” strategy bear in mind that you may simply be justifying your depression rather than genuinely seeking a solution to it. One thing’s certain, other people will quickly realize this even if you don’t.
After a while people stop sympathizing with us and start telling us to ‘snap out of it’ or make other ‘helpful’ comments like “Pull yourself together”. It’s as though they’re telling us we shouldn’t be feeling this way and that we might even be weak people because we do. Then we argue the case for depression even more and quickly begin to think of it in terms of something we’ve ‘earned’ because of the problems we faced. We start to think of depression as our ‘right’. The prison door slams shut.
Most people think of prison cells as essentially lonely places to be and this one is no exception. Once we form the habit of justifying and deepening our depression we become more and more difficult for other people to deal with. Anyone who’s spent time with the profoundly depressed will know just how draining it can be, both physically and emotionally. People quickly become frustrated and exasperated and ultimately stop visiting at all. The key turns in the lock and the prison door is well and truly secured.
At this point when I explain this process to patients they often stop me and insist that they really do have a right to feel the way they do. After all they’ve faced some pretty tough challenges and are understandably depressed. And of course that’s often true. All people have a perfect right to feel however they want to feel. If you want to justify feeling depressed and miserable that’s entirely up to you. However – why should you want to?
Many people become so used to thinking of themselves as depressed they stop defining themselves in any other way. Their depression becomes more than an illness – it becomes their whole way of life. The way to overcome this is to re-define your attitude, not only to depression but also to yourself. Stop thinking of yourself as depressed and start thinking of yourself as an ordinary person with ordinary problems instead.
If this sounds very simple It’s because it is. Bear in mind however that simple doesn’t mean easy. Reading this article is simple but learning how to read in the first place was far from easy. You had to acquire a whole new set of skills before you mastered the mysteries of reading and although much less difficult, the skills of mood control are much the same. The technique required to move on from depression is simple but not easy. This handout is intended to provide a starting point. It can’t replace individual therapy or medical treatment but for many people with reactive depression it will introduce a new way of thinking about their mental health which can have profound results in a remarkably short time.
The important thing is to be prepared to break out of old thinking habits. For example many depressed people believe that if life is difficult then they will have no option but to become depressed. Interestingly those people who always seem to be cheerful – you know, the ones depressed people find the most irritating have a totally different way of thinking. They believe that no matter how hard life gets they can still keep smiling – they can still be happy. Not surprisingly both beliefs are true for the people who hold them. Whatever you believe about yourself will be true for you. So the first thing to do is to change your way of thinking.
Most people don’t realize the amount of control they can have over their moods. It is possible to decide to be happy just as you can decide to be sad. It’s interesting that depressed people can be temporarily happy but they need a reason – for example a visit from a friend or a special occasion of some sort. They don’t tend to need any excuse to be miserable however.
On the other hand people who are generally cheerful tend to work in the exact opposite way. They only get upset for a reason – and it has to be a good reason at that. They need no excuse whatsoever to be happy. That’s just the way they are – the way they’ve trained themselves to be. It’s their ‘default setting’ if you will. Anyone can change their ‘default setting’ – It’s simply a matter of changing their thinking habits.
One simply strategy is to become a ‘reverse paranoid’. This means you repeatedly tell yourself that the world is out to do you a favor – not that it owes you a favor mind, that’s a totally different thing. Whenever you catch yourself thinking pessimistic thoughts just remind yourself that everything is going well and the world is working out exactly as it should. Keep on telling yourself that something good is about to happen to you. This sort of repetition is called affirmation and It’s an excellent way to change a thinking habit. Remember that it takes about 21 days of consistent effort to completely break a habit so persevere. I guarantee you’ll be happy you did.
Get realistic about your expectations. It’s strange but once a person becomes depressed It’s quite common for their expectations for the future to become quite unrealistic. People who aren’t suffering from depression tend to experience a wide range of moods including both happy and sad feelings. This fluctuation is both normal and healthy.
People who’ve been depressed often worry unnecessarily about even minor fluctuations in their mood and soon start to believe they’re depressed again when actually they’re only a little sad. It’s as though they expect to be ecstatically happy every minute of their lives or else deeply depressed. This is what psychologists call ‘black and white thinking’. The problem is that they quickly think themselves into depression by worrying too much about their healthy mood variations.
Understand the difference between a problem and a fact. Facts are things that happen and really can’t be altered. The thing to do is to accept them for what they are and just get on with life. Problems are things which can be altered for the better – depression for example. Normal fluctuation of mood is a fact.
Anyone who has been seriously depressed has experienced physiological changes. Breathing patterns alter, sleep changes, movement slows down or speeds up, posture alters, dietary intake is affected and a whole host of other things change as well. Another excellent way to combat depression, particularly the reactive or ‘earned’ kind is to change as much of your physiology as you can back to normal patterns. For example if you used to be more active force yourself to become active again. Do the things you used to do. If you used to walk tall – do so now. If you used to eat three meals a day get cooking. Oh yes, and don’t oversleep.
If you’ve slowed down because of depression force yourself to move more quickly, walk briskly and take an interest in all the things you used to. In short act as you did before you became depressed. Once again the trick is to break the habit of depression.
Another very useful trick is to get involved in some project or activity which you see as more important than yourself. This can be almost anything from community projects to local politics or simply being a good neighbor to the elderly widow across the street. It really doesn’t matter what so long as it involves taking responsibility for something and regularly taking positive action in pursuit of a worthy goal. After all, just like anything else in life, you won’t beat depression by doing nothing.
Don’t let yourself become disheartened by minor ‘relapses’. As you begin to change your thinking and acting habits you will undoubtedly backslide. After all you’re about to change radically your way of life. It’s inevitable that there will be some setbacks. Actually these are vital to your success. If we never make mistakes we never learn and learning plays a large part in this whole process. Your mistakes, your setbacks and your occasional returns to depression are an important part in this process of change. Simply recognize them for what they are – minor obstacles to be overcome – and move on.
Finally remember that actions speak louder than words. It’s one thing to talk about recovery and quite another to work toward it. All the medication and psychotherapy in the world won’t help without a genuine effort on your part. You may well have earned your depression but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it for the rest of your life. The choice, as always, is yours.
Compliments of Stuart Sorensen – RMN