I was reading yet another book this weekend – The Depths by Jonathan Rottenberg. I was reminded of a few big learnings from my own recovery plus I learned a few new things so thought I’d share.
It’s a trap to try to think your way out of depression.
Humans are confident that we can think our way out of our problems. It’s what we do. When we’re depressed, we’re driven to know why. Unfortunately we find endless whys. The constant thinking up of new explanations means we never get a grasp on the problem or a solution. Instead, our attention shifts imperceptibly from problems in our lives to problems with ourselves. This focus on our failings is the kind of thinking most closely linked with depression.
When we realize we can’t think our way out of depression, it becomes one more failure to dwell on. We begin to feel overwhelmed. Then helpless, hopeless and further depressed.
Depression may be a natural response to persisting towards unachievable goals.
Rottenberg says, “Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals. They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing.”
He proposes that our mood system monitors progress to goals and if we’re failing, mood drops to slow our behaviour, conserve energy and force us to re-evaluate. If we ignore the low mood and persist in chasing the impossible, the mood system has the capacity to drop mood to a point where all goal seeking behaviour, even if it’s just brushing your teeth, is shut down.
This seems a reasonable explanation and it reinforces what most depressed people know about themselves – it’s not a lack of goals or problem solving skills that’s the problem.
Reading too many self-help books can make depression worse.
My experience is that self-help books led to more self-analysis and rumination. Many of my why questions were answered but never the “why am I depressed”.
The books’ overblown claims cause you to have goals and expectations for yourself that are likely unreasonable. The advice all seems so easy to do and yet you can’t do it. And when you fail, that will further feed depression.
Rottenberg says that self-help books treat happiness as one more impossibly high goal. In fact, it’s well-being you’re after, not happiness, and well-being happens when you’re busy with your other goals – goals that come from your purpose in life.
Depression recovery happens so slowly you might not notice it happening.
There was no turning point when I wasn’t depressed any more. My pattern was like a lot of people’s – I’d be well or somewhat well and then not and not know why.
I tried a lot of things. Nothing made me feel better but somehow over time it all added up and my mood began to lift. I did notice some milestones along the way. I remember noticing when triggers didn’t trigger me the way they used to. I also noticed myself getting faster at shutting down negative thinking. Symptom management improved; recovery was still a ways off.
Recovery is a personal growth process.
It’s not really about recovering from an illness. You may not emerge as your pre-depressed self. Depression may be the catalyst to find a new truer self.
You may need to recover from several losses. There are the initial losses that are the ‘why’ behind your depression, but also the loss or hits you took to your self-identity, the loss of relationships with those who didn’t stand by you and quite possibly the loss of purpose for your life.
As Rottenberg says, depressed people often face a crisis of purpose. Finding your purpose will give you meaningful goals to pursue. Keep those goals achievable and you will have a means to haul yourself out of depression.
What’s been your big learning in the recovery process? Does any of this surprise you?
About the Author
I promote peer support and encourage people on their recovery journeys. My plan with this blog is to build a community of like-minded individuals offering ideas and encouragement from their own experiences. My master plan is to help create psychologically safe and supportive workplaces. I live in Calgary, Canada.