All of us feel down at times. Feeling sad is part of the yin-yang of our existence. From this perspective, what appears as polar opposites are actually inextricably linked. These apparent opposites actually co-create one another. Thus, we cannot have conservative without liberal, masculine without feminine, right without left, right without wrong, good without evil, and light without darkness. Similarly, we cannot have happiness and joy without sadness and sorrow. Indeed, it’s sad but true that suffering is an inevitable part of life. While all of us will want to escape depression when it hits, cannot avoid it entirely.
If we consider our happiness to be along a continuum, depression represents getting stuck on the low end of this continuum. The severity and duration of depression are what distinguish it from ordinary sadness. Also, depression can be divorced from life’s circumstances such that we might be experiencing very mild problems, or even “have it all,” and still become quite depressed.
Are We Running Up That Hill or Trudging Up a Mountain?
Most of us are not incapacitated by depression (maybe we have “depression” and not “Depression”), but it can markedly affect our functioning and overall quality of life. It can make life feel hollow, arduous, and painful. When we are depressed, not only do we feel bad, but we have a hard time believing that we will ever feel better. We usually can make it through the day, but life seems flat, bland, and joyless. We are existing and not living.
Let’s use the analogy of climbing up a hill. With a nod to singer Kate Bush, when we are feeling vibrant and alive, we feel like we are “running up that hill, with no problems.” Well, maybe “no problems” is a stretch, but you get the point. However, when we are depressed, the hill appears to be a mountain that we are climbing while carrying a 100-pound backpack. Yes, we can still exercise our free will to try to climb that mountain, but the climb seems so daunting and overwhelming that we often don’t even bother trying to climb it. We tell ourselves, “What’s the point?”
The Experience of Depression
Like love, depression is “more than a feeling.” While sadness is one of the symptoms, other common symptoms include low motivation, difficulty concentrating, low energy, and anhedonia (no longer finding things pleasurable that one once found pleasurable). Also, frequently when we are feeling depressed, we get caught in negative thought loops such as, “I am terrible, the world is rotten, people are awful, and it’s not going to get better. I’m worthless, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“I know I’m unlovable. You don’t have to tell me. I don’t have much in my life, but take it, it’s yours.” — from the song, “Unlovable” but the band, The Smiths
Being depressed often causes us to disengage from life. We pull inwards and keep to ourselves. We stop working out, seeing friends, and disconnect from what gives us joy and meaning. In today’s tech generation, it often means staying by ourselves and finding some temporary solace and distraction from our pain by spending more time on the screen. Thus, screen “addiction” or overuse is frequently a symptom of depression rather than its original cause.
In contrast, the research on happiness is that the happiest people tend to be engaged with life, especially other people. They are seeing friends, going out into the world, staying busy, pursuing passions and goals, and being productive. In short, depression causes us to disengage with life whereas happiness resides in greater engagement with life.
Act, Not Think, Your Way Out to Escape Depression
Some key, defining features of depression make it a trap that is devilishly difficult to escape. In particular, the nature of depression makes it difficult to do the very things that would tend to pull us out of depression — activities, engagement, productivity, and socializing. One of my mentors said something that has always stuck with me: It’s easier to act our way into a different way of thinking than to think our way into a different way of acting.
Changing our thoughts that perpetuate our depression (i.e., life stinks, what’s the point) is extremely difficult. For example, try this right now: Don’t think of a pink elephant. Well, you just thought of a pink elephant! But if I tell you to tap your right foot, you can easily do that (assuming you decide to play along). Now, this doesn’t work for everyone all of the time, of course. However, behavioral activation is probably the single best, and most straightforward, way to escape the depression trap.
Don’t Wait to Feel Motivated
To escape depression, here is the biggest key: Don’t wait to feel motivated to do the things that will help you. You must do the activities (e.g., exercise, see friends, engage), and the motivation to do these activities will follow. I know this sounds “bassackwards” but there is truth to it.
When we are depressed, we might think or say something like, “Well, I don’t feel motivated to do _______.” However, one cannot wait for the feeling of motivation to manifest before engaging in the beneficial activities because, by the very nature of depression, the motivation will not likely arrive. At least, we can’t control the feeling of motivation. Waiting to feel motivated puts us in a powerless position. We are waiting for the muse to strike. However, this is really important: We can do what is good for us regardless of whether we feel like doing it.
As odd as this might sound, we don’t need to feel motivated to do things that are beneficial for us. For instance, we might not “feel” like doing our taxes, doing the dishes, folding laundry, or eating our broccoli, yet we can still decide to do these activities anyway. Consider the following situation: Have you ever not felt like working out, pushed yourself to start anyway, and then, even partway through, started feeling really glad that you did? Barring an injury or accident, have you ever regretted choosing to exercise even when you didn’t initially feel like doing so? Reflecting upon our own experiences allows us to discover the reality here.
Depression is often a trap because, by its very nature, it saps us of the motivation to do what is good for us. Being more active and engaged with life tends to lead to greater levels of happiness as a byproduct. The depression trap is that we usually don’t feel like engaging in these activities. The way out of this trap is to separate the motivation/desire to do beneficial activities from the act of doing them. It is possible not to feel like doing something…and do it anyway.
As we start to claw ourselves out of the depression, we can remind ourselves that we will likely feel good (or at least better) having pushed ourselves to do something that engages us with life. As we use more behavioral activation to help improve our well-being, we can use prior results of choosing to engage with life as the motivation to initiate more activities in the future. Start with small goals to gain some momentum and then build from there. Step by step, it’s possible to climb out of the pit of depression and begin to “run up that hill” (or at least walk it!).