“I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.”
― Sylvia Plath
Depression is horrible. It’s invisible, relentless, emotionally painful. It can throw up deep sadness, hurt and regret. Or it can be a vague, fuzzy, “off feeling” with no clear cause and no intention of leaving.
Depression makes mundane tasks feel like mountainous obstacles. It locks out all pleasure and enjoyment. At its worst, it can be truly terrifying, leading its sufferers to believe there is no hope, no horizon, no purpose for going on.
I have felt like this in my life – many people have. But my belief today is that we can all beat depression if we truly understand what is causing it. The problem is, our society still holds two VERY unhelpful views about depression which are popularised by the media and pharmaceuticals.
The first is that depression is hereditary. The view is usually expressed like this: “My mum had it for a while after my sister was born” or “my granny had it for years.” The implied reasoning here is that because depression is genetic you are stuck with it. Once you have accepted that chain of reasoning, the only way out appears to be medication.
The second argument is a relic from Victorian times: depression is caused by a lack of will. Generation Snowflake simply needs to “man up”.
Both ideas perpetuate the belief that when we are depressed we are powerless to change the suffering and that, somehow, we are weak.
Both ideas are flawed and there is no real evidence for either of them. (And, as an aside, they contradict each other: how can you “man up” if you have inherited incurable depression?).
The chief flaw in both arguments is that they misunderstand how the mind works. Because essentially the mind has two very important traits that have a massive impact on how we understand and treat depression.
The first trait is that the brain constantly responds to new experiences and thoughts by re-wiring itself (a trait called neuroplasticity). Far from being fixed, our potential to learn new skills and (importantly here) beliefs, is limitless; all of us have a machine between our ears that is designed to keep on learning.
The second trait is that our subconscious mind (the part that operates without us being consciously aware of it) is superb at looking for evidence of what we already believe. It doesn’t analyse the evidence, it doesn’t question its legitimacy, it doesn’t differentiate between what is real and imagined. It is solely concerned with creating a fuller picture of what it already believes.
How do these two traits affect depression? Some of you will have already guessed. They are the process that causes depression.
Let’s take an example. We are shouted at by a teacher in school and laughed at by our peers. We consciously take certain conclusions from these humiliating experiences, and the “lessons” get wired into our brain. Now, even if the lessons are unhelpful, untrue, distorted, become out of date or contradicted by later evidence we don’t root them out. Why? Because once an idea or lesson is in place, the subconscious has now kicked in. Its number one task is to find more evidence to prove the lessons are still true. So it finds more and more examples of our smallness, our failure, our unworthiness. We become highly efficient at trash talking ourselves and sabotaging ourselves. The incident with the teacher gets buried under ever bigger examples of our stupidity and failure at work, relationships, child-rearing, whatever.
The examples become beliefs. We start to believe we are shameful or unworthy or powerless. Over time a tipping point is reached where our beliefs become feelings. Suddenly we are swamped by sadness, heaviness or despair. “Where did they come from we ask?” And we may have no CONSCIOUS idea why we feel terrible.
So: depression is not hereditary. And it is not the result of a weak will – the subconscious mind is doing all the work. Depression is simply the result of us using our mental machinery incorrectly.
Now we have dispensed of the unhelpful beliefs, what next?
Well the good news, and the most important message of this blog, is that depression is reversible. Because we can wire ourselves for misery and sadness, we can also re-wire ourselves to experience far more happiness, joy and contentment and far less misery. Depression is not something you are powerlessly stuck with.
The way we do it is by making far more of a conscious undertaking to notice the positive things about us and the things we do. It takes some effort at first – and determination. But after a few weeks, the subconscious gets the message that you are serious. At that point, it turns all of its energies towards finding more positive evidence of how wonderful you are. Within a couple of months, your beliefs about yourself are changing. And when that happens, your feelings change too. Darkness and pain gives way to light.
There is so much I can say about this process that I am going to save it for a separate, follow on, blog which will be called “Three Steps You Need to Take to Get Rid of Depression”. I can’t wait to get that out.
Depression. Yes it can feel suffocating, bewildering and incredibly painful. But we know so much more about it now than we used to. It’s not an immutable burden, and it is not a sign of weakness. While people in our lives might not always have had positive intentions towards us, they aren’t really to blame for it either. And we aren’t really to blame if we don’t know better. Depression is the result of how we are using our minds. And this is an incredibly liberating message. Because when we realise what we are creating, we can set ourselves free.