AM I DEPRESSED?
By Dr Jessamy Hibberd, BSc, MSc, DClinPsy, PgDip
Depression isn’t picky – it can affect anyone. It doesn’t discriminate when it comes to background, financial status, job, ethnicity, popularity or success. If it hits, you can become swallowed up by it and it’s an incredibly lonely place to be.
Outwardly everything looks ok, while inside you’re drowning. It’s hard just getting out of bed each day. Yet despite the fact you’re falling apart inside, unless you let others know they’ll have little idea of how you’re feeling.
So what is depression and how does it operate?
Everyone feels sad, unhappy or low sometimes – feeling permanently great isn’t normal. Our ability to experience and process a range of thoughts and emotions is what makes us human.
Our mood naturally fluctuates. It’s on a continuum – from feeling amazing to completely terrible. Where you are on that continuum varies depending on what’s going on in your life. For all of us, our mood goes up and down. But when thoughts and feelings become darker and stay that way for weeks or months, you’re not just dealing with low mood anymore, you’re dealing with depression.
When depression takes hold it’s like being a different person - it makes you feel different, think differently and see the world differently.
At this point, you’d hope that your mind might jump into gear and start to support you. Telling you it will be ok, backing you and helping you to feel better. Yet Mother Nature played a cruel joke when it came to depression. At the time when you need it most, instead of your mind working for you, it starts instead to work against you. It builds the case for depression, seeking out any (often very dodgy) evidence that supports it.
Depression is a cheat. It doesn’t play by the rules, it will twist and manipulate anything and everything to support its cause. It devalues all you do and makes you only pay attention to the things that fit with the ‘you’re crap’ narrative. Nothing works out, everything is your fault and ‘these things’ always happen to you. Even one small thing going wrong (forgetting to pick up milk) becomes proof that everything always goes wrong (you’re an idiot and you always make these blunders).
Depression is a liar. Telling you that how you feel is because that’s how things really are (I feel bad, therefore everything is bad). It makes you compare yourself negatively to others (she’s a way better mother than you, has a better job, never loses her temper). Magnifying any perceived failures and defeats and minimising the qualities and resources you have to cope.
Depression is a bully. When you’re at your lowest, it verbally abuses and stamps on you. It’s cunning, believable and preys on your vulnerabilities and fears. It knows all of your weak spots and strips you of your confidence. It constantly criticises and blames you: you did that really badly, you're not even trying, you're stupid, you’ve got no reason to feel depressed, stop being pathetic...
Depression is forgetful. It conveniently forgets about all the times in the past that you’ve proved it wrong and ignores any information that might go against it. Anything negative has lasting implications for self worth, while positive events are viewed as fluke, luck, unimportant.
Depression attracts negativity. It’s a magnet for any other negative feelings, pulling horrible old memories back into the spotlight and making you go over (and over) any mistakes or upsets you’ve had. This leaves you feeling lost, defeated, worthless, unloveable or a failure. Lonely, isolated and detached from those that might be able to help.
Depression is controlling. At a time when you could really do with others support - a chance to lift your mood, a change of scene - depression persuades you to do the opposite. It stops you from doing the things that might help you to feel better. Go out and see your friends? They’ll only find you boring. Go for a walk? You’re really tired.
And most importantly, depression steals your hope. It tricks you into thinking that things will never get better.
Yet despite its terrible consequence, depression is poorly understood in the wider world. It can be difficult for others to understand, unless they’ve been through it or deal with it professionally. Misplaced advice can leave you feeling even worse. The dreaded phrases: “pull yourself together”, “pick yourself up and get on with it”, “there are far worse off people in the world”. If only it was that simple.
So how do you beat it?
You are not alone. Depression is a common mental health problem. Studies suggest that between 8-12% of the population experience depression in any year.
Nobody chooses depression. If you’re feeling depressed it’s really important to go and speak to someone about it. Mental health is no different to physical health, you don’t need to suffer in silence, there are things you can do about it. Seeing your GP can give you access to therapy and (if you need it) medication, both of which are proven to make a difference to your mood.
Externalise the depression. It’s important to remember that what you’re saying to yourself, isn’t you talking, it’s the depression talking. Rather than blindly listening to it or going along with all it tells you, see it for what it is and fight back.
Remember that depression is a liar – when the depression starts talking, instead of accepting what it’s saying as the truth, remind yourself that it’s just a thought, opinion, hypothesis or evaluation – it’s definitely not a fact. Just because you’re feeling bad, it doesn’t mean everything is bad. Just because you forgot the milk, it doesn’t make you a useless person. Pause, step back and remind yourself, ‘Thoughts aren’t facts’.
What it’s saying isn’t accurate or helpful - it will cheat, it will twist things. If it gives you so called evidence, don’t just agree, try and check it out. How you interpret things has a big impact on your mood. This is because the meaning that you give a situation affects how you think, feel (emotionally and physically) and what you do. By becoming more aware of your thoughts you can notice what they’re saying to you and question them. What’s the evidence for it? What evidence is there that doesn’t support it? Are there any alternative ways of seeing this? What other explanations could there be? How would I see this if I wasn’t feeling depressed?
See depression for the bully it is. Imagine if someone followed you around saying all the things depression says to you? You’d be shocked and hurt, yet it’s what you’re doing to yourself all day. You’d never speak to a friend (or probably even enemy) like that and yet depression is constantly putting you down and being horrible. You’re not weak or a failure for having a bad day/week/month, in fact, part of the problem is you telling yourself that. Try to be kinder to yourself, ask yourself what you’d say to a friend in the same situation? Use the compassion you have for others for yourself.
Notice the good and build the case against depression. Even when you’re feeling depressed, good things are still happening. Depression just makes it much harder to give them the attention they deserve. It’s important to remember you have a choice in where you direct your attention. Try to focus your attention on the whole of your life, rather than the parts that you are unhappy with or finding difficult. If you notice everyday things that make you feel good it can make a real difference to your day. Note down when someone gives you a compliment or when you do something you didn’t think you’d manage. Remind yourself that it wasn’t fluke or luck, but because you worked hard. Try noting down three good things each day and make sure you refer back to them on a regular basis.
The less you do the worse you feel and this means you have even more time to think... not a good thing when you're depressed. When depression says don’t you should do the opposite. Don’t go out? Going out is exactly what you do. Don’t speak to anyone they won’t understand? Pick up the phone and call a friend. Make a plan for your week and add in small things that can lift your mood and make a difference to how you feel. See friends, make time for a coffee, do some exercise, listen to your favourite music.
Hold onto hope. Depression is treatable, don’t let it tell you otherwise. There is light at the end of the tunnel!
It’s time to start talking more about mental health. The only way to change the stigma is for people to speak out.