I spent many years in and out of depression, and while I felt very much alone at the time, I know now that I was not. Millions of people battle the dark depths of depression every day. Like many others, I kept most of my painful thoughts and feelings to myself. When I finally got desperate enough to reach out for professional help, it took a long time for me to actually believe and integrate the guidance that I was given.
Here are some key truths I have come to believe. If you are struggling with depression, I hope you will too.
1. Don't believe everything you think.
We all have our share of losses and challenges in life. But the main cause of depression is not usually our life circumstances. It is our thinking. Unfortunately, when we are depressed, we tend to believe our thoughts. And the mind of a depressed person is not usually the best place to hang out. When I was battling depression, I wholeheartedly believed every thought that popped up on the screen of my mind. My thoughts seemed and felt so true. I even gathered evidence to support them and ignored evidence to the contrary. For example, when I was single and feeling lonely, I only saw couples out in the world. My mind refused to take in that there were millions of single people around me as well. Not to mention millions of unhappy couples. If I was struggling with a recent weight gain, I only saw thin, confident looking women. My mind refused to see anyone else. It was as if my depressed self was on trial and my mind was the prosecuting attorney gathering evidence that I was not okay and that everyone else was. Eventually, after lots of help from others and a good dose of willingness from within, I learned that I could take a stand against my internal programs. I learned that I could disagree with my discouraging thoughts and eventually dispel them for good. You can too!
2. Do the opposite of what the "voice of depression" suggests.
As a psychotherapist, I often find myself encouraging people to follow their hearts, listen to their true feelings, and go with their intuition... unless they are depressed. That's because when we are lost in depression, we are not in the best position to make wise decisions regarding self-care. My "voice of depression" used to convince me to isolate, veg out all day, oversleep, binge, starve, get high or give up. I had to learn to do the opposite of what that internal voice was telling me to do. I had to learn that when I was depressed and thought I should isolate, I should do exactly the opposite and reach out to a friend or attend a support group. When the voice of depression told me to watch TV all day, I had to push myself to take a walk or listen to a self-help cassette tape (remember those?) When my mind told me not to eat breakfast because I wanted to lose weight or because I had no appetite, I needed to do the opposite and eat a nutritious meal anyway or I was going to set myself up for yet another binge followed by even deeper depression.
Unfortunately, depression zaps the energy we need to do the very things that will make us feel less depressed. Learning to do the opposite of what your voice of depression suggests will help you begin to climb out of its painful and familiar grip.
3. Don't open virus-infested links.
We don't usually have a choice about what thoughts pop up in our minds. But we do have a choice about whether or not to open those "virus-infested links" containing the same old self-sabotaging thoughts. Rather than allow our thoughts to infect our whole system, we can choose to only download ideas we know to be safe and user-friendly. So if you know that your "unkind mind" is operating, you can choose to close it and only open up what you know are safe programs. If you know that a certain link will tell you "I am a loser," decide to download the "This is what's okay about me" message instead. Instead of opening the "My life sucks" link, you can choose the "These are some things that are good about my life" podcast. Avoid the virus that says, "Everyone has a better life than me" and download "Here are some things I'm grateful for." With willingness and practice, you can prevent yourself from getting an emotional virus.
4. Upgrade your mantras.
Whether or not you consider yourself to be a spiritual person or believe in the concept of mantras, we are all constantly repeating internal messages to ourselves. Our minds are mantra machines, and whether our messages are kind, neutral, unkind or abusive, they make an enormous difference in the quality of our lives. I used to have a mantra that went something like this: I'm too weak to handle life. I'm not cut out for this. Things are never going to get better. Not exactly an Oprah pick-me-up! I had heard of the self-fulfilling prophecy that if you tell a child they are stupid long enough, they will begin to believe it and act that way. But here I was self-fulfilling my own prophecies. I had to begin to pry my gripped fingers off of my internal whip and set it down. I had to practice some new mantras that were kinder and as it turned out, more true.
My upgraded mantras sound more along the lines of this: I can handle what happens. Everyone has struggles. I am safe in this moment. I can do things to improve my life. I am worthy. We are all the same on some level. I learned that even if I didn't believe them at first, it was an upgrade in the system and I had to start somewhere. Plus, the people that told me to speak to myself with more kindness swore that it would eventually make a difference and I knew where they lived if it turned out they were wrong! They were not wrong.
5. You are not alone.
I remember the first time I asked someone if they ever thought about suicide and they said they hadn't. I was floored. "Never?" I asked. "Not even once?" It simply never even occurred to me that everyone wasn't battling those dark thoughts; that everyone wasn't as sensitive as I was, and that everyone wasn't deciding whether or not to stick around and choose life. But it's true. We are all different breeds and some of us are more sensitive and thought-filled than others. Yes, we all face hard times and we all -- regardless of fame, fortune or physique -- will face losses. But some of us have a darker internal experience than others. It's important to find people who really understand and can handle your pain and your dark thoughts, people you feel totally safe with.
I also remember the first time I confided in a friend that I was suicidal. She was completely silent. I'm talkin' not one word. Poor thing. I know now she had zero skills to deal with such intense information and we were pretty young at the time but it left me feeling even more alone and despairing. It would be years before I would risk sharing my dark secret again; however, the next time, I chose a professional who really got me and really knew how to respond. Boy did I feel the difference! It's so important to seek out loving, compassionate, non-judgmental people until you can be that way toward yourself. If you are looking for a therapist, consider someone who has Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) skills as well as Mindfulness Training. CBT will help you learn to challenge and change your thinking and mindfulness will help you learn to live without becoming lost in your thoughts.
6. Something needs to die, but not you!
Being a sensitive person in a demanding and often perfectionistic world is not easy. I spent years thinking I just wasn't cut out for this life. My go-to thought when things felt overwhelming was "I'm outta here." It's hard for me to believe that now because I'm so committed to seeing this life through. I've learned that difficult feelings pass and that not every thought needs to be camped out on. But back in my dark decades, I truly wanted out. A lot. Sometimes my way out was through addictions and sometimes it was truly wanting out.
What I know now -- and I hope, if you are in the grips of depression, that you will know too -- is this: If your mind is telling you that you need to die, it might mean that something does indeed need to die, but not you! Your perfectionism might need to die. Self-hate might need to die. The belief that you can't handle life might need to die. The thought that everyone else has a charmed life might need to die. The thought that you are alone and that nobody cares might need to die. But not you. Underneath the habitual unkind mind is a quiet, loving heart with passions, ideas and dreams. Once you let go of your self-negating thoughts, all those other parts of you can be tapped into and lived to their fullest.
7. One chapter is not the whole book.
When you are struggling with depression, it is so tempting to think that this is the way it will always be. But life takes different twists and turns, and we don't get to know what the next chapter in our life will bring if we give up on ourselves. One client spent years comparing herself to her seemingly happily married friends and felt desperately lonely. Despite my weekly reminders that life stories can change, she was convinced that hers would not. But her story did change. She is now married and enjoying her new chapter in life. Additionally, a few of her previously "perfect and happy" friends are now divorced. I'm not one to say I told you so. I am just one to say that things can change. We all experience sad, challenging chapters in our lives, just as we all experience change. Regardless of whether or not our outside circumstances drastically shift, if our minds change, everything can change. This is why some people have what is seemingly a dreary job and swear that they are the happiest people on the planet, while others have literal fame and fortune and yet struggle with addictions and depression or even take their own lives.
So if you are battle weary from depression, try challenging your next dark thought. Try doing the opposite of what your voice of depression suggests. Upgrade your daily mantra to something kinder and more grateful. Allow a harmful thought pattern to die. Try reaching out to someone who really understands you... and see how the next chapter unfolds!
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience working with children, teens, adults, families and groups. Andrea is passionate about helping people who are struggling with eating disorders, body image, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, grief and relationships. Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her book, blogs or other services, please visit: www.andreawachter.com.