I’m going to dive right in here. This is definitely a hot button topic, and I almost didn’t write about this, but…
The idea that simply making a “lifestyle change“ in order to combat depression is ludicrous. Sure, positive thinking goes along way to changing your mindset, but people who struggle with depression have trouble thinking positively. It’s not as easy as just telling someone look for the positive things, because someone with depression has a brain that is hardwired to find negative things. It’s not about whether or not they have a lifestyle that lends itself to negativity (although I will admit that doesn’t help things), but about a chemical in balance in their brain.
Every time I read a blog, or have a conversation with someone, or see an article that says I can change my depression by willing it away with positive thoughts, I want to scream. I feel unseen, unheard, and my confidence is shattered. I feel there’s something wrong with me because I can’t just do those “simple” things and make my depression go away. Do people truly think anyone would choose to be perpetually miserable?
Lifehack: if you want to sound intelligent and not isolate your friends with mental health issues, ask them what makes them feel better. Find out what makes them tick, what stressors trigger depression or anxiety, or other mental health issues. Listen without forming a response or giving advice. Don’t tell them how to change or give them advice on how to navigate their mental health (unless you are a professional), and even if you struggle with your own mental health, what works for you may not work for them. Sharing your experience as a cure-all is also unhelpful.
What a lot of people writing articles like I mentioned above get wrong, or demonstrate they don’t understand, is changing your thought pattern is far more difficult than just saying “I’ll be positive today” and moving forward. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a well-known therapy to combat and transform negative thoughts for anxiety and depression. It focuses on how to retrain your brain to think differently, and it often takes years for somebody to accomplish those changes. (See a description of CBT here.)
CBT is not an overly complex process on its own, but applying it is an entirely different animal. Our neural pathways begin developing as far back as infancy. And while articles are coming out with more frequency showing our brains are retaining more neuroplasticity than we originally thought, those pathways are much slower to change and reshape than when we were young children.
It takes a long time to make or break habits, but our thoughts are much harder. And many people go untreated well into adulthood. That’s at least 18 years of cognitive reshaping. Imagine trying to rewire your brain’s entire lifetime of development. But hey, just think positive thoughts. You’ll be fine.
We think reflexively, and retraining your brain to not only recognize, but stop a thought in its tracks is an incredibly difficult undertaking. There’s a triangle many therapists use that is some derivation of this:
Our thoughts have to come from somewhere, though; they are formed by our core values and beliefs. Those are beliefs and values a person holds about themselves, others, and the world. An example of a core belief could be something internalized from childhood, such as “I’m a failure.” causing a cascade of thoughts falling under that umbrella. This kind of thought is a cognitive distortion, and it can fall under one of many categories, like labeling, or all-or-nothing thinking (see an example article from Verywell Mind here).
Please keep in mind: I’m not a licensed therapist, so what I’m sharing is from my personal experiences with counseling, what I learned in school, and what I’ve researched on my own.
With all that in mind, someone with depression, anxiety, PTSD, or anything else that causes thought distortions likely holds some fairly negative core beliefs surrounding themselves and possibly others. From those core beliefs come “automatic negative thoughts” I like to call them ANTs. Because they’re like ants, crawling around in my brain, really hard to get out. Every time I think I’ve gotten them, it turns out there are more, and they were just hiding, out of reach until I put down my guard. If I could will away my negative thoughts, depression, or anxiety by running, exercising, meditating, eating better, etc. I would.
Spoiler alert – I actually do all those things.
I run four days a week right now, and I have to drag myself out of bed before 5 am to do it so there’s an adult in the house with my kids. I track my meals, and I’m not perfect, but most of my food is vegetables, fruit, and protein. Don’t forget coffee. I drink a gallon of water a day, and I meditate every night for 10-15 minutes before bed. Twice a week I lift weights, sometimes three times if I can squeeze time in around the kids’ schedule. I journal regularly, and I have a separate journal for just gratitude, where I force myself to focus only on positive things to write down.
None of those things would be possible for me without medication, because without it, I’m a different (much scarier) person. I hate that I need medication to function. Not everyone with depression does, or other mental health issues for that matter. I attend regular therapy as well, and I needed a lot of help to get on this road in the first place. If it weren’t for Aaron, I am not sure I ever would have had the strength to do those things. I owe my ability to function well presently to my husband’s love and devotion to me in the early years of our marriage.
At the end of the day, I know I will see more posts in the future about “life hacks to battle depression” or some other click-bait title. Someone desperate for a quick solution will avoid seeking the right kind of help, hoping that maybe exercising more regularly will make their negative thoughts go away. Or that meditating will help them to stop anxiety from setting in without warning. Or that if they just remember all the good things in life, maybe they’ll stop feeling so sad.
Those things can help, and in some instances go a long way for people who have situational depression, or anxiety that isn’t chronic. I won’t diminish them, because like everything in treatment plans, healthy activities have their place, too. Still, people who suffer with a chronic mental illness need more than life hacks. They deserve to be treated as people who have a real problem, not an imaginary one. Their feelings are real and deserve to be validated, just as much as those of people who are normal.
Stop offering life hacks, and ask real, open-ended questions. Be a part of the solution, be someone who helps, and cares. Be someone who takes the time to understand, instead of brushing someone off as “gloomy” or “a nervous Nelly”. Be compassionate. Be present, and don’t give up when things don’t change in a day, a week, a month, or even years. Genuinely be there. It’s worth more than all the advice in the world.
“Not giving up on me is the best gift you could give me.” – Lizzie Lane, Fire In Wonderland Author and Founder.