Unraveling Depression’s Patterns

In a recent Hallmark movie, carefree and confident Annie asked the main character Harold to look in the mirror and state 5 things that he liked about himself. Awkwardly and with some embarrassment, he couldn’t come up with one. His response scared his “life coach” so that she started addressing his lack of self-confidence. Now, most people seem to fall into one imbalance or the other: either arrogantly self-assured or debasing themselves with a “I can’t get anything right” attitude. Of course, the same person can swing from one end to the other extreme, even within one day, passing harsh judgment on another person and then an hour later saying to themselves, “It’s all my fault.” Most people struggling with depression don’t have much self esteem and heap on themselves their problems AND those of others around them as well. But if we are to help ourselves stave off the darkness, we have to recognize some patterns in our thinking that need unraveling.

  1. FEELINGS are INDICATORS:
    Like a warning light on the dash board, the red engine light isn’t the actual problem, but it’s indicating the driver of a potential issue under the hood. We don’t go to the auto mechanic and say, “Hey, fix this bulb. Something is wrong with my dash lights.” No, we say, “I think there’s a problem with the engine. What is it?” As Richard O’Connor explains in his book, Undoing Depression, “[…] our feelings are just human; they don’t destroy us or drive us crazy. Most likely, they are tapping on our shoulder, trying to tell us something important.

2. Choose MINDFUL ACTION over MINDLESS ACTIVITY:
Because many people who struggle with depression turn on robot mode and just try to “get through the day,” they often feel numb and disconnected from clear thought. Attempting to avoid a nervous breakdown, they push through and operate on empty emotional energy. Afraid to be alone with their thoughts and feelings, they can choose to stay busy and blind to what’s really going on, instead regaining a sense of control in the areas they feel empowered to control. “When thinking turns into rumination, it just perpetuates the feeling state of depression; so they feel worse, more immobilized and helpless” (Undoing Depression, 147). And despite some misconceptions about the mental illness, depressed people don’t revel in being the victim. They feel guilty for being “weak.” That Inner Critic (the one “constantly judging you and finding you wanting”) voice has been turned up loud and disdains the observant objectivity of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about “absorbing your thoughts, feelings, and experiences without being swept away by them” (Undoing Depression, 141) or about not allowing your Inner Critic to use assumption, insecurity, or negative automatic triggers to take us to a place of harsh personal judgment.

3. Life’s Stressors are not ALL ON YOU.
Recognize that your overly responsible nature is a crutch, not a trophy. You won’t be on top of everything all the time, and that’s okay. Cut yourself some slack. You won’t be perfect, and no healthy spouse, parent, child, or friend expects you to be. “Depressives consistently evaluate their own performance more harshly than do nondepressives. In fact, Freud thought of depression as anger turned against the self” (96). So, when you are tempted to beat yourself once again for failing to get 100% on that day’s activities, write down all your grievances with your circumstances and how you handled it and then read it back like a friend wrote it to you. How would you respond to that friend? With grace? Compassion? Think about how you pose questions. Do you say things like, “Why am I such an impatient mess up?” or “Why am I depleted and when can I prioritize some recharging time? ” How could you rephrase your questions that lead to positive changes instead of self-defeating shaming? And remember that not everyone’s drama has to be yours too. As a friend says, “Not my monkeys; not my circus.” We can let it go.

4. Pessimism isn’t all bad.
I am often dismissed because I am a half-empty kind of girl. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the half-glass of water, but I do notice when the cup is lacking. People–of the more optimistic variety–wave their hand over my comment and smile, “Oh, you’re just being cynical.” or “It will work out fine.” As if my pessimism could cloud my judgment, but their optimism doesn’t skew their perception of reality.
O’Connor disagrees: “It’s as if most so-called normal people see the world through rose-colored glasses–certain comforting illusions that protect them from frustration and despair–while depressed people dispense with those illusions. Sadder but wiser. In her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Julie Norem argues that “defensive pessimism” has its place. Those who operate with this perspective prepare for the worst, but aren’t so far gone emotionally that they can’t appreciate when things go better than hoped. “On objective tasks, the defensive pessimist who has done his homework will outshine the unprepared optimist. There are other benefits to being a little cynical; for instance, defensive pessimists make good attorneys and physicians, careers in which you have to think through and prepare for everything that could go wrong” (133). So, if your natural inclination is to see the darker potentials instead of the possible rainbows, utilize the energy to prepare for the rain, but step outside your door with galoshes, umbrella, and smile.

5. Medication and Therapy aren’t enough.
It could be that a depressed person needs some clinical and chemical therapy to balance the brain and the mind, but those treatments alone may not be sufficient. As much as self-discipline and taking thoughts captive may require hard work, it’s impact is essential to any healthy human. We have to think about what we are feeding our minds and meditate on truth (regardless of what experience or our present reality seems to be shouting at us). We need to read good books, take warm baths, listen to music, garden, bake, create, share, give, and savor beauty.

Despite the unnatural inclinations, you need to get out, interact personally with good friends, cry, exercise, and create new patterns of thinking.

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Depression impacts our lives more than we may even realize. It drains our relational reserves, plagues our physical bodies, and prevents us from taking risks and making necessary changes. It causes us to isolate from friends, turns us into sloths, and makes us lose interest in things that normally brought us pleasure, constricting our activities (96). It generates inactivity and procrastination. Studies show that it also affects a person’s cognition and memory; “people with depression struggle to remember, concentrate, or make decisions. When given new materials, they have more difficulty connecting it with what they know already–the information does not get organized in ways that help it get learned or recalled” (139). We either sleep in broken, incomplete fragments or sleep way too much.

According to an article on VeryWellMind, depression causes chronic muscle pain, gastrointestinal problems (nausea, bloating, constipation, etc.), poor immunity, fatigue, high blood pressure, and weight changes. But it doesn’t have to hold us captive. We can recognize it and go after it (instead of letting it constantly go after us).

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Continue to fight for life–real life.

  1. Look back on a fun and pleasant memory.
  2. Look up to what is good and lovely and trustworthy and right in your life. (Phil 4:8).
  3. Look forward by planning new memories to make–ones you can anticipate with joy.

Jeremiah 17:7, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is the LORD.”

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