The following is an excerpt from Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive
Why depression is hard to understand
IT IS INVISIBLE
It is not “feeling a bit sad”.
It is the wrong word. The word depression makes me think of a flat tire, something punctured and unmoving. Maybe depression minus anxiety feels like that, but depression laced with terror is not something flat or still. (The poet Melissa Broder once tweeted: “what idiot called it “depression” and not “there are bats living in my chest and they take up a lot of room, ps. I see a shadow”?) At its worst you find yourself wishing, desperately, for any other affliction any physical pain, because the mind is infinite, and its torments – when they happen – can be equally infinite.
You can be a depressive and be happy, just as you can be a sober alcoholic.
It doesn’t always have an obvious cause.
It can affect people – millionaires, people with good hair, happily married people, people who have just landed a promotion, people who can tap dance and do card tricks and strum a guitar, people who have no noticeable pores, people who exude happiness in their status updates – who seem, from the outside, to have no reason to be miserable.
It is mysterious even to those who suffer from it.
I’ve spent over half my life trying to understand my depression and it still seemingly comes out of nowhere every time. And yet I really shouldn’t be so surprised. Current research shows that a person who’s had one episode of depression is 50 percent more likely to have a second episode. For a person with two episodes, the risk is about 70 percent. For someone with three episodes or more, the risk rises to around 90 percent.
It’s scary to see these statistics. I fall within the “90 percent likely to have another episode of depression” category. So it shouldn’t have be so shocking to me that after an emotional couple of weeks (my grandmother had a stroke combined with a few other difficult and more private situations that I’m not comfortable sharing, and I was also feeling very emotionally impacted by the flooding situation in the West Island. I felt bad that the neighborhoods I grew up in were being destroyed and that so many friends of friends were watching their homes being washed away and I was feeling like a guilty bystander not doing enough to help) my coping mechanisms were spent and those old familiar feelings started to creep in again. I’ve been feeling tired, sad, unmotivated, anxious, irritable, useless and generally uncomfortable no matter what I do or where I place myself.
Quite honestly, this lack of motivation and feeling of uselessness has led me to put off writing this blog post for quite some time. I always have a fear that my posts are a little too dark and gloomy and I wonder if anyone is even out there reading them. But then low and behold I’ll run into someone that I haven’t seen in a long time or someone will come in to the studio that I barely know and tell me they’ve been following my blog and it’s helped them or enlightened them in some way and I feel so incredibly grateful and proud to be putting my story out there. This was always my intent. Reading books like “Reasons to Stay Alive” have offered me so much comfort; just knowing that I’m not alone and that someone else out there has experienced this mysterious thing we call depression has made a world of difference in my life. So I’ll try to add some of my insights to the conversation today.
I’ve done a lot of research and work on myself over the years and one thing I’ve learned that may help to demystify why depression tends to recur multiple times once a person has experienced it is because our brain is an ever evolving mechanism that is constantly making connections between experiences, thoughts and emotions. As explained in the book Super Brain, “Your brain is constantly evolving. This happens individually, which is unique to the brain (and one of its deepest mysteries). The heart and liver that you were born with will be essentially the same organs when you die. Not the brain. It is capable of evolving and improving throughout your lifetime”. In other words, the brain is constantly and rapidly interpreting the world around us, and it transforms as it strengthens the connection between everything we see, feel, hear, say and do. This leads to many worthwhile improvements, it’s how we learn new skills and grow as human beings. But the same connections and interpretations can be made between the negative emotions we feel when we go through difficult times in our life and the subsequent low mood that may follow. So “if we have been depressed before, a low mood can become easier and easier to trigger over time, because each time it returns, the thoughts, feeling, body sensations, and behaviors that accompany it form stronger and stronger connections to each other. Eventually, any one element can trigger depression by itself… Because these downward spirals are so easily triggered by small events or mood shifts, they feel as if they come out of nowhere…” (The Mindful Way through Depression, page 70).
So in the same way as a little kid learns that birthday cake = happy feelings, we also learn that grandmother in hospital = sad feelings. And for a person who has experienced depression in the past, the “sad feelings” don’t stop there. The brain of someone who has experienced a major depression in the past has also learned that sad feelings = more sad feelings = more sad feelings = more sad feelings = no more space for happy feelings = despair, darkness or thoughts of suicide. That’s why it’s often referred to as a “downward spiral”. Once the train gets going, it can be difficult to make it stop and because we often don’t expect to be triggered by such seemingly inconsequential things, the train may be really far down the track before we even realize that we’re on board.
So of course here the question becomes “what to do?” or “how do we make it stop?” As we discussed in some of my prior posts, the key here is to realize that “doing” is no longer the best option. When someone feels exhausted, depleted, unmotivated and in despair how can we expect them to “do” anything? Instead, the importance of simply “being” is absolutely crucial. Recognizing how we feel, and “riding the wave” as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it is crucial if we want to avoid spiraling down further. When we get caught up with judging ourselves for being in this depressed state or forcing ourselves to “snap out of it” we are only compounding the problem by adding more goals to our to-do list that we inevitably cannot attain and then feeling even less worthy and even more depressed for not being able to push ourselves out of our depressed state. So it’s important here to find some activities or practices that help us stay in the moment, that are not goal oriented or particularly focused on achieving a better mood.
Here are some of mine:
-Eating sushi (if there is such thing as a little “magic pill” out there to cure depression, sushi would be it for me!)
-Hanging around non-judgmental and supportive family and friends
-Cuddling with my dog
-Sitting outside in the fresh air
I admit it isn’t always easy to bring myself to some of these practices. I often don’t have the energy to garden or practice yoga and I have a tendency to avoid any kind of social situation when I’m feeling down . But then again, nothing about depression is particularly easy, if we expect any of these activities to feel “easy” or be the little magic pill that will lift us out of this state then we would be heading back in the direction of “doing”, forcing and problem solving and we’d be setting ourselves up for failure and more negative emotions when we realize that gardening or watching tv didn’t do the trick. But that doesn’t mean we can’t choose the path of least resistance and make the experience as easy going as possible. This is one of the guiding principles of Strala Yoga that has helped me tremendously. In Strala we practice moving through challenges with the least amount of force and effort possible. We try emulating nature, allowing our bodies to flow like water. We try to move naturally in our yoga practice in the same way that elements of nature move naturally because after all, human beings are “natural” too. Our brains are evolving just like the flowers and birds outside and we too can choose to sway with the breeze the way the trees do, knowing that eventually the heavy winds will settle.
So instead of resisting my depression and being hard on myself for feeling this way, I try my best to “go with the flow” and let my emotions be because if there’s one thing I have learned it’s that the only way out of depression is to go through it. We cannot run away from our own minds. So we can either choose to gently walk through the dark tunnel as calmly as possible or we can run, tense up and try forcing ourselves through – the latter adds on the risk that we may become too exhausted to make it out alive.
And in the meantime, we can look at these relapses from another perspective: while our brains are automatically making connections between low mood and depression we are also forging new connections between our depressive states and our ability to rise back up to a happier place. Matt Haig refers to this as our “bank of bad days” – each time we feel depressed we are making a deposit into our account of bad days and while that may not seem so relevant or worthwhile in the moment, this bank account serves as a reminder that we have been here before and we have made it through in past. Sometimes the biggest comfort to me is in knowing that this isn’t the first time I’ve been here and I somehow managed to survive before. Sometimes, I can even remember that incredible feeling of power and pride that comes after we emerge from tunnel, knowing that we survived some incredibly dark days. It’s that feeling that gave me the courage to start this blog in the first place. So while right now I don’t feel like the best, most courageous version of myself, I know deep down that when I come out of this I will be even stronger than I was before. I will have strengthened those connections in my brain between low mood, depression and the ability to rise back up. I will have evolved into a stronger and more resilient person. So if you’re out there reading this and feeling the same way, I hope you can take a small bit of comfort in knowing that you are not alone. The dark days do eventually pass, the floodwaters recede, the trees continue to grow taller and the sun always comes back out in the end. As long as we’re breathing, we’re evolving. There’s no need to push or force ourselves through. Hang in there. I’m with you. 💙✌️