I’m going to begin this article with some self-disclosure. Although I’m sometimes known as “Dr Happy”, Founder of and Chief Happiness Officer at The Happiness Institute, I’ve not always been, and I’m definitely not always happy. In fact, I’m often very unhappy. I’ve experienced mental ill-health, mostly depression with elements of anxiety, for most of my adult life.
I’m sharing this now because I know that it’s very common to have these types of experiences and also, that when I tell my story of lived experience it helps others feel a bit less alone. Which can make a big difference. And if more of us share our experiences we can also smash the stigma associated with mental ill-health which then makes it easier for those who’re in distress, to reach out and ask for help.
But that’s actually a story for another day. Today, I want to focus on what happens to me when my depression flares up, and what I’ve learned I can do to cope better and to bounce back more quickly.
As is common with depression, and other forms of psychological distress, when I’m feeling really dark, or low, my thoughts also become dark, and they tend to drag me down even lower. They are, or they become, what we might call self-defeating. That is, when I’m depressed, I often say things to myself that actually make me more depressed. The more depressed I feel the more I also begin to feel hopeless and helpless. Where things really become problematic is that when I’m feeling all these feelings, it also affects my behaviour. And in short, my depression and self-defeating thoughts tend to be associated with self-defeating behaviours, which means I’m more likely to actually do things that are bad for me!
If you’ve ever experienced anything like depression or anxiety, you’ll likely know that depression and depressive thoughts are frequently associated with poorer coping and unfortunately, a spiral down into a vicious cycle that becomes harder and harder to break out of.
But here’s what I’ve learned to ask myself after many years of not feeling well and not coping well:
“If my self-talk when depressed is self-defeating, what if I did the opposite of what I’m telling myself to do? If I’m telling myself to “zig”, maybe I’d be better of trying to “zag”!
It’s often said that we should trust ourselves, or that we should listen to the inner voice that’s (sometimes) quietly talking to us. At times, this might be helpful. At times, there are benefits to paying attention to that which might be called intuition. But at other times, especially when “history” has shown that something is distinctly unhealthy, it might be worth trying something different, maybe even something counterintuitive.
Personally, for example, my depression voice typically tells me to give up, because nothing’s worth it. My depression voice says I can’t cope because I’m hopeless. My depression voice tells me to withdraw and to isolate because no one likes me or really wants to be with me. But none of this helps; and instead, I’ve tried, over the years, to counteract this with a kinder voice, a voice of self-compassion, that’s more along the lines of, “keep trying, you can cope, and things will be easier if you allow others to love and help you”.
Being true to yourself is one thing; but we have different selves. And some of those selves are more helpful than others. By all means, listen to and follow the advice or your “good self”, but don’t be afraid to stand up to or ignore that “inner bully” who may not really have the sagest advice to offer.