Depression is not a Lifelong Sentence
Several times last week I’ve heard from clients and prospective clients that they feel helpless over depression and anxiety. They have been taught by society and the medical community that they are victims of faulty wiring or powerless over the chemical imbalance in their brain. From young people that have been told that they will battle depression the rest of their lives to older women that are being prescribed heavy tranquilizers for their anxiety. All have been rendered powerless and dependent on sources outside of themselves, be it medication, medical intervention, hospitalizations and so on. I get it. I used to vehemently argue my chemical imbalance was the culprit of my depression. I also absolutely believed that the best I could hope for was not feeling depressed. No therapist or doctor ever suggested to me that joy and purpose were possible for me. This week I want to challenge you to start thinking differently about depression.
1. Thoughts create feelings:
If you’re anything like me, you have heard over and over again that your depression is causing you to feel sad, hopeless and powerless. Therapists and doctors are telling you that because you have depression, you feel despondent, and it’s the painful feelings that are causing the troubling thoughts. That is simply not true and an old, traditional way of viewing depression. Depression does not cause your sad feelings. Your thoughts create your sad feelings. By becoming intimately aware of your thoughts, you will notice that the pain you are feeling is in direct response to some belief or story you are telling yourself. These thoughts or stories may have been so well rehearsed through the years that they are subconscious, but make no mistake, they are there. Painful, disempowering feelings carried for weeks, months, years and even decades are the cause of your depression. That’s actually excellent news! We can learn to control our thoughts. It is a skill that can be taught!
2. Chemicals are released in response to thoughts:
Doctors are not wrong when they tell us we have a chemical imbalance. Our brain and body work together to release the chemicals. Here’s how that works in a nutshell: You carry a painful or anxious thought, it triggers feelings of depression or anxiety, the nervous system releases or restricts the appropriate chemicals of cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and so on. Over some time, your body actually gets addicted to the chemical brew your depression or anxiety has created, and it feels incredibly uncomfortable without that chemical makeup. You end up in a constant feedback loop of your thoughts, feelings, and chemicals. It starts becoming hard to identify what came first. In recent years many advances have been made in recognizing the brain's ability to re-wire itself. We no longer have to believe that our brain controls us. We can learn how to create new neural pathways and regain control over our chemical makeup and predominant thoughts and feelings.
3. Depression does not have to be a lifelong sentence
You have to have a strong desire to feel better. This is where it gets complicated. All of us say that we don’t want to be depressed. Who chooses that? Right? But the truth is that a diagnosis of depression in many ways keeps us from having to take ownership of getting better. If we believe the doctors that we are helpless to our chemical imbalance and our diagnosis of depression and anxiety, then we don’t really have to do the actual work of getting better. That is why I have seen over and over again that talk therapy doesn’t work. We can spend years talking about why we’re depressed. But talking about it, processing it and intellectualizing it are not action steps. I liken it to a car stuck in the mud. You keep hitting the gas, but all it does is spin the wheel faster and faster, but it won’t get you out of the mud. If you want out of the mud, you have to be willing to get out of the car and get dirty. You have to put something underneath your tires to get some traction. The same is true for depression, you have to be willing to get uncomfortable, identify where the painful thoughts and beliefs originated, heal at a core level and then dedicate yourself to breaking free from the habitual thoughts and behaviors of your depression. You have to behave your way out of depression, you cannot think your way out of it. If you could, you wouldn’t be depressed. Right? Every depressed person I have ever met was a prolific thinker. Thinking doesn’t work. Action works. Dedication to getting better and doing the hard work is what’s required.
It is possible to heal from depression, and it doesn’t have to take years. But it does require you to get uncomfortable and do the work of healing. It needs you to be determined enough to stick with changing deeply ingrained behaviors, and you have to believe that a better life is possible for you. Nobody else can do that work for you. It requires a commitment from you!