6 lessons about depression & mental health struggles that may help you too

6 lessons about depression & mental health struggles that may help you too
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My struggles with depression date back to early high school. When writing about it at 15, I described “him” as a beast who devours your soul and leaves behind a shell.

It’s been some time since I’ve truly sunk into its darkest depths—exercise, emotional maintenance, sleep, nutrition, and maintaining social connections have all helped to keep it in check. And yet loss, relationship endings, and reading the news all threaten to re-trigger it at times.

I know that I’m far from alone. Several sources report that 8.5% of the U.S. population suffered from depression before 2020, with that number tripling during the pandemic. According to the Boston University School of Public Health, that number climbed to one in three during the pandemic. LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to suffer from depression and other mental health struggles.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned through my years-long journey with it.

1. Don’t always believe what your mind tells you, especially in times of stress.

When stressed or not feeling great, our minds devise reasons to justify our negative feelings. Catastrophizations and assumptions often bolster the reasoning. Unpleasant thoughts come to mind, and we may be more likely to believe them.

I try to step in and gently pry the steering wheel from my mind’s hands when I notice this start to happen. I remind myself that thoughts are fluid and abundant. Of the thousands we have per day, some are not even at all reflective of our values and characters.

I’ve learned to treat thoughts like ocean waves that ebb in and out of my mind. To not panic when murky or muddied water hits the shore because I know it will eventually flow back into the ocean and that it’s not destined to muck up the sand. I know that thinking a bad thought, or even several in a row, doesn’t cast an immediate Bad Person spell over me. The Shame Bird threatens to tattoo our spirits with these labels, but we don’t have to let it. We can intervene when it tries to.

2. It’s okay for your feelings to change or fluctuate. That’s part of being human.

I used to be a Lyft driver and was once giving a ride to a girl. The sun was indecisive that day— nowhere to be seen and completely obscured by a grey film of clouds one minute; the next, shining down full-force.

 In response to the frequent (external) changes, the girl took her jacket on and off multiple times. Notebook open, she wrote frantically. Her pen kept running out of ink. She’d start writing with one, only to abandon it and pick up another. Minutes after she’d switched, that one would dry out too.

As someone whose depressive spells have involved mood fluctuations, I sometimes feel this way about my emotions. I am that girl, and the weather is my feelings, and her repeated taking off and putting back on of her coat are my actions in response to those changing feelings.

When my depression was at its worst, my thoughts and feelings about a situation could change numerous times in a given day, oscillating between positive and negative.

In response to this, a Shame Bird flew through my head with all these labels written on parchments in its talons:

Instability. Waffler. Bipolar. Untrustworthy. Unset in my convictions, they said.

The winged messenger tells me strength is decisiveness. It’s never changing your mind. It’s holding consistent, unchanging perceptions of the world and others.

What helps me gently challenge his mentality is reminding myself that mixed feelings are normal and that it’s possible to feel and think contradictory things at the same time. Often the reason we “oscillate” is that we’re trained to believe that certain thoughts or feelings aren’t okay to have. So we quickly shift to their opposite as a way of stamping them out or diluting them even though all feelings are valid, and can serve as important messengers. Usually, they’re directing us to a place inside that needs some attention, or is still waiting to be healed.

That said, while it’s important to honor our feelings, sometimes thoughts and assumptions (which are under our control) can create feelings that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Working through them through therapy reminds me that we do have control over those initial precipitants.

3. Losing interest in certain activities is temporary and doesn’t mean you’re an imposter.

A friend of mine who struggled with depression had lived a very full life before her symptoms came on. She knitted and played tennis. She enjoyed running and museums. She was a “noticer and treasurer of details.”

She liked to zero in on the teal shade of a bird’s wing feather, treasuring the unique pattern of the plumage.  When working in the kitchen she embraced the tactile elements, like how eggplant felt when she ran it beneath the water before cutting it—“like the flippers you wear when you’re snorkeling.”

She lost interest in these activities when depression took over.

“I’d get up close to the bird’s wing– nothing. I’d run the eggplant under the water, prepare a whole medley of vegetables, all different colors, textures, smells. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Numbness only.”

My friend worried this was the “real her” and the woman before her was just a faker. If she were indeed and innately drawn to them, she wouldn’t be resisting these activities now. They would be restoring her energy–not depleting it.

Losing interest in everyday activities is one aspect of depression. On his podcast, the Mental Illness Happy Hour, Paul Gilmartin has joked that when he’s depressed, small tasks like paying the bills, leaving the house, and keeping in touch with friends, feel like bench-pressing a hundred pounds. Even activities that one enjoys can start to feel laborious.

Also common is a variation of what’s known as “imposter syndrome.” It’s this feeling that we are acting and people don’t really know us. If they did get to know us, the disparity between who you’re presenting and who you actually are would be too vast for them to want to stick around.

Verywellmind describes it as “an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be, as if you are a fraud.”

When in the thick of it, it’s easy to believe that our non-depressed selves are imposters. I try now to remember that we’re all so much more than what we display at any given moment. The clouds cover the sun, sometimes for days or weeks at a time but that doesn’t mean our source of light has ceased to exist.

My friend wasn’t an imposter; the “real her” was just asleep—temporarily gone, but not lost forever.

4. Physical health can affect mental health.

It wasn’t until after my Celiac diagnosis that I really began to consider the enormous missing piece to the puzzle that was the link between physical and mental health. It occurred to me that maybe the depression, anxiety, and brain fog resulted, at least in part, from diet.

Functional medicine practitioners have long sought to widen our focus to the entire body as part of a more comprehensive treatment for mental health conditions. Mark Hyman posits, “What if mood, memory, attention and behavior problems, and most other ‘brain diseases’ have their root causes in the rest of the body—in treatable imbalances in the body’s key systems? What if they are not localized in the brain? If this is true, it would mean our whole approach to dealing with brain disorders is completely backward.”

Talk therapy and trauma healing are valuable, integral, and necessary components of every person’s healing journey. My therapist and antidepressants aided me significantly (most notably in high school). Still, they are not the only component— and the work towards full healing doesn’t end with them.

5. Black-and-white thinking can be something we engage in & need to steer away from it.

I work as a Spanish medical interpreter. Most of the time, patients, doctors, and I are the only ones present at the appointment. But now and then, the patient’s nurse practitioner will also attend.

One day I caught frosty vibes from a nurse practitioner quickly into our meeting. As the patient and I filled out paperwork, I perceived her scanning and assessing—which unnerved me a little. When we left, she did not shake my hand.

Earlier in my life, before having gained a better understanding of my thought patterns, in response, I likely would have hardened up a bit inside. Maybe I would have called the woman an unkind name (privately, in my thoughts). I may have added the incident to my ever-growing list of why people are the worst. Extrapolating from our single interaction onto her entire character, I may have even written her off as a bad person.

Either that or I would have gone home and felt terrible about myself  “She was monitoring you so closely because she could smell your incompetence from the second she met you. That’s your problem, not hers” or “How are you even licensed? You should not be working as a medical interpreter. Just go back to driving Lyft,” the mean inner voice might have chastised. This time, I didn’t tumble down that treacherous thought chute.

As a defense mechanism, splitting means engaging in black-and-white thinking, with people marked good or bad. Sometimes our feelings for the same person can change depending on what they do or say to us on a given day. It’s most common in people who have survived trauma, though everyone can engage in this thought pattern, especially in extreme stress.

In addition to splitting other people, we might also separate ourselves.

“If they’re right, I must be wrong” or “If they’re right, they must be good, meaning I must be bad. If I’m bad I deserve to be shamed and punished.” And so goes the negative self-talk…

Initially, our brains “split” to protect us from a harmful situation when younger. But continued engagement in it once we’re older (and the danger has passed) causes us to lose sight of others and ourselves in their full complexity. It creates more mental stress for us and more significant disconnection from reality.

As Alex Michelides wrote in Silent Patient, “She used to say we are made up of different parts, some good, some bad, and that a healthy mind can tolerate this ambivalence and juggle both good and bad at the same time. Mental illness is precisely about a lack of this kind of integration—we end up losing contact with the unacceptable parts of ourselves.”

I’ve learned that simply noticing that I’m engaging in black-and-white thinking can be the first step to putting the brakes on the habit. Because ultimately, it’s most toxic for the person experiencing it from within.

6. Use writing and reading as catharsis.

Think of how when you’re alone in your room at night. It’s dark, and a spider is crawling around somewhere. You just can’t see where exactly it’s latched its spindly little legs onto. Turning the light on allows you to locate and escort it safely out the door.

Like spiders, thoughts scuttle through the mind—facelessly, sometimes disconcertingly. A mind is a place of tangled webs and obscurity. It’s an invisible room until the pen hits the paper to shine light on its contents.

That’s when you can locate the dark thoughts and what caused them. That’s when you can escort them out the door of your mind.

Writing has helped me immensely as a person who’s struggled with her mental health. When it comes to depression, if you don’t want to burden people, the page is always there.

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