We all have days when our mood is low, and we feel sad or miserable. Usually these feelings pass in due course. However, if the feelings are persistent and interfering with your daily life, it could mean that you are experiencing depression. For University Mental Health Day, student Elliot shares his story.
I used to be depressed. For 15 years, I struggled with something I didn’t comprehend, knowing only that I’d sometimes wake up so despondent, it was like a stomach-curdling pain. At worst, I was so dulled that day-to-day activity was dream-like, and I was alternating between extreme oversleep and days-long insomnia.The impact was gradual, but huge. Grades plummeted, socialising became an unconquerable pressure, and sports began feeling like a pointless drag. I began withdrawing, and was in a constantly alternating state of apathy or resignation at what seemed like a listless reality I couldn’t escape – and a nervous, directionless anger at what I felt my life had become, and the circumstances I believed responsible.
Somehow, I got to university (riding off past records of previously excellent grades). It became quickly – and painfully – obvious how ill-prepared I was, both emotionally and socially. Self-isolation, lack of interest, and lack of participation had left me on the outskirts of the university experience, and ever-present apathy made coping with university-level study nearly impossible.
These days, I’m no longer depressed – I want to talk about how.
I didn’t have an epiphany – but I do remember thinking this wasn’t what I wanted, or the person I wanted to be. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted instead – just not THIS.
I started seeing a counsellor – which while helpful in the short-term, wasn’t quite enough. So I sat down and Googled ‘how to overcome depression’. A particular writer spoke of similar experiences, and in particular, a critical realisation: after waiting years for circumstances to change so his attitude could improve, he thought he’d try changing his attitude first, then seeing if his circumstances changed as a result.
He also acknowledged my reaction to reading that – it sounded like the trite, feel-good mantras on social-media image macros.
Then again nothing had helped in over 10 years, so what did I have to lose? And in the end, this was the key for me – but first I had to understand what depression is, as well as why it happens.
What is this?
Eventually, I had three ways to define depression (one of which is completely anecdotal):
- A clinical diagnosis
A significant period of low mood, accompanied by low self-esteem, general loss of interest, a sense of pain, and sometimes, false beliefs or even hallucination. Because of its generality, it affects every element of your life, including work/study, and relationships. It also has major health implications, since it can be connected to existing health problems.
- A state of mind
Anecdotally – I also knew it to be a sort of weird place where completely obsessing over my problems was the norm; rather than putting efforts into an actual solution.
- A neurochemical mechanism
When you think, neurons form connections in your brain. The more you use this pathway (i.e. think this thought) the clearer the pathway gets, and the more likely this pathway gets used in future. It’s the same mechanism that allows revision and memorisation to work – the more your brain follows certain patterns, the easier it’ll be to reproduce them in future.
So depression is you getting trapped in negative thought patterns – which are just overused neuronal (i.e. mental) pathways, which in turn distracts from actually working out and implementing solutions to problems.
This is what gave me the key to a step-by-step process that allowed me to leave depression behind:
How to conquer depression
- Stop negative thoughts
True or not, negative thoughts (about yourself, others, your abilities, others’ abilities, etc.) make you feel terrible. They pull you down until those negative thoughts are your normal, and you need to be able to push them out completely. Early on, I had to mentally yell ‘STOP’ anytime I caught myself having negative thoughts about myself, others, or life, which was often.
- Replace negative with constructive and future-focused
Not ‘happy’ thoughts – self-affirmations are nice, but aren’t a long-term solution. I think a more productive focus is the things you’re doing to improve yourself, your career, or a skill you want. Are you making music? Working out regularly? Studying a subject you’re crazy about? Learning a new hobby? Anytime you start thinking negatively, instead force yourself to think about the progress you’re making, how desirable the end-result will look, and how much you want what it is you’re working on.
This ‘crowds out’ the negative thoughts, meaning they stop making you feel as bad, and can’t come back since you’re instead focusing on the things you’re doing to improve yourself (bonus – the more you think about these – and feel good about them – the more progress you’ll want to make).
The kicker, of course, is that you need to be doing something to improve yourself. I’d highly recommend something physically challenging but really most things are fair game as long as you’re interested in it and getting better at it either because you like it, or you want to make long-term improvements to yourself (for me – I was working out a lot and learning about cooking).
- Force it
Something that an initial writer I stumbled across warned of – which I knew to be true – was that these mental changes would have to be forced. It doesn’t feel natural – which makes sense, when you think that you’re having to force your brain out of a heavily ingrained neuron-pathway.
Early on was difficult – and I failed many attempts to improve myself.
Don’t get down on yourself. It’s ok. It’s like learning anything new. Just take it easy, and do it for a bit longer next time. And then again for the next time. And again. After a while – this is something you won’t even have to think about, but getting there is a process.
My experience of long-term care, and medication
The process I’ve outlined above is what I credit with getting me out of negative thought patterns that plagued my depression. That being said, I found that this wasn’t a complete fix.
Depression had become a fixture of my life. While the process always got me out initially (and still does), I found that certain things would trigger it again. In particular, being in a position where I wasn’t moving forward, or when I felt like I had no options. Thus, I had to learn to always be improving myself in ways I cared about, and always creating options if I felt trapped. And for some people – this is enough. Stay vigilant about your thoughts, stay constructive, and always be progressing in something (be it hobbies, career, relationships, or some other long-term plan).
But EVEN then, I found on occasion, debilitating bouts came back. Far less frequently than before – but still, they returned, even when I had no REASON for it. At this point, when all other options have been exhausted medication became something I decided to finally explore.
Do your research, speak to your GP. The first week had frightening side-effects. I waited a long time to use it, and only as a last resort. They are in no way a quick-fix (or even a first-hand fix), but I can say that they seem to have been the final piece in the puzzle of permanently managing the more unpredictable surges, but only after I had my mental resistance and awareness sorted.
Not everyone makes the changes. I’ve known plenty (including family and friends) who waited their entire lives for change, not being able to escape damaging thought cycles and depression. But depending on ‘getting things’ or changes in circumstances to make you happy, or fix depression will always fail – no matter how much you get, it’ll never be enough to make you happy.
It comes down to you. No one saves you – not ‘things’, not family, friends, lovers, mentors, or heroes – because this battle is inside your own head. You are very simply the only one who can change how you see life, and the world.
And that’s good. Because the truth is, and always was, that breaking the back of depression is a power in your own hands, and in your own head. Your fate, your future, and your direction are entirely yours to decide.
So. If you haven’t already – here’s hoping that you grab the reins and start steering.