This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians.
It is not uncommon to be obsessed with the goal of “becoming happy.” Many of my patients walk into my office feeling that once they achieve this joyful state of mind, life will be butterflies and chocolate forevermore. The reality: emotions are a spectrum, an ebb and flow, not a fixed point.
A pursuit of happiness and a desire to eliminate negative moods can lead to unhealthy efforts to distract oneself ranging from alcohol and drug use to becoming a workaholic and/or getting sucked into a bad relationship because it keeps you from the dreaded occupation of being alone with your thoughts.
Actually, the ability to endure and ultimately benefit from depressive periods was baked into the human psyche partly to help our ancestors adapt to environmental stressors, according to studies.
Of course the blues are not to be taken lightly and if you suffer from clinical depression, your best recourse is to seek psychiatric help and perhaps go on medication.
Bouts of mild to moderate depression can be a useful response to adverse circumstances. Its initial energy-sapping effects afford you an opportunity to stop, ponder, come to appreciate your resilience and ultimately reset to these life-enhancing attitudes.
Depression can be a sign that you are so busy fulfilling everyone else’s needs that you are squelching your desires.
Care and compassion are emotionally healthy traits. However research shows that it can be emotionally debilitating to be overzealously caretaking others while ignoring your own needs.
By practicing self-contemplation alone and/or with a therapist, you can begin to look at why you put others’ needs so far ahead of your own.
In any case, practicing good self-care is a first step toward righting that lopsided seesaw. Start saying no to unfair demands: “I’m sorry, I’m just too exhausted tonight to give you a lift to your hairdresser. We’ll catch up soon.” State what you need from loved ones instead of endlessly fulfilling their wants. You may be wary of putting yourself first for fear of coming across as “selfish.” Rather than being narcissistic, putting the brakes on being a relentless people-pleaser is the best way to have energy left to come through for others in your life in a real, not desperate way.
Allowing yourself to feel the pain engendered by setbacks and crises rather than running away can enable you to own your resilience
Time after time patients enduring traumatic life stressors—divorce, death of a loved one, chronic illness—come to my office, declaring, “I’m a weak person. I can’t make it through this.”
Yet going through the emotional trials—allowing oneself time to grieve deeply, ask for help and acknowledge life will never be the same but that you can adapt and find value and richness in the world—changes a negative self-concept. This ability is scientifically traced by a 2002 study in the Netherlands that followed 165 people who’d suffered a major depressive episode and rather than becoming debilitated, ultimately felt renewed.
One patient who’d been widowed two years earlier said to me after reclaiming her emotional sea legs, “I still miss Larry but I now realize I am an amazingly strong person who can tackle challenges that used to scare me. I’ve been through the worst—climbing Mount Everest is a piece of cake!”
Depression can be a sign that you are not engaged in something that makes you feel good about yourself. Finding a meaningful way to contribute to the world versus constantly seeking new ways to attain happiness is a much healthier, more fulfilling life philosophy.
Often, depression leads to difficulty concentrating. But another symptom of melancholia is to ruminate about a painful problem. This urge to cogitate, as evidenced by research, can be productive when the sufferer doesn’t just focus on the trigger for his or her unhappiness but on how to problem-solve and ultimately make an informed decision.
When I began working with Lenny (name has been changed to protect the patient’s privacy) he was a Wall Street broker—a profession that filled his bank account, but emptied his soul. Growing up, Lenny longed to join the Peace Corps. “I wanted to help people but my parents convinced me I needed to make money.”
Every now and then he’d feel regretful, squash the sadness down and soldier on. Until, years later, depression suddenly laid him flat. This retreat from the usual frenetic activity gave him an opportunity to think about the discrepancy between the way he was living his life and the way he wanted to live it. Today Lenny’s bank account is low but his heart dances when he goes to his job as a teacher at an inner city school.
One of the most annihilating parts about depression is that it can make you feel boxed in; like there is no choice left but to eternally suffer. But if you can instead ask, “what is my depression trying to tell me?” the misery can become an open road instead of a dead end.
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist and editor of the anthology
How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch.