How to Overcome Depression
Was discussing this on a forum with a guy; I used to talk about it a fair amount, some time back, but it's sort of faded from my life in significance. It just isn't on my mind much these days anymore, but I do remember how big a deal it was for me once, and hopefully my story and process can help a few people.
I used to be depressed. Really depressed. For about ten years, I was so utterly despondent and resigned about life, I thought the rest of my life would be that way. I was often filled with anger and resentment toward the world, and felt like I was fighting against everybody else. Forced outside the system and viewed as an unwelcome interloper, I was friendless and without companionship, isolated and alone. I didn't belong anywhere.
How I turned things around, and transformed myself into a guy who's constantly positive and optimistic – and no, it ain't an act, I really am optimistic, in a realistic, practical, still-somewhat-cautious way, all the time – and filled with a can-do spirit and good at getting what he wants and succeeding at most things he tries, at least over the long term – how I turned myself into that kind of guy from the complete opposite, well, that's the subject of today's post.
And I feel it's worth saying before the jump, that yes, you can do it too. There's nothing all that exceptional about what I did – but you're going to have to be a little stubborn to do it. If you ever struggle with not feeling so great though, and you think you're ready to start pulling yourself up by your bootstraps now, read on.
Deciding to Change
In late-2004 I reached, once again, the end of my rope. I'd suffered another string of defeats, and was feeling desperate; it was as though nothing I did made a difference in my life. It was then, in late November that year, that I decided it was time to plot a new course to try one last time to change my life; a course, this time, unlike any I'd plotted before.
I'd long refused to take medication, despite my parents' urgings – sure, it might make me feel better, I said, but at what cost? Then I'd be stuck taking pills to feel good for the rest of my life. And I didn't want to talk to psychologists – I spoke with a few, never by choice, but I didn't give them anything. I knew how they talked to patients and the kind of advice they gave; there wasn't anything they could help me with.
Many days I woke up feeling absolutely sick to my stomach, not wanting to get up from bed, not wanting to have to face another day of misery and failure and helplessness and living a life devoid of hope and meaning, but even that wasn't enough to compel me to give in and surrender to medication or doctors. If I was going to beat depression, I thought, I wanted it to be on my own terms, and I wanted it to be forever. I just... didn't really know how I was going to do that, exactly.
One thing about me is, I'm a skeptic. And, I was so fatalistic, you couldn't have told me anything back then. If I today met myself from ten years ago, and I told him, "Dude, guess what, I figured out how to overcome depression, and I can help you change your life!" the me from ten years ago would have looked at me today and said, "No, you can't help me and you don't know what you're talking about. The only thing that's going to help me is my life changing. Then I'll feel better."
Because really, that's how I used to think. That I wasn't going to change my attitude until my life changed. I had a right to be depressed, I thought. I should be depressed. What, I should have a crappy life and be happy about it?
But by late-2004, I had begun to realize that everything I tried to change my life – every single thing – had utterly failed. My attempts at building close friendships fell short. Girls still liked me and flirted with me but never did anything with me. I still remained standing apart, in clear exception to John Donne's immortal line, "No man is an island."
"No man but me," I used to say. "This man is an island."
Then one day, in the midst of feeling as unhappy as I usually did, I had an interesting thought. It had floated up into my mind from time to time, only to be pushed back down again as preposterous and unreasonable. But suddenly, it began to float up more and more often, until at last I could deny it no longer.
"I'll wait for my life to change, and only then will my attitude change." That was how I always thought before. But I'd tried that for years, and it hadn't worked. " What if," I asked myself, "I try changing my attitude first, and see if my life changes?"
It seemed like a bit of a silly proposition, and it sounded like the feel-good tripe I'd heard countless times before and dismissed as groundless, but I figured, you know what? It ain't like I have all that many more options. Heck, it's worth a shot.
And just like that, I at last, after many years and many failed attempts, started myself on the path that would lead me to overcome depression.
I've always been fascinated with the mind. It is truly such an impressive organ. Since I was a boy, I've followed the latest research in neuroscience – the study of the brain – and I've been intrigued with Eastern philosophies on consciousness and controlling one's thoughts. I collect studies and theories on the brain and consciousness like some folks collect coins.
A mixture of research, and anecdotes, and general common sense began to congeal into an understanding of what exactly depression was. This was years before talk about rumination – the theory that depression is caused by obsessive thinking – became mainstream enough that you could find it on the Internet easily.
What I came to think was this: "They say ignorance is bliss. And it seems true – people who don't think much seem considerably happier. Why is that?" I could only think that thinking too much leads to unhappiness.
Next, I wondered: "Why should overthinking lead to misery? Hmm, well... when I overthink things, often I end up doing nothing about them, and just sitting there stewing over them. So, the problem makes me feel worse and worse, because I do nothing about it, and just sit there obsessing over it instead. What do people who don't overthink do? Well, they take decisive action, and just go do something and forget about it."
Some research I read on how neurons form pathways in the brain sealed it for me; as it turns out, neurons – your brain cells – form information pathways in your brain. And just like how the more elephants that take a certain route through a forest, the clearer that route becomes and the more likely future elephants are to take that same route, the more your mind follows a certain pathway, the more connections the neurons along that pathway form, and the easier it is for your mind to follow that route in the future.
So, negative, depressive, fatalistic thought patterns are nothing more than a route in your brain that's been deeply carved by overuse.
It becomes a default pattern that your brain falls into, because the path of less resistance is to take the most deeply carved route, and the most deeply carved route, the case of a depressed, fatalistic person, is the depressed, fatalistic route.
Once I realized that, I knew what I had to do: I had to change the way I thought. And I had to start doing it right away; I felt like time was running out in those days, and I finally started realizing no one else was going to save me.
It was all on me.
How to Overcome Depression
Once I realized what depression was – excessive, obsessive thinking, or "rumination" – and once I knew what caused it – carving a path in your brain that became the default path your thoughts traveled along – I knew I had to shut down my obsessive, negative thinking, and carve a positive, can-do, new path in my brain – and let the old path grow over.
"Okay, great," I said to myself. "Now I know what needs to be done. But how on Earth do I do it? "
Over the next few days after deciding to change my outlook on life, I began cobbling together a list of steps. The very first one I targeted was shutting out negative thoughts.
1. Shut Out Negative Thoughts
I was standing in line the next day in the school cafeteria after deciding I wanted to change how I thought, and there was this very obese girl standing in front of me, waiting for her chance to grab some pizza – several slices, no doubt. "Yech," I thought, "that's disgusting." I looked at her bare arms and the bumpy folds of flesh there. A shiver went down my spine.
And then I realized I felt horrible. Like, not guilty for thinking that, just really... negative and bad on the inside. "I'm poisoning myself with my own thoughts," I realized. From that moment forward, I decided I would no longer cater to negative thoughts.
It was only once I realized that these negative thoughts made me feel bad – sick to my stomach, in fact – that I started paying attention to them, and realized I had a lot of them. I'd sit there and obsess all day about all these horrible things I didn't like. "Is this what I'm doing with my time?" I realized, "just sitting here obsessing over negative stuff?" What a way to live your life.
So, I did the only thing I could think to do: I started monitoring my thoughts, and every single time something negative popped into my head, I would internally yell, "STOP!" (yelling this inside my head mind you, not aloud!), and all my thoughts would quiet. Then, they'd come pouring back in, and I'd do it again. I'd do it as many times as was necessary to silence them for good.
As you can imagine, with a man as negative as I was back then, I mentally yelled "STOP" quite a few times that first month.
2. Think Constructive Thoughts About the Future
The next step I realized was thinking constructive, future-oriented thoughts. When you kick those negative thoughts out of your head, it's a lot harder for them to take hold again if their spots have already been filled up with something else – and the something else I decided to use was a focus on things I was doing to better prepare myself for success in the future.
I wasn't doing a whole lot in those days, but I was exercising, and I was making music. So most of my constructive thoughts came to focus on those two things: on how I was going to look once I had my body in peak physical condition, and how I was making progress at the gym every day, and how I was going to feel once I got my first album out and once I got some airplay on the radio.
I never did get my body into the shape I wanted to get it into, and I never did get on the radio, but those projects were enough for me to focus on at the time, until newer projects developed to take their place. And there are all kinds of things you can focus on:
- How you're exercising to build a better body for yourself
- What you're studying to achieve, if it's something you look forward to
- The kind of job you're going to have when you graduate from school or change careers
- A company you're starting and working on
- A website you're developing
- A book you're writing
- A skill set you're improving
- An art you're mastering
... and a lot more I haven't thought of. Anything you're doing to improve yourself and make yourself stronger and better and more successful in the future is game. Think about the progress you are making by putting in work on something every day, or every other day, and use that focus on making progress to crowd out negativity.
As a bonus, the more you focus on making progress, the more progress you'll want to make, and very soon you'll start noticing you're advancing a lot more quickly in the things you wanted to advance in than you were before.
3. Force the Change
Once I started silencing negative and obsessive thoughts and replacing them with constructive, future-oriented, progress-oriented thoughts, I noticed a very bizarre phenomenon: there was a part of my brain that did not want to change.
I discovered something I called an "emotional feedback loop." Basically, when you're in an emotion, you emotionally associate with that emotion and want to keep feeling it. Perhaps because evolution designed emotions to respond to external stimuli, it wasn't a good thing for our ancestors to be able to override those emotions too easily, as that kind of defeats emotions' purpose as decision-influencing stimuli processors.
Everyone tells you you're great, and emotions say, "Yes! Keep doing this, you'll be successful." Everyone tells you you suck, and emotions say, "Okay, time to quit doing this, it isn't working." People overriding those feelings can end up doing some distracting or destructive things for themselves, like quitting what they're good at or wasting all their time on what they're bad at.
But in the case of overcoming depression, your emotions have gone haywire; evolution hasn't had time to adjust to a modern lifestyle with great amounts of leisure time for you to spend overthinking with your huge neocortex instead of scraping and scrambling all day just to survive.
A problem within the mind requires a solution within the mind. So, you figure out how to overcome depression, and you start doing it.
That's when you run into the emotional feedback loop. And if you start using this process, you will quickly realize that much of the time, you don't want to change. At least not emotionally. You'll want to change logically; you'll know it's good for you to change and that staying mired in depression and obsessive thought loops is damning yourself to hell. But emotionally, you'll want to stay the same.
This was a real problem for me that first month of trying to change my thoughts, and half the time the first couple of weeks I'd just give up. I'd go to shut down my negative thoughts and go positive, and I'd think, "No, it's too hard... it won't work... it's too much work. I don't want to be happy anyway; my life is so bad. I shouldn't be happy."
But then I'd force the change anyway, and my thoughts would instantly reverse. "Oh!" I'd think, "That was strange! Why on Earth would I ever want to be depressed? How silly of me to think that! I love being positive!"
Like I said, bizarre. At first I even thought maybe I had some kind of latent personality disorder I didn't know about, before I realized that this was simply how powerful emotions are.
When you're feeling different emotions, you literally are like different people.
4. Stay Vigilant
Depending on how depressed you're starting off at, early on, you're going to be forcing a lot of changes, because you won't be able to stay positive for long. It'll be work to get yourself being positive, and the negative thoughts and emotions will come stampeding back the instant you let your guard down.
Don't let this get you down. It's just like learning anything new that's challenging. At first, you can only do it for a short while, and then you've got to stop and take a break. Next time, you do it a little longer. And then a little longer. And then longer.
After a month of staying vigilant, monitoring your thought process and forcing changes any time you aren't completely exhausted and your willpower isn't totally tapped, you're going to have a much easier time switching out to feeling positive, and you'll stay there much longer.
Automatic Depression Resistance
It's probably a little different for everyone, but for me, somewhere between three and six months in – I forget exactly where because I didn't really notice it until after the fact – I realized this process had become fully automated. I didn't even have to think about shutting down negative thoughts or populating my mind with positive ones or forcing changes or staying vigilant. My mind began policing itself.
What a wonderful feeling that was when I realized it! I looked around, and the world seemed like a place full of promise and potential. I'd started cold approaching in the meantime; I'd been forcing myself to meet random girls, strike up conversations, and go on dates. My music was hitting heights I'd long hoped it could hit; my body was, after a long plateau of not improving, bigger and stronger than ever.
And depression was being automatically dispatched from my mind.
It was still there. I still had a few depressive episodes over the next year or so following that realization. But they didn't last long, and they self-corrected; my mind had learned how to overcome depression so well that it didn't even require me to be consciously aware of it anymore.
After a year and a half, my depression was gone entirely, and it hasn't come back. I feel like a free man. I'm living the life I always dreamed about living, and there is almost nothing I want that I don't already have or am not in the process of moving towards.
If I could go back in time and talk to myself in November of '04 and tell him the path he was launching himself on was going to take him where I am today, he'd probably look at me and say, "Yeah right. This most likely isn't even going to work; it's just an experiment, and only because I'm out of other ideas."
Long-Term Anti-Depression Maintenance
The process is good, and having it internalized is wonderful, but even when you've got this down you must always be aware that there are certain things a man needs in his life to stave off depression's return.
For instance, the whole process comes crashing down if you aren't working on anything to advance your life. If I ever reached a point where I had nothing I was doing to advance my life further, I'd be unable to keep depression vanquished, because I wouldn't have anything to look towards if my life as it is currently suffered some setbacks. One must always have the future in mind and be working toward it.
There's another element of depression that I realized much later on, and has subsequently borne out in scientific research: namely, the importance of feeling in control. People who feel very in control of their lives have markedly lower rates and risks of depression that people who don't feel much in control of their lives. Which makes sense; when I felt depressed, the best way to describe that feeling, really, was feeling helpless. Feeling like I had no idea what to do to change my life, and no resources at my disposal to start changing even if I did know what to do.
So, for that reason, I recommend always keeping many options in your back pocket. Options for your job, options for dating, options for where you'll live in the world. Have options. Doesn't mean you need to exercise them; just knowing you have them is enough to make depression irrelevant.
Options mean freedom and control, and freedom and control are the absolute antithesis of depression's helplessness.
Where Do You Go from Here?
Now that you know how to overcome depression, what's your next step? What will you do?
When I was fourteen years old, I looked ahead at the rest of my life and realized it didn't seem all that promising. So, I tried to call it quits. But, at the last possible moment, I had doubts; not doubts about death, that didn't bother me. Not because of the pain; that I can handle. But I had doubts about life; what if I would've achieved what I wanted to achieve had I stuck it out long enough? Wouldn't that be a waste if I bought it for nothing. So, I stepped back from the brink, and suffered through nearly a decade of misery before turning my life around.
All the while as I suffered through it, though, I thought to myself this thought: "Some day, I will turn my life around, and be such a smashing success, doing everything I could ever possibly want to do, that I will be able to reach out to the people who are where I once was and say, 'You can do this too. You always have a choice.'"
And I have made a difference, I think. My best friend, a very successful guy in both business and with women, tells me it was my counsel that pulled him back from a similar brink some time ago. My ex-girlfriend – a beautiful, dynamic woman who taught me how to deal with people in ways that proved invaluable to me in life and love – credits me for freeing her from the poison of negative, judgmental thoughts and allowing her to truly be free.
But it doesn't work with everyone. One friend of mine, whose life I did everything to try and improve – I helped her find a great new job; helped her meet great new friends; counseled her on how to overcome the depression she was dealing with; and worked with her through just about every problem she had – she still couldn't get better, and ended up on medication, where she will probably be for the rest of her life. And I think the main reason why was because the whole time, she was still waiting for someone to save her. She kept sitting there waiting for her life to change.
No one will save you. No one can. Just like I thought sitting in those psychologists' offices long ago, "What's the point? It's my life; there's nothing you can do to fix it." And it's true. I can't save you; some beautiful girl who loves you can't save you; family and friends can't save you.
The only person who can change the way you see the world is you.
I read something a few years back about a guy who was a millionaire, and had a drop-dead beautiful wife, and a gorgeous house, and a new baby, and he killed himself. It stuck in my mind because I remember how shocked everyone was. He had all the things about which most people say to themselves, "If only I had that, then I'd be happy."
But he wasn't happy. He was miserable.
Because happiness doesn't come from the things you get. If you rely on "getting things" to solve your problems and conquer your depression, you will be forever chasing your next fix, because all the things in the world are never enough.
If you want to vanquish depression, that's a victory that must be won in your own head and in your own heart. That no one can help you to do it should not be a let down; in fact, it should be quite empowering.
Because, the truth is, everything you need to overcome depression is in your own hands, and it always was. Your own destiny is yours to decide; here's hoping, if you haven't already, that you take the wheel and start steering.
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