- The three tricks that a depressed mind can play on you – and how to overcome them.
- An ongoing balancing act
- Tricky thing 1: The reverse motivation caused by depression
- Tricky thing 2: The difficulty of trusting in something that you can’t feel or imagine
- Depression island
- Life on the sunnier island
- Tricky thing 3: Discounting the future
- The final tricky thing – how can we send messages between the islands?
- Why ‘Notes from Depression Island’?
Alas, the mind is a tricksey thing and knowing it is a complicated process. I’ve been thinking about some of those nasty mental tricks a mind prone to depression can play. In the course of trying to make sense of them I have been thinking about depression through the metaphor of inhabiting islands. But I’ll get onto that…
My Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course spoke about the reverse motivation often present during depression. You can read a bit more about that session in my Mindfulness diary for Mind here – ‘How can I best take care of myself‘.
So what is reverse motivation?
Usually we want to do something and then we do it. When depressed, sometimes we have to do something in order to want to do it. The motivation comes second. I know that sometimes I end up feeling better by making myself put one foot in front of the other and doing something I initially really do not want to do – often exercise (which I write more about here in ‘Running stops my thoughts running wild‘), visiting friends or getting to work. However, it can be hard to persuade myself when in a very low mood.
Why? Well partly I think this is down to another sometimes quite devastating trick that a depressed mind can play.
When in the midst of a depressed mood, you can’t imagine that you will ever feel better. But it is not just that. You can’t imagine that anything you might do to try and improve your mood could possibly ever work. Whenever I feel better, I feel better in a way that I couldn’t have possibly imagined when I was feeling low.
It’s as if my depressed mind and my healthy mind are two totally different islands. I don’t live on just one island where sometimes it is sunny and sometimes it rains. That is the island of someone without depression, someone who in the normal course of life sometimes feels happy and sometimes sad. That is the island I inhabit when I’m not depressed. It rains sometimes too, but I know what the sun feels like when I’m there.
My depressed mind is not an island where the sun used to shine but now it is raining. My depressed mind is an island where there is always dark fog and rain. When I inhabit it, it is as if I always have done. Something, now I think about it, like CS Lewis’s nightmare island in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Or JK Rowling’s Dementors (written from her experience of severe depression). The characters that experienced those horrors forgot they had ever been happy. They forgot what happiness felt like. And if you’ve forgotten that, how can you ever believe you’ll feel it again? It’s just a word with no emotional link in your mind.
When I am an inhabitant of depression island I can’t even imagine the sun. Something or someone external tells me that there is an island where I usually live where the sun shines. It might be my writing, or my partner, or someone I look to for support. They tell me that somehow, perhaps due to an action I take, or perhaps just with the change of the days and the chemicals in my system, I will be back there. But when I have become an inhabitant that has always felt the rain and seen the fog, I can’t know what sun even feels like. It’s hard to trust in something you can’t feel. Trusting that you will feel better in a way you can’t imagine now is hard.
I think not understanding this can often be the cause of some of those really frustrating phrases – ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘we all feel sad sometimes’. That is the understanding of someone who has only experienced the rain intermittently as part of a permanent life on the sunny island. They can usually remember the sun even while it’s raining – and they can’t imagine how you can’t.
Mindfulness can certainly help with this trickery by encouraging you not to think your way out of a negative mood but instead to take a breathing space and some positive action. Other people can help to by reminding us of when we have been in this situation before and the fact that then, we did come through it. Our services on TheSite.org provide the space for people to make that connection if they need it. Writing and words are valuable tools, notes from the sunny island, to connect you back with your healthy mind. I write about this more in ‘Writing my mind‘
But what about when I’m feeling good? When I am getting on with life on the sunnier island?
Last week I had a wonderful holiday in which I threw caution to the wind and had (god forbid!) a few glasses of wine each night. I knew these would affect me the week after, but kept saying yes all the same. This week, of course, I’ve slightly regretted it with some really nasty foggy days. The sort I knew would come but discounted their impact when someone topped up my glass.
I’ve talked about trying to trust in the existence of positive feelings when low. I also think that sometimes we need something of the memory of depression when we’re feeling good to help us manage it. Why?
Helping us stop potentially damaging behaviour
I recently chatted to someone about ‘discounting’. In general, being happy in the present (today, this week, this year – depending on the time scale) seems to be typically more desirable than the prospect of being happy in the future (tomorrow, next week, next year). I’m sure we can all easily imagine situations where we have discounted the importance our future happiness in favour of our present enjoyment.
But it can be more difficult when what you are discounting is a period of depression. Again I think it is down to a lack of memory and imagination. When on the sunnier island, we dont have a memory of the actual feeling of being in endless fog and rain. We can feel the sun, and can’t really imagine ever not being able to remember it. This influences further our decision to do whatever we are enjoying here and now, despite it sometimes being a one way ticket back to the fog.
That isn’t to say that, even with postcards from depression island in my mind, I wouldn’t still sometimes choose a drink. I would just be in a clearer position to decide.
Helping us act
I don’t always discount the future by doing something potentially damaging. Sometimes, without a strong memory of what I am trying to prevent, it is harder to actually do things that we know will help long term – like daily mindfulness. It is easy to plan to do it everyday but when it comes down to it (and you feel ok in the moment) to end up choosing to avoid that practice. A memory, or reminder of the existence of that other island can help us to make more sensible decisions and make an effort to override that natural discounting tendancy in order to prioritise the future.
Unfortunately, the all-encompassing nature of depression means that it’s very hard for inhabitants of that island to remember their lives on a sunnier rock. And vice versa it seems. Real depression weather isn’t found much on the sunnier island. However, to stretch the metaphor about as far as it will go (I love a good metaphor), I think that there might just be ways you can send messages between the two. By even just recognising the tricks our mind can play we are in a better position to counteract them.
That’s what Notes from Depression Island is about. My search for my own tools and tricks to ensure there is something of a connection between those two different islands my mind inhabits and to help me work out how best to spend most of my life somewhere where I know what sunshine feels like. And, I hope, to help others do the same.