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No, New York Times, you can’t self-discipline yourself out of depression
Dear readers: are you ready for peak “draw the rest of the owl”? The well-intentioned Brad Stulberg, a performance coach and author, has recently written some pieces on “Behavioral Activation,” a premise revolving around the idea that motivation and energy follow action. Don’t wait until you feel like doing something, he says—just do it. The old adage “Move a muscle, change a thought” is one of the hallmarks of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and recovery.1The Behavioral Activation System, or BAS, played a key role in the chapter on confidence in my first book. As he writes:
The extreme example of clinical depression is useful. For many people, it manifests as a feeling of nothing mattering, an intense apathy, a fatigue so bad it is painful. But depression hates a moving target. The best way out is to force yourself to get going, even, and perhaps especially, when you don’t want to.
Got that? If you’re depressed and can’t do anything, simply force yourself to do something.
Self-discipline takes you to the hard places. It offers the firm persistence to keep going. Self-compassion is what gives you the courage when you are at the gate, and what helps you get up when you are down. And then, self-discipline gets you moving forward again.
Counterpoint: No matter how much self-discipline you have, simply “forcing yourself to get going” is quite literally the one thing you cannot do when you’re depressed.
Saying “just do something!” to a depressed person is as helpful as “sit down and do your work!” to someone with ADHD, or “stop thinking about that thing!” to someone with OCD. It’s “stop worrying!” to someone suffering from anxiety. “Just get a higher paying job, poor people!”
It’s a great slogan for a coach to share with clients. But for those suffering from actual clinical depression, it’s overly simplistic and, in my opinion, destructive. I say this because over the past month (ever since the dog bite episode), I’ve been stuck in a downward spiral of feeling bad about myself because I couldn’t get moving: I’d try, fail to do something that was once so easy, and feel even worse about myself, making it increasingly harder to try again.
Depression for the Non-Depressed
Depressed people are in the middle of a hellacious Marie Kondo-like event, but instead of gathering and obsessing over the entire contents of their closets, we’ve collected every regret, mistake, poor life choice, flaw, negative self-belief, hangup about the world—and made these the center of our universe. This complex network of maladaptive patterns leaves you “stuck in a rut” of inactivity and hopelessness.
Negative aspects of the environment automatically capture your attention—like magic—and, some how, have an uncanny way of circling back to our failings as a human being. An editor didn’t get back to me after I pitched an article? It’s really time I stop trying to pretend that I’m a writer. I can’t think of another publication that would even consider publishing it. And who do I know at the publication anyways? No one.
My bathroom rug is dirty? Why on earth did I pick white, it always looks dirty. I’ve bought so many things that I shouldn’t have—I’ve probably wasted tens of thousands of dollars on crap. God, I’m so financially illiterate and broke. But holy shit, what am I going to do with my life since the writing thing just isn’t happening?
A depressed brain can magically conjure an endless list of negative thoughts out of the most innocuous idea. The moment I considered joining a gym—trying so hard to do the thing—was immediately followed by my brain listing every potential downfall and worst case scenario: membership dues, driving, traffic, should I take Daisy to day care or leave her at home, I’d like to socialize her more but that’s a whole other thing and more money, gas is so expensive, what if it take forever to find parking, this is going to disrupt my work day, more laundry to do, won’t meet people at the gym, may meet boring muscle heads or people who think I’m weird, what if I get injured—and all of this, for what?? Vanity? Can’t I just be happy with my body, as-is?
All of these thoughts are so tightly linked, so real and awful, that you’re exhausted as soon as a thought crosses your mind. (As this paper states: “Episodes of unproductive processing often end in exhaustion, avoidance, numbing, and hopelessness.”) It’s like a game of Chutes and Ladders, with greased chutes awaiting you at every square. A depressed brain is a magical black hole where energy goes to die.
The Mental Health Pandemic is Inevitable
I have a new theory that there are now two kinds of people in the world:
- Those who have been dealing with significant mental health challenges during the pandemic
The answer to the ages-old question “genes or the environment?” is always both: the environment pushes us over the edge, though some topple more easily. Two years after we first started disinfecting our groceries, masking up, struggling at work, and treating strangers like actively infectious monsters, how can our surroundings not be affecting us? Even those not genetically predisposed to clinical depression or addiction have likely sampled another offering from the mental health smörgåsbord of 2022, like insomnia, stress, uncontrollable shifts in major life plans, and the inability to properly grieve ambiguous loss.
As this recent paper (on top of thousands just like it) shows, the effects of stress are cumulative, which can lead to a mental disorder—an overall state change in functioning, brought on by demands, dangers, strains, or frustrations.
Wear and Tear Take a Toll
In the chart below, the left side is “normal, healthy” you; the right side is “depressed/anxious/in a funk” you. The slope of the hill separating the two valleys represents your mental resources—how much it takes to push you over the edge.
#1 represents a normal, healthy time: the white ball might get pushed around by life, but because most things feel fine and normal, it would take something very extreme to push us over to the other side of the hill and into a new state, like a depressive episode. Because of the cumulative stressors and reduced resources that we’ve all faced, I think that getting depressed or anxious (even mildly) is more inevitable than COVID at this point. Now, it’s more common to be in state #3, where it doesn’t take a lot to push us over the edge.
Just as brake pads and transmissions tolerate occasional changes, but wear down in the hands of a super shifty driver, our bodies and brains are quite capable of handling some bumps in the road. Internal stability during external change takes place thanks to a process called allostasis; some of these allostatic changes (increased activity in the HPA axis, the stress response), if prolonged, physically wear us down. For example: when our brain secretes neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, we’re more alert in order to learn new, potentially helpful information — but it’s a metabolically costly, draining process.
Not being able to fully recover after a stressor before the next one occurs is like hearing yet another ding in your car before you get a chance to head to the mechanic, and your overall state inches closer to a tipping point.
It’s exhausting to feel like your guard is up all the time because of chronic, unpredictable environmental stressors. Eventually, your body can adapt to this “new normal” by entering a new state that shifts resources towards heightened arousal, making motivation, learning, and emotion regulation more difficult.
My litmus test for how mentally healthy I’m feeling is how easily I can laugh at myself, or how easily I can stay motivated. When those get harder and harder to do, I’ve reached a point called the critical slowing down. That’s when I’m on the cusp of triggering a possible state change (for me: depression). Being depressed isn’t a black-or-white affair—it sneaks up, slowly. Because my energy and motivation gradually fade away, I may not even realize that I’m in a danger zone. Especially If I’m around others who are also struggling, this downward slump doesn’t feel like depression: it’s just “the new normal.”
Stress and mental disorders are intimately connected. It’s tempting to think that self-discipline will save the day, but as stressors accumulate, it becomes increasingly difficult—or impossible—to simply will yourself into action. When I’ve been depressed, trying to “force myself to get going” only makes things worse. Failing to do the smallest of things can send me into a slump of feeling bad about myself for not doing something that used to be effortless—stressing myself out at a time when stress itself is the problem.
Climbing Out of the Black Hole
First, let’s keep in mind that chronic or sudden stressors underlie the onset of mental health episodes:
In some cases depression follows a stressful experience; conversely, the experience of depression is itself stressful. Indeed, depression shares several features with chronic stress, including changes in appetite, sleep, and energy. Major depression and chronic stress may also share biochemical changes, such as persistent activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
An imbalance between situational demands and the available resources to deal with them can both trigger and prolong depression. A depressed brain behaves as though it’s allergic to positivity—a bias to the negative and decreased sensitivity to rewards that some researchers call a “positive blockade.” Plus an intensive inward focus. Fun.
And, to repeat: you can’t force yourself to do something if you’re running on empty or feel like your actions won’t lead to any meaningful outcome.
Stress is when we perceive an imbalance between the demands of a situation and the resources we have to deal with it. Before re-acquainting myself with this research, I was simply doing all the self-care. But now, I’m also demanding less of myself. We’re all struggling in a way, even if we’re just annoyed that life still doesn’t feel like it’s back to our pre-pandemic ideas of normal.
To escape this cycle of muck, I’ve been doing the opposite of everything that my brain wants me to do: making life easier on myself, recoiling from negativity, and flooding my world with positive things.
Negative people who just want to vent? People who relish in pointing out every flaw in the world? Sorry I can’t talk right now. Group therapy with whiners? Nope. News? I know shit is fucked up, thank you very much.
Here’s what is in my world, and on repeat: comedy. Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. Smartless. Stupidly silly movies. Reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. David Sedaris. Joyful. In my stomach? Ice cream, without guilt. I treated myself to a visit by a new housecleaning service, which was the best money I’ve spent in a very, very long time. I’ve been reconnecting with old friends (and realizing that I’m not the only one in a funk).
ALL THE WALKS. ALL THE TREATS.
I’ve been kinder to myself and removing as much stress as possible, including the self-imposed stress of getting angry at myself if I can’t just do the thing—or I can, but the thing ends up taking all day. I’m reminding myself that the world can be magical and surprising and beautiful, leading myself out of the black hole with love and NOT SELF-DISCIPLINE, YOU BALD BASTARD.
When I felt particularly empty a few weeks ago, I scribbled my new mantra on my kitchen whiteboard before I could spiral down, reminding myself that the best starting point is a blank slate: