So is depression a choice?
I’ve debated this question for the past few years, and am starting to realize the answer is both yes and no.
A lot of the reason that depression develops is out of our control, especially if you start to feel depressed early in life like in elementary school.
We can’t control if our parents were nurturing or emotionally absent, we can’t control how people in high school treated us, we can’t control that our genes might make us susceptible to depression- we can’t control a lot.
But part of depression is a choice.
I just got coffee with a group of friends, all women. One in particular I’m crushing on. Shortly before we left, she started talking about a guy that’s taken her on a few dates this winter.
I wish this didn’t bother me, but it did. I know I have no claim to her and no reason to be jealous, but it’s still discouraging to hear.
While I was driving back from the cafe I started to ruminate about how much of a loser I was for feeling so pathetic with the opposite sex and for not having a girl. This went on for a few minutes, but then I realized it was a choice to keep feeding these thoughts.
I was aware of my negative, pessimistic internal dialogue, and the urge to continue to feed it was strong. Self-pity feels good because we can use to explain our uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.
Even though a big part of me wanted to feed into this habit of beating myself up and ruminating, I refused. I decided to go be productive to feel better, so now I’m sitting in Starbucks writing this post, enjoying a coffee paid for by my writing.
It’s the middle of winter in New England, so my mood is built on sand a lot of days anyway.
But, by making the choice not to give into my chronic negative dialogue, I’m slowly changing my internal mental habits, which will help my mood in the long-run.
Negative rumination is a huge driver of depression. Here are the few simple steps I’m taking to change my mindset for the better to live a happier and more fulfilled life.
Without awareness of internal life, we’re always at the mercy of our changing moods and emotions.
Thankfully, developing just a little awareness is like planting a positive seed in our psyche that can grow into a long-lasting, beneficial tree (aka a habit).
I think it’s also important to develop self-compassion along with awareness. It can be shocking and discouraging to see how petty, negative and judgmental our internal dialogue is; so without compassion we might just conclude we’re a bad person who’s incapable of happiness.
So awareness (along with self compassion) is the first step to achieving a more stable mood.
2. See the Distortions
Cognitive Behavioral Therapists always talk about cognitive distortions. Some examples include all-or-nothing thinking, predicting the future and discounting the positive.
All of these distortions can negatively affect our mood if we believe them.
I’ve done a few CBT self-help books and most of them recommend writing out your negative thoughts at first and then finding the distortions. This helps you to see that your negative thoughts are probably unrealistic and biased, so your mood and attitude can mellow out.
After a while, you’ll start to be able to recognize the distortions as they arise in your thoughts.
And even if what we’re telling ourselves is true and our life really is that shitty, ruminating about it isn’t going to fix it. ( I know, I know, much easier said than done).
3. Breathe, Realize You’re Basically OK Right now
It’s discouraging to have had such little success with women as a fit, intelligent and self-aware 25 year old.
But, dating and sex is just one part of my life.
In other areas I’m feeling much more positive: I’m in good shape and just started doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I’m taking an 8-week improv course in a couple weeks, my social life is steadily picking up, I found a positive meditation community, and I have the potential to be successful on the internet.
These are all blessings. A lot of people in the world would kill to have my life in a first world country, with my perceived problems and all.
And I don’t say this to guilt-trip myself, I say it because I’m ok right now.
Even if I deal with mental difficulties, there’s no reason that I shouldn’t feel optimistic and hopeful about my future and prospects.
After I realize that my depressive internal dialogue is out of touch with reality, I like to go do a productive activity.
Things like going to the gym, going for a walk, writing at Starbucks, going to jiu-jitsu, reading a book, and calling a friend to play pool are all some of my go-to’s.
Even if I preoccupy myself, it doesn’t mean my mind will stop trying to focus on the negative trigger. But at least I have something positive to focus on besides my internal dialogue.
I used to think that preoccupying myself was just a way for me to suppress my internal dialogue, and that I should just sit there and not try to escape.
But now I’m seeing that depressive rumination is useless, it drains my energy and it doesn’t improve my life.
Only my actions can.
Turning the Tide
It’s hard to change chronic, pessimistic mental habits, but you need to try if you want to be happy.
I still have a lot of coping mechanisms. I drink a lot of coffee, I smoke a lot of pot (and mix it with tobacco), I still isolate myself, and I still drink a little too much alcohol.
But my life and mood are steadily getting better.
Turning the tide of our negative mental habits to a more positive, hopeful place can feel like trying to change the rotation of the Earth.
But just remember that the human mind is pliable and changes with our mental habits. We don’t have to be Superman to turn the tide of our mind, just very determined with a long-term outlook.