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It is possible to live without depression in your life.
Plenty of people have, including me.
But sadly, there are many who don’t.
This post will reveal what I believe is the one thing which separates those who believe that depression is with them for life (and therefore it is) and those who know they can live without depression forever.
What do you think depression really is?
For over six months I have read and participated in numerous Facebook groups, internet forums and blogs where people with depression share their opinions, stories and advice. Now, please understand I haven’t made a thorough or scientific study of people’s views of depression, its causes and treatments and whether they believe they can live without depression. These are merely general observations I’ve made and ideas that have occurred to me while engaging with people’s experiences as recorded online.
But I have noticed something interesting.
I’ve noticed three (fairly) distinct patterns emerging around people’s ideas about what depression is, their preferred treatment option and whether they believe that treatment will be effective. Of course there will be people who overlap two or even all of these groups, and there may be more than three groupings. The following are just some very general, first impressions that I’ve noticed:
The first group includes people who believe depression is a biological sickness and that they need antidepressant medication to cope with everyday life.
People in this group also appear to believe that there is a high chance they’ll never be able to live without depression, but instead this is something they will struggle with for the rest of their lives, juggling bad days with better ones and hoping that ‘tomorrow will be better’.
The idea that there are other potential solutions for their depression can be met with hostility and an accusation that others are not taking their symptoms seriously. They may respond aggressively to the suggestion that taking a walk or catching up with friends could alleviate their low mood.
“I’m on lots of medications, but I’ll take them because I think they stop me sinking into severe depression. But I feel so bad right now and I know I’ll always have depression.” –post to a depression Facebook group
“I don’t believe that my depression, which I’ve had for most of my life, is curable with drugs; but it’s manageable with them. I’ve been through child psychiatrists, adult psychiatrists, community psychiatry, psycho-analysis – all of it achieved nothing.” –comment on antidepressant article.
“Other people might be able to do more exercise, go for a walk or play sports or do hobbies but I am not able to do any of them if my brain chemistry isn’t fixed through medication first. It takes a while to find the right meds and even then it might not fix the depression. If the meds can’t nothing else will.”
Many people in this group indicate that depression is a ‘physical illness just like diabetes. You wouldn’t tell a person with diabetes not to take insulin, would you?’
“You wouldn’t try to “shake off” a broken ankle or a chronic allergy. You’d probably take something without even thinking about it”. -Depression forum post.
“In my opinion, depression, unlike other diseases, is with you for the long haul. Although if you suffer from depression life can get better, but only by managing the disease. Similarly, diabetics manage their condition with insulin, a person with depression manages their symptoms with medication”. –post on mental health organisation website
People in this group often use quite ‘warlike’ language when describing their depression. They talk about ‘fighting and beating the depression’, ‘battling through each day and never giving up’ and that people who do this are ‘heroes’.
“Reading your posts gives me have hope. I am battling with depression and go through hell everyday. Reading about your experiences shows me I’m not the only one. You are so brave to share your story with the world”.
“You have so much strength and to combat your depression. My enemy is an everyday battle, too”
“It’s good to read about people who have struggled, and are still struggling but have shown the power to overcome. I keep going because I have to. Our true strength keeps us going through the bad days, that people don’t understand and will never understand.
This group also seems to be most sensitive to the idea that they may be stigmatized for their mental ‘illness’, especially for taking psychopharmacological treatment.
There’s also a certain ambivalence about psychological counselling and less commitment to investigating the part that emotions play in the maintenance of depression.
There is a very real desperation in this group.
Some may be facing economic hardship, dysfunction in relationships and other serious physical health challenges.
They are in a great deal of pain and are at a loss as to how to help themselves. They feel burdened by their depressive mood, lack of energy, motivation and sense of guilt and worthlessness. So many feel let down by (and angry with) friends and family, alone and without support; they go on forums and Facebook groups to find others who understand. This group rarely expresses any hope that they might one day live without depression.
Group 2: “I’m willing to learn how to become aware of my thinking and change what’s not
working. If I can think a bit more positively, my depression will be easier to cope with”.
The second group of people believe psychological factors play a role in the development of depression and they seem happy to engage in counselling and psychotherapy instead of, or in addition to, antidepressant medication.
They believe that it is possible to live a fairly normal and productive life by changing the way they think to eliminate negative thought processes and practice focusing on the positive, even if they don’t believe it’s possible to live without depression entirely. They may have shifted from believing depression is biological in origin to acknowledging the role of stress and emotional dysfunction. They may hold the view that while there are bad days, ‘these too shall pass”.
“I started to think depression is not permanent when I stopped allowing other people to have power over what I feel and my emotions”. –comment on depression forum
“Recovery from depression is never straight forward. You will always have good days and bad days. With time, however and good strategies learned from therapy – we’ll have more good days. So for me, I don’t know if my depression will stop completely – but there will be times when it doesn’t impact my experience of life.”- comment on a depression forum
“By learning Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I starting noticing if I was going through a rough patch again and to do things to make this depressive episode less debilitating. For example, I learned about distracting activities, keeping a journal, positive self-talk, self-care, and just how to get through days when I was really low on energy. I may always have depression, but I know I won’t always feel depressed.” – comment in response to an article about other solutions to depression
Again, the suggestions made by people in this group are not always accepted and they may be accused of being condescending towards those with depression. Their good intentions and attempts to help others live without depression are often translated as accusing depressed people of ‘not wanting to be well’ or ‘not trying hard enough’ and that they should ‘just think positive’ and ‘snap out of it’.
“Telling a depressed person to think positively and snap out of it is, as the other poster said, condescending. It also destroys the legitimacy for mental illness which people have fought so hard to have recognised”. – comment on a depression forum
“While I appreciate that these steps were helpful for you, every case is different. I believe in the biological cause of depression. We should not be blamed for feeling depressed”. – comment on a depression forum
The third group, people who believe depression is caused by stress and exacerbated by negative thinking, seem to be the most optimistic about making a full recovery.
They are willing to try ‘alternative’ therapies such as meditation, yoga and mindfulness practices, as well as exercise and dietary changes. They are open to ‘personal development’ and are prepared to work on building self-compassion and resiliency in the face of difficult challenges. They also believe finding meaning in life is important to feeling better and are willing to take a look at their life in a holistic way and choose lifestyle changes.
“If you say “enough” and ask yourself why you’re depressed and find ways to put an end to the reasons for your depression, your stress and worries, you can get out of depression forever. You need to find the cause of it. I had depression but I got rid of it after I realised what was going wrong and changed it.” – comment on depression forum
“Depression is totally treatable. When I was struggling badly with depression, I used to ask myself, ‘will I ever be free of this, ever be happy again’. But there are lots of ways that you can get help: it completely depends on how willing you are to find something that works for you be it therapy, meditation, yoga, CBT, exercise, anything. Even though you may feel now you’ll never be free of depression, you will be if you look for solutions and implement them”. – comment on depression forum
“Depression is an awful experience, but it is way more than manageable. You can live without it if you want. There are loads of effective ways to manage, cope, and overcome depression from therapy, or talking to trusted friends, finding new interests and hobbies, stop eating junk, meeting new people, thinking-coping strategies. Find the courage to take the first step”. – comment on depression forum
Again, posting about an alternative treatment someone has found useful can lead to accusations of fueling stigma or being patronising over or shaming those struggling with depression symptoms, for example this response to a post by a young fellow who had discovered how much better his mood was with regular exercise:
“I’m sorry, but your post is really insulting. If you can cure ‘depression’ by going for a run around the park, it wasn’t really depression! Medications have been very effective for me. Your post is what makes people believe that depression is not really a disease. Would you tell people with AIDS and cancer to cure their illnesses by going to the gym? Why do people think this disease is any different?” – comment on depression forum
People in this group may have more of a sense of compassion towards themselves and others. Their desire to share what has worked for them may lead to an accusation of ‘not really being depressed’ because for the people in the first and many in the second, being depressed means being sick and often means being sick forever. Stories of recovery are looked upon with suspicion.
For the people in the first group, any suggestion that depression is not biologically based puts the blame for depression on them instead.
Because if it’s not caused by a lack of neurotransmitters, or neurotransmitters that are not doing a good job, or if it’s not in your genes, it must be your fault, yes?
You must have brought it on yourself. You’re just trying hard enough.
What if there was a third way of looking at depression? One that is based more on the philosophy of those in the third group? The group that is most pro-active in defying their depression and which has the greatest optimism to live without depression? The people that treat themselves kindly when they stumble? The ones who are open to acknowledging the part that they may play, without any sense of blame, in the continuation of depression in their lives?
Our childhood and teenage life experiences form our emotional styles and it is our emotional style which dictates how we respond to our life experiences in adulthood.
When you read the depression forums, it is rare to read a story where the depression came ‘out of the blue’ with absolutely no external trigger, no matter how large or small.
Even people who claim they ‘have always been depressed’ often talk about childhood abuse, physical or mental trauma, stifling or neglectful parenting. They may describe their childhood as happy, but their father being rather controlling, or their mother having her own physical or mental troubles. Or they may have felt they had happy childhoods (like me) but for some reason, an experience has created a view of themselves that has impacted their experience of life.
Their experiences have turned into messages about themselves and life and these messages formed emotional styles which they use, as adults, to cope with life’s stresses.
“About a year ago, a young mother called me, extremely distressed. She had become seriously sleep-deprived while working full-time and caring for her dying grandmother every night. When a crisis at her son’s day-care center forced her to scramble to find a new child-care arrangement, her heart started racing, prompting her to go to the emergency room.
After a quick assessment, the intake doctor declared that she had bipolar disorder, committed her to a psychiatric ward and started her on dangerous psychiatric medication. From my conversations with this woman, I’d say she was responding to severe exhaustion and alarm, not suffering from mental illness”.
Life is full of stressors. It asks a lot of us – from caring for our families, making ends meet, completing
studies and other training, our own physical health, relationships, children, career – potential stressors are all around us.
Sometimes our stressors seem small and we may even feel guilty for carrying stress about them.
How we respond to those stressors depends a great deal on our emotional style and the resources we have around us.
Some people are willing and able to ask for help and have people to ask for that help while others believe they must soldier on alone or indeed don’t have the social and financial resources to bring in other help. Others may realise something needs to change but just not know how, while others may sink into a feeling that ‘this is all life has to offer. Life is hard and then you die’.
So if depression begins in a life stressor which is not dealt with appropriately because the person has an ineffective or unhelpful emotional style or little insight into the stressor does that mean I’m suggesting that people with depression are to blame?
Not in the least.
No. Certainly not.
But thinking of depression as caused by something ‘out there’, external to you or your ability to manipulate it, is incredibly disempowering.
Surely there is more than just the theory which says depression is biological and therefore there’s no chance you’ll live without depression permanently.
Or the idea that you are a victim of life’s circumstances and therefore there’s little you can do about it permanently.
if you are in the throes of the depressive symptoms, it is quite hard to suddenly just think positive. I don’t think it is effective or realistic simply to sit on the couch and will yourself into feeling happy. I don’t think happiness happens like that!
Nonetheless, changing your thinking is absolutely essential as our thinking dictates our emotional choices. While it’s probably a tall order to try to ‘think happy’, it’s more possible to ‘not focus so much on the negative’ or even ‘be satisfied with neutral’.
Changing thinking comes naturally within the context of other actions, so that you have something to feel positive about. Setting teeny tiny goals and taking action to reach them will produce feelings of pride and pleasure which can be expanded to believe that more the future could be a bit brighter.
What if there was a third option?
What if depression was caused by unsolved stress and that was not your fault?
If you decide after reading this that your depression has been caused by unsolved stress and that your current coping mechanisms are actually the very best you can do right now, do you believe you can live without depression?
What would that life look like?
Do you remember a time without depression? Many people claim that they have ‘always been depressed’, that they were ‘depressed since childhood’.
Perhaps some children are depressed, or there may be children like me who were quiet around others, enjoyed their own company, creative, imaginative children who had rich inner lives which nourished them.
It’s possible the adults around me considered me depressed, but as a child I was quite content with my books, my stuffed toys and the stories I wrote for myself. When I hit my teenage years I felt more unsettled, physically different to others in my ugly back brace and unable to participate in sports.
My confidence and self-esteem dropped and I remember being more conscious of being the ‘skinny nerdy girl who reads a lot’. If I hadn’t had medical ‘evidence’ that I was defective, these years may not have brought the host of negative self-talk and message that I believe they actually did.
I began to wonder what was wrong with me. As a uni student I began to wonder whether my life was ‘really strange’ because I wasn’t so keen on parties and while there were dates, there was no particular boyfriend. I began to wonder what other people had that I didn’t; an active social life, confidence, big groups of laughing, attractive, amazing friends.
“How do I feel? Awful, today. I just cancelled lunch with my one friend because I can’t stand being with someone who is happy all the time…”-comment on depression forum
“After a long time of looking for a job I found one that I love and I’m successful at it. So I should be feeling pretty happy. When I get home I feel horrible again. It seems that only a few short hours of happiness is all I’m allowed”. – comment on depression forum
Do you imagine those without depression wake up every morning full of beans, leap out of bed to a healthy breakfast, go to work in a bright and cheerful mood, achieve massive goals throughout the day, return home to their smiling spouse and delightful children and pull out the monopoly for a jolly evening of family fun?
Sometimes people who live with chronic low mood have a very high expectation of life without depression. They seem to believe that when you don’t have depression, every day is happy and joyful.
I think this might come from an unhelpful interpretation of the emotion ‘happiness’.
Happiness is an emotion that comes and goes, like every other emotion. It doesn’t stay with you all the time.
When there is no particular emotion being experienced, you’re in a neutral emotional place; neither happy nor sad. I suspect most of our days are spent in this place.
When I read the depression forums, I notice that people with depression seem to have an exaggerated view of what it is like to live without depressive symptoms.
There seems to be a great discomfort around not being a shiny happy person every moment of every day.
Stigma seems to have come from the idea that we, as human beings, should be happy all the time. This is not possible or natural. But it’s what society desires.
‘Tomorrow will be better! Happiness is a choice’ the memes cry out.
An absence of happiness in any given moment does not mean depression is there in its place.
A moment without happiness may be a moment of anger, boredom, frustration, or just neutrality.
I expect I spend the vast majority of my day in the ‘emotionally neutral zone’, neither happy nor sad. Then a friend tells a funny incident and I laugh and I feel happy. Then I go back to neutral. Then I think of a complex task I need to do and I go into ‘determined’ mode, or non-emotional ‘just get it done mode’. At the end of the task I feel proud and happy that I’ve achieved that goal.We seem to have become uncomfortable with the idea of deep and profound unhappiness or dissatisfaction. Click To Tweet Clearly, it’s not a pleasant place to be. We don’t want to have negative feelings.
It’s not nice to be ticked off at work, get a parking ticket, come down with the flu, be burgled, crash the car, have an argument with a loved one, lose a special item, be forced to cancel a holiday. We don’t enjoy these negative feelings that come with disappointments and losses, but we understand that they are a natural part of life.
For example, when I lost a job through funding cuts, initially I was shocked, hurt, upset and a bit concerned about where to find another. As the weeks went by and I had a few casual jobs here and there, my negative feelings increased and my mood dropped. After about 6 weeks I got a job I was equally satisfied with and my mood lifted again.
Nothing that happened in my mood was unnatural and although I met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder’s criteria for major depressive disorder, I certainly wasn’t sick.
Being a human my brain generated the moods that are quite normal under the circumstances, even though they were unpleasant at the time.
Even much deeper, more prolonged negative feelings of sadness or dissatisfaction are not grounds for illness, though it does become more urgent to change those negative thoughts and the life circumstances which led to them before them become a brain ‘habit’.
There is no stigma attached to being unhappy and dissatisfied, other than the stigma we ourselves as a society create. There are many things happening in the world about which we should be very concerned; climate change, war, famine, overpopulation, loss of habitat and species, poverty, lack of education, family violence…the list goes on.
But turning natural human feelings and emotions into sicknesses is to head down a very slippery slope.
It’s interesting…many mental health support websites put medication and psychological treatment as their two top treatment options. But there’s usually hidden somewhere under a tab called ‘Hints and tips for keeping well’ or ‘Try these self-help ideas’ as if they are hiding bashfully away somewhere. If you look a bit more closely at many mental health organisation’s websites you may notice at least some funding from pharmaceutical companies, or psychiatrists with pharmaceutical industry connections!
Hidden under the hints and tips tabs are often very well researched strategies to help you live without depression. You may be encouraged to ‘get regular exercise’ or ‘eat better’. It is suggested you phone a friend for a walk or eat more salmon. You may also be encouraged to get a hobby, or try yoga or mindfulness.
It is odd that such proven depression-beating strategies are not given a more prominent place on mental health organisation’s websites. Perhaps they also believe in the medical model; the one that ‘protects from stigma’, but may well be ‘protecting’ you from living with depression as well.
It is good that these strategies are on mental health websites, but it might be useful for them to offer some practical advice on how to make them part of your life.
It’s difficult to get started with physical activity when you’re feeling lacking in energy or whip up a brain-healthy meal when all you have the energy for is to call for a pizza.
These sites don’t really follow through, do they? They say, ‘Oh and while you’re on meds, do try to go for a walk every day’ but there’s no other support or advice on how to get started if you’re feeling really low on energy. I guess they assume that the antidepressants will fulfil their promise and give you enough oomph to get moving.
And for some they do.
And for many they do not.
Can you help yourself live without depression? Indeed you can.
So what’s the key to living depression free?
Believe that you can. Open your mind. Try something new. Try something that you desperately, desperately do not want to do. Like going for a walk.
I don’t say that lightly. I am not belittling your pain. The idea that you can live without depression probably feels like a fairy tale right now. It did for me too, once a upon a time!
And I’m not suggesting that life without depression is roses and rainbows and riding off into the sunset either. That would not be realistic or natural or even wanted. You should review your idea of life without depression if you think it means sunshine and strawberries every day.
But you can eliminate your depression symptoms and give yourself a pretty good chance of not having to suffer with them again.
How to do this?
 Paula Caplan
If you'd asked her 15 years ago if she believed life could be a wonderful as it is today, Vickie would have answered, 'I just don't know, but it doesn't seem likely.' Now she knows that if she can turn her life around, it's possible for you too. Ask Vickie how she can help you design the life you'd really love to live and say goodbye to depression forever.