5 Things I’ve Learned While Living with Depression

I’ve been living with depression for 25 years. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Depression doesn’t ever completely go away (nor do we want it to).
  2. The opposite of depression isn’t happiness. It’s vitality!
  3. Mobilization is essential if you want to feel better.
  4. It feels like depressive episodes last forever and are always looming, but they can be fleeting.
  5. Change is possible.

Let me explain…

Depression is a survival response

As much as I hate the way it feels, depression is the physiological response that has kept me safe for most of my life.

Depression kept me safe in the moments when I couldn’t run away from or fight unsafe people, places, or things. In the periods when trauma was most persistent, my body shut down as a means of self-preservation.

Depression happens when our body and brain perceive the challenge we’re facing to be too big to overcome. In traumatic circumstances, this can support our survival.

Of course, the challenge for most of us is that depression becomes our “home away from home.”

After years of having to survive, our physiology becomes patterned, so depression eventually becomes our default when we experience challenges of any size.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but if we get rid of  depression completely, we get rid of an essential survival response.

Since our lives are full of challenges, depression is not something we want to get rid of completely. Instead, we want to give our nervous system other options. We want to be able to choose our response to stress and challenge most of the time, rather than having depression be the default whenever we experience stress, challenge, or overwhelm.

The opposite of depression isn’t happiness.

It’s vitality. 

For me, in the deepest of my depression happiness wasn’t a realistic goal. It felt too big and too unattainable. 

However, vitality — the state of feeling strong and active; having energy. That felt much more attainable for me. 

If we really look at depression from a physiological standpoint, this makes perfect sense. In depression, the autonomic nervous system begins to shut down. Every part of us slows down, including our breath, heartbeat, speech, and cognitive function. We begin the process of “playing dead” or being as still as possible until the threat (real or perceived) decides to let up enough for us to feel as though we can mobilize. 

In mobilization there is activity, which means there is energy, and eventually as we find our courage there is strength. 

Happiness is great, but if I’m not able to feel vital — strong, energized, active — happiness is simply a pipedream.

Mobilization is essential if you want to feel better.

My depressed body feels heavy and lethargic. It feels like gravity and inertia are having their way with me. 

It’s hard to get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed, eat, work…action feels impossible. And yet, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt if I can unthaw and move I’ll start to feel better. 

If I can just tick a few things off my to-do list, the shame and guilt of not doing the things I “should” be doing will feel more bearable. 

In nature, when animals have the autonomic nervous system response of shutdown (or “playing dead”), they get up  after the threat has passed, find their way to safety, and give themselves a regulating shake. 

We’re human, but our nervous system benefits from the same type of nourishment. 

Once the threat has passed or I’m able to recognize that the threat was perceived. I can begin to move and find my way to safety, then invite in a regulating resource — stretch, wiggle, shake, eat something, coregulate with someone, etc. 

We get to vitality as we move, and vice versa. 

It feels like it lasts forever and is always there, but it isn’t (promise). 

It may not feel like it in the moment, but this too shall pass. 

A depressed body creates a depressed mind challenged by a depressed narrative. This narrative often includes absolute thinking or black and white thinking, and other cognitive distortions. 

Some thoughts we might have when we’re depressed are:

“I’ll never feel better…” 

“I’m always depressed…this is never going to go away…” 

“It’s impossible to feel better…”

“I can’t do or feel anything other than this…”

Everything feels hard when we're depressed, but hard and impossible are not synonymous.

The hard times come and go in the same way that good times come and go. As humans, we have a varied life experience. While we are alive our physiology is never static. It’s constantly shifting, changing, and adjusting in an effort to keep us functioning, alive, safe, and connected. 

If you can feel depressed you also have the capacity to feel vital. They exist on a spectrum together. 

Change is possible.

If you’re living with depression, it’s likely that depression has become your default response to challenge or you spend a fair amount of time in a fight/flight survival response, then find yourself collapsing in depression for periods of time after. 

Either way, there is hope. 

We can repattern our nervous systems and our bodies. 

This doesn’t mean we’ll never experience depression and anxiety. Again, they are necessary survival responses. We don’t want to continuously fight our bodies or try to extract those responses. Instead, we want to learn to work with and be with our experiences in a way that allows for us to make empowered choices when we experience stress, challenge, or overwhelm. 

This looks like pausing, noticing that I’m having a response, naming and validating that response as objectively as possible, then asking “what’s next?” 

The “what’s next” could look like a longer pause to gather more information about my experience and/or check the facts — my brain is saying this, but if I check the facts this is actually what’s happening. 

The “what’s next” could look like action or advocacy. It could also look like inviting in a resource that will taper (not necessarily eliminate) the feeling related to the stress, challenge, or overwhelm. 

Our bodies have been shaped by our experiences, and they can be reshaped with new choices and different experiences. 

This is true resilience. 


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