I think the worst advice I have ever heard anyone give someone who is dealing with depression is “just smile.”
If only it was that easy.
However, there is something to be said for that simple statement. However, first let’s look at some basics.
It is far too easy to be caught in one or all of three traps that the darkened mind offers when when one deals with depression. Together they provide an environment that fosters further darkness, loneliness and personal destruction. There’s three things you need to be aware of:
- Raison d’etre
One of the catch-22 traps of the mind is that provided by the false-positive reinforcement provided by the avoidance of anxiety.
For example, let us say that the concept of heading down to the post office gives you some anxiety. You need to go down there, but it gives you such a feeling of butterflies that you decide that this time you won’t go. At once, the anxiety is relieved and you feel better. A few days later you decide you better head off to the post office, but this time, the anxiety is further pronounced with your palms becoming sweaty and your heart palpitating. Once again, you sit down and the anxiety goes away.
In both situations, your mind has provided itself with a “false positive” reinforcement, by “giving in” to the anxiety, you feel a wave of relief and thus interpreted as a positive reaction. Your brain thus associates the post office with anxiety as doing so (and thus avoiding it) is a positive logic chain.
In effect, every time you feel the anxiety and give into it, you are affecting a greater anxiety response for next time.
This creates an “anxiety loop” and the danger is that it can spread out to other aspects of your life like a bushfire during a drought. Before you know it, the concept of driving now fills you with anxiety, then getting into a car, then leaving the house … now the amount of anxiety related with you simply leaving your house becomes so intense that you become agoraphobic.
It may sound like a stretch, but this is one of the ways it starts. The only way to deal with it is to face the anxiety. One step at a time.
Just like anxiety, the pulling away from the people around us is a gradual erosion so that we do not see the eventual erosion of our peninsula until it has become an island.
It starts off with a simple pulling away from the outer circle of friends. After all, it takes a lot of effort to deal with people right now – so why spend it dealing with those who are colleagues or associates at best? Far better to spend what little reserves you have for those you consider friends, right?
Then, after a while, even that starts to become onerous. So, we start withdrawing from all but the inner circle of friends, after all – these are your closest friends. They’re practically your surrogate family.
However, you are getting darker and more depressed, and you love these people. You don’t want to burden them with your baggage. I mean, they deserve to be happy. Why should you be the one to bum them out. Much better for all involved if you just don’t go out with them and not get in the way so that they can still enjoy their day without you being the anchor around their neck.
That’s how it happened.
All of a sudden, you’re alone. You have no one to talk to.
You feel more alone than ever … abandoned … angry.
Where are your friends?
Why aren’t they there?
Don’t they realise how much you are hurting!?
They obviously don’t care about you!
But what choice do they have when you have just kept shoving them away and keeping to yourself? How can they help you if all you want to do is be left alone or the only time you want to talk is at 3 am?
Without a reason to keep going, there is no point.
You need a reason. Something to aim for. Something to motivate you. I’m not talking about your ikigai here, just a simple point to motivate you to do something. It could be spending ten minutes a day to complete a mystery murder jigsaw so that you are not focussed on spending all of your time in front of the computer. It could be waking up at 7am every morning to make your spouse a cup of tea before they go to work. It could be ensuring you make the kid’s lunch before they go to school. We are talking about small goals here. Little things that are achievable and help you feel that you have actually done and achieved something.
We all need a reason to keep going forward. You always had one before, whether you realised it or not. Now, though, you need to make those reasons conscious. You need to drive yourself forward one step at a time. The small steps make the bigger steps easier.
These are the three monsters at the bottom of the pit that if you do not master will keep dragging you deeper and deeper into the murkiness until it becomes seemingly impossible to remember where the light was or how to get there.
On the art of Smiling.
The trick is not to “just smile”, the trick is to find a reason to smile.
Find one thing to make you happy every day. At least, find one thing that makes you less unhappy.
For example, a clean bathroom makes me happy. Having said that, cleaning the bathroom makes me unhappy. Having a person from outside of my home invade my privacy and clean my bathroom, especially one I have to pay, makes me unhappy. However, the cleaner makes me less unhappy than the act of cleaning the bathroom myself, so perhaps the best way forward is to pay for a cleaner as this will make me less unhappy than cleaning the bathroom myself – which means there is less unhappiness for the joy of the clean bathroom to overcome.
The removing of unhappiness by definition provides a level of happiness.
Small moments of reduced unhappiness can lead us to happiness.
So the secret is not in “just smiling” but in finding less things to frown about.
If I fight the anxiety, make myself aware of the isolation and find a reason for getting through [this task] or [today] then I often find myself proud of the fact that I managed to beat the bastard black dog once more.
Sometimes, finding things that make other people happy is all you need. I find that quite often, making my friends, family and loved ones happy – and seeing that happiness in their faces and eyes – makes me happy.
Many days, that is all I need.