Inoculating Yourself Against Depression

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I am more upbeat than many of the people I’ve spoken with recently. This is true, even though in many cases, my expectations for the post-coronavirus future are more pessimistic than theirs. I’ve seriously entertained some pretty dire outcomes, but instead of letting them send me into depression, I am motivated to pursue values. I have been writing more, better, clearer prose. I am experimenting with improv games on Zoom with friends. I am flirting with my husband.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some bad days in the last few weeks. But I’m inoculated against spiraling down into depression by my understanding of the relationship of reason and emotion. With coronavirus inoculations impossible to come by, here are three important ideas that can inoculate you against depression.

1. Facts do not determine what you feel.

What you feel is determined by your evaluation of those facts, plus the attention you give them.

If you spend all of your time evaluating the dangers in the situation, you will be depressed. If you believe you have no choice over how you feel, you will be depressed. Remembering that you have volitional control over your attention, and therefore considerable indirect control over how you feel, is critical to breaking out of a depressive spiral.

This does not mean you should ignore the facts or try to avoid negative feelings. On the contrary, it’s critical that you fully accept both the facts and your feelings, which are two interrelated issues.

2. Accepting a fact requires accepting all of your negative feelings about that fact.

Before you accept an idea as a fact, you need to analyze it. Is it true? What is the evidence? Logic enables you to establish something is a fact. But this is only the first step in accepting it. Accepting a fact means fully understanding its implications for your life. That requires a bottom-up process of integrating the fact with all of your values.

Fortunately, we have a built-in system to help with this integration process: the emotional system. When values are related to the fact you are focusing on, corresponding emotions are automatically triggered. You can integrate a fact with your values by introspecting all of those feelings. By introspection, I mean you identify what you feel and why you feel it — you push to determine the value that ultimately causes this feeling.

In other words, you don’t simply say, “I’m frustrated.” You go further. Frustration is the feeling you have when you exert effort to gain a value, but you fail repeatedly. If you are frustrated, what value are you trying to gain? How do you feel about your repeated failure? Is this causing you to doubt your abilities or to criticize yourself? You need to explore all of the values at stake. You do that by introspecting your emotions. If you don’t introspect them, you literally will not see the full implications of this fact, because you will not fully reveal the values that are most important in relation to it in this moment.

When the facts concern the destruction of people, businesses, and ways of life, this process is not going to be pleasant. Quite the contrary. Introspecting a bad situation can be intensely distressing, for a short time. As you get clearer on the thoughts underlying the emotions, the negative feelings will intensify. But once you are fully clear, the emotion shifts to a contemplative emotion: joy, grief, love, or indifference, and after a little contemplation, you experience an aliveness. You get a clarity about the values that matter to you that is life-affirming.

In a situation like the present crisis, introspecting all of your feelings can leave you invigorated. For example, as a result of introspecting my emotions around the non-negligible chance that my life will be cut short within six months, I am charged with resolve to wash my hands, wear a mask, and update my will. But I am most strongly motivated to work on my book. I want to get it done!

In contrast, if you don’t spend some time working through negative emotions, they will keep churning in the background, bringing you down, indefinitely.

One of the greatest causes of a negative spiral is a fear of fully experiencing dark emotions about a situation — the fear, the anger, the despair, the frustration, the guilt. If you are not willing to feel them, you wind up spending all of your time playing whack-a-mole with negative emotions. You live in that dark place, which continues to call attention to threat after threat, instead of working through your feelings to reveal the values at stake.

The same world can be seen as a world of threats to cower before, or a complex place through which you chart a course to your values. Which way you look at the world makes all of the difference in how you feel.

Charting a course to your values is particularly important if the feelings that come up lead to self-criticism that you believe is true.

3. Objectivity about self-criticism removes its sting.

When you are sliding into depression, the trickiest thoughts to deal with involve self-criticism. Introspecting feelings of frustration and guilt can reveal thoughts about what you should or shouldn’t have done, or how you’re lacking in knowledge, skill, or “willpower.” Such self-critical thoughts will sabotage action, if you let them.

I am not in the school that rejects self-criticism. You need to be able to judge yourself fairly. If you conclude that you aren’t living up to your own standards, you need to know how to translate that criticism into a life-affirming passion to develop the knowledge or skills that matter so deeply to you. When you do this objectively, you heal any internal wounds as you pursue your goals. You experience yourself as good and capable as you grow. Ayn Rand’s quote applies, though it’s from another context: “Those who fight for the future live in it today.”

This is a big topic. I will highlight just two essentials:

First, as always, you need to determine whether the thoughts are true, and accept all of your negative feelings about them.

It can be challenging to judge yourself objectively.

You can have all kinds of out-of-date self-defeating beliefs that aren’t true. Generalized thoughts like “I’m not good enough” or “I’ll never succeed” are essentially false, and need to be challenged and rejected. Unfortunately, they can be so old and familiar that you don’t even realize they’re operating. Identifying and eliminating self-defeating beliefs is a learnable skill. I recommend David Burns When Panic Attacks for help on this issue.

In addition, often when self-criticism is true, it is an unpleasant surprise. You don’t expect to come up against limits of knowledge and skill and motivation, and you may be defended against recognizing them.

For example, until I hired a second person last year, I thought I was a good project manager. I had been effective years ago when I was managing engineers on well-defined projects. But I found out, through introspecting some miscommunication and scheduling difficulties, that I was lacking some communication and accountability skills that are critical to a tiny business. This was not pleasant to discover. My initial emotions were defensively blaming my team members. But by examining all of my negative emotions, including guilt and frustration, and looking at the situation honestly, I zeroed in on my contribution to the problem.

Second, if you identify some area where you are not living up to your own standards, you need to consciously embrace the role of choice in dealing with it. You have choice all the way down.

If something is an important enough issue, you can start a campaign to develop an entire new skill and value. I’m currently on a campaign to learn how to work on a schedule. It’s taking a lot of energy and attention, but I am excited at the prospect of building this skill, and how it will help my team and my business.

However, there is only so much energy available for self-improvement in a week. It is only practical to have one such campaign going at a time. If there are multiple areas that you would like to improve, you also need to embrace your choice of priorities. The other areas are what they are, and you need to plan your life accordingly.

For example, I am eating reasonably well right now, because I am drawing on some good habits that I formed, when diet was my focus. But it’s not my focus now. And I have one bad habit that I have not yet broken: You cannot trust me with a bag of Ruffles. Seriously. I will eat the whole bag. Ruffles have ridges, but mostly Ruffles have flavor. Yum, Yum, Yum. And then I’ll feel awful. Someday, I’ll turn my attention to breaking this habit. In the meantime, I’m not proud. I don’t delude myself into thinking I’ll do better next time. I just give the Ruffles to my husband so he can lock them in a cabinet.

Although I can’t instantly change my automatized reactions, I can still own my life, by factoring them into my plans.

* * *

A lot has been written about how your attitude affects your success, but sometimes it sounds like you should just put on a happy face and look on the bright side. That is not my view, and I don’t believe that artificial positivity will inoculate you against depression.

My view is that in the worst of situations, you can become present with the values that are truly at stake for you, and focus on them. There are many things out of our control in this crisis. But that is not where we benefit from focusing our attention. We benefit from focusing our attention on the values of ours that depend on our actions right now.

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