Matthew C. Whited, PhD; Associate Professor, East Carolina University
It’s common for people to experience symptoms of depression such as feeling down, lacking interest in things, not feeling motivated. Lots of things can lead to feelings of depression. Perhaps it is something that doesn’t go our way. This could be a job interview, an interpersonal interaction, or we fall short of a goal. Maybe something happens to us out of our control, like a medical issue or a relationship break-up. Feeling depressed for a period of time is a natural response to these types of situations, and sometimes we begin to feel better after a week or two. When these feelings persist for more than two weeks and we’re not able to find solutions we can end up feeling stuck, apathetic, unmotivated, etc., for quite some time.
The main thing to pay attention to here is that depression is not your fault. Depression is often the natural response of your brain and your behavior to external adversity leads you into a challenging situation. If your situation doesn’t change, however, then neither will your natural response. So, we must engage in what often feels like unnatural responses in order to dig ourselves out of our funk and move forward.
If you are feeling depressed, you likely won’t feel motivated to do the various things that could actually help alleviate these symptoms of depression. Our natural tendency is to sit and wait to feel motivated to jump back into our lives. That’s why the remedies for depression feel unnatural and why they work as antidotes to depression.
As a therapist, I’ve seen many people struggle with the “M-word”: Motivation. When we look at others, we see that they seem to have motivation to spare. They seem to jump out of bed, ready to conquer the world. While you are feeling depressed, it can be a struggle just to drag yourself out of bed, or to do something that you know would make you feel better.
The misconception here is that we think that these world-conquerors had the motivation before they started moving and it’s actually the opposite. We feel motivated to do something because of our past success with it. If what we’ve experienced recently are failures, then it’s natural not to feel motivated. Instead of waiting for motivation, build Momentum. Momentum comes from initial small movements with a chosen direction that builds up into an ongoing rush towards the direction you want to go.
Building momentum is like pushing a large rock downhill. First, you need to pick a direction (pushing in one direction for 2 inches and then the opposite for 2 inches just leaves you where you started). Then you need to concentrate on making small movements in that direction. When we’re feeling depressed, your brain and body can resist any movement, so focusing on small changes is key.
Also, you need some sort of direction. Ask yourself, “Where do I want to go?” and then take the smallest step in that direction. For someone who has just experienced a medical event, such as a heart attack, their goal may be to live a healthier lifestyle.
Now, a “healthier lifestyle” is a rather vague and lofty aspiration. Broken down, the first step may be to choose one heart-healthy recipe to try out. That may seem like an inconsequential change, but it builds Momentum. The more Momentum you have, the easier it is to make further changes, like going to the store to buy the ingredients for that heart-healthy recipe.
Don’t listen to your brain
Your brain is evaluating what’s going on around you and giving information about its conclusions. The problem is that, even though your thoughts seem logical and accurate, the thoughts your brain creates are as much a product of external adversity as your behaviors are. In other words, the things that have happened to you that have led to depressed feelings are directly influencing your negative thoughts of, “I’ll never amount to anything”, “I clearly can’t do this”, etc. This means that these thoughts aren’t honest, true, or rational. The best way to change these thoughts (which are products of your situation) is to dismiss these thoughts and change your situation.
Again, you change your situation by building momentum in your chosen direction. As we change the behaviors that are associated with feeling depressed, our thoughts come along for the ride and become more positive, accurate, and rational. As we try out that heart-healthy recipe, there’s less room for your brain to say “I’ll never be healthy” and more room for positive, rational, thoughts. The key is to take your time, make small changes, and celebrate your successes, no matter how small.
See a health professional if a depressed mood persists
If you’ve tried to gain momentum and are struggling with how to do it, what direction to go, or your thoughts are just too loud to dismiss, it may be time to seek the help of a therapist. Mental health treatment can help you make progress in the direction you wish and overcome negative thinking. If you have insurance, there may be some degree of mental health treatment coverage and is often the best place to start when trying to find a therapist.
It’s important to know when treating depression, that not every therapist is a good match for every patient. So, if you are not happy with your treatment, a different therapist with a different approach may give you what you need. Medications, such as antidepressants, are also an option. These can help you gain and maintain Momentum. However, antidepressants by themselves are not as effective, especially in the long term, when used in the absence of therapy.
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