- We often fail to recognize signs and symptoms of depression within ourselves.
- When we lose sight of what is important to us, we fail to see it as the first step that can lead to depression.
- Letting go of our struggle with our thoughts and emotions is key to bringing about a change in direction.
Stereotypes often ruin our ability to recognize problems. Most people have a picture in their minds of what it looks like to be depressed, but this picture may not match reality. If you believe that depressed people look sad, have low energy, and generally behave in a negative fashion, then you may not recognize the actual signs of depression in others or yourself.
If you have recently been to your physician for an annual physical or any other medical appointment, you have likely been screened for depression. It’s interesting what we report to others but fail to recognize in ourselves. Even if we admit to some signs of depression on a screening assessment, that doesn't necessarily mean we'll believe that we're depressed. We tend to be very good at ignoring what we feel and pushing ourselves forward as if nothing is wrong.
On countless occasions, I have asked patients who just scored high on a depression inventory if they see themselves as depressed. The nearly universal answer is “no.” Therefore, healthcare providers and patients alike need another way to recognize depression and explain what could be happening that has brought a person to a depressed state.
6 Signs You're Stuck
It is always better to help a person recognize depression on their own than to try to convince them ourselves. If someone cannot see that they are depressed, even the most convincing proof will not help them change their mind.
The key to helping others recognize depression is sharing information about how the mind works, how it gets off track, and what we can do to put ourselves in a more flexible, adaptive mode so that we can face the problems of reality and move forward. I've found that most people are genuinely interested in learning about themselves but are often immediately defensive at any hint of being blamed. A non-judgmental approach focusing on how the mind operates will build trust with the person you want to help.
Here are six signs that you are depressed but don’t recognize you are stuck in a cycle that is hard to escape.
- You feel disconnected from what is important to you. You have people, ideas, and activities that make your life rich and meaningful, but you struggle to focus on these important areas because of the pressures of life that keep getting in your way. When you lose sight of your values, sense of purpose, and direction in life, it's normal to experience some level of distress. Unfortunately, our distress begins to grab our attention, making it even hard to focus on what’s important.
- There is a gap between what you want and what you have, or between who you are and who you want to be. There is nothing wrong with having this kind of gap. In general, it motivates us to grow and change. But this gap can also be distressing; our unhelpful mind can tell us we are stuck, that life will not change, and that the barriers we face are all our fault.
- You always treat your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations as true, valid, and important. When you are distressed, your mind will try to explain what is happening. Far too often, you listen to your mind’s explanation as if it is true and never question its conclusion. For example, your mind might tell you that life should treat you fairly, and because it doesn’t, you should feel miserable and that your misery is all your fault. While this might sound like a reasonable explanation of why you are upset, it is definitely not helpful.
- You avoid and control your distress. Once your noisy, unhelpful mind is active, your distress is amplified. We naturally want to avoid this kind of distress. Each person has their unique way of avoiding and controlling distress, but the typical methods include the following: a) arguing with your unhelpful mind, trying to convince yourselves with positive thinking; b) distracting yourselves with entertainment and mindless activities like shopping, gaming, or gambling; c) soothing yourself with substances like food, alcohol, drugs, medications, or tobacco; d) opting out of doing things and going places; or e) engaging in self-harm.
- You are stuck in the "struggle cycle," finding short-term relief only to feel worse once the relief has passed. You avoid and control your distress because it works. Netflix, sex, alcohol, and cheesecake could help you feel less bad in the moment, but that's about as far as their positive effects extend. As soon as the positive state brought about by your avoidance and control strategies wears off, you’re back to feeling miserable again, but with new additional problems. Usually, the things we do to avoid and control our distress will make our life worse in the long run. They cost us time, money, and our health. And these problems will eventually cost us our relationships.
- You believe you must get rid of your distress before moving forward again. We assume that happiness is a normal, ongoing state of life and that something is wrong with us if we are not happy. We also assume that we should be able to control our thoughts and feelings and that we must get rid of them before moving forward. It is this mindset that keeps the "struggle cycle" spinning. We try to control and avoid our thoughts and feelings in ways that only make things worse, not better.
Having explained these six signs of being stuck in life, I often hear people provide this heartfelt recognition: “Every morning I wake up and just know that today is going to be just as hard as yesterday. And I'm convinced that tomorrow will not be any different than today. Is this what depression feels like? Because if it is, I’m depressed.”
These people are not individuals who look sad, lay around all day, or talk negatively. They are hardworking people—parents struggling to keep their families together, teachers pouring themselves into students' lives, healthcare workers doing everything they can to stay positive for themselves and others. Yet when faced with the reality of the "struggle cycle," these very same people recognize that they are stuck on the hamster wheel of depression and need to get off.
Steps Toward Change
If these six signs of depression are showing up in your life, rest assured that you are not alone. Most of us get stuck in the "struggle cycle" at some point in life.
The first step to getting free and managing your depression might sound overly simple, but having compassion for yourself is important. Our minds are masterful at beating us up, but not so good at compassion or seeing the good within us.
Secondly, ask yourself if your habits of avoiding and controlling distress are helpful or not. Are they moving you in the direction you want to go? Probably not. Then take an honest assessment of what your avoidance and control habits are costing you.
Finally, let go of your efforts to control your distress. Rather, bring your distress along as you take small steps in the direction you want to be heading. This will help.
Remember, you are not your thoughts; you do not need to be controlled by what they tell you. You are the author of your story, not the victim of it.
For more, read part two of this series here.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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