There is a very subtle and insidious cycle that frequently occurs for those who are struggling with feelings of depression. Whether it’s situational, acute, or chronic, feelings of depression build on themselves.
When we don’t feel great, we succumb to a sort of molasses-like slowdown … because we don’t feel great, we don’t feel like doing much. And because we don’t feel like doing much, that usually includes slowing down or stopping doing the things that have the potential to make us feel better.
Thus begins the Vicious Cycle of Nots:
Not feeling well leads to not doing stuff, which leads to not engaging in activities that could counter not feeling well, and so on.
Creating joy to counter depression often requires us to acknowledge — really be conscious — that not feeling like engaging in helpful, joy-promoting activities is part and parcel of depressive feelings. Not feeling like it, however, is not a reason not to.
Consider this: How often have you felt like going to the dentist to have your teeth cleaned, or heaven forbid, a root canal? Most likely never. Most people never EVER feel like going to the dentist for any reason. But we go. We go when it’s time or when we need to because we know — intellectually, in the place that stands aloof and independent from how we feel about the dentist — that it’s what needs to be done. Regardless of how we feel about it. For most of us, if we waited to feel like getting dental work, it wouldn’t ever happen and we’d all be walking around with terrible dental issues (if we still had any teeth at all).
When you feel depressed, you’re less likely to feel like calling a friend, getting some exercise, volunteering, doing some art or writing, or engaging in any of the other activities that have the potential to create joy in the face of depressive feelings. But like the dentist, if we allow our feelings to dictate our behaviors — we’re likely to stay stuck in the downward Vicious Cycle of Nots.
Strategies for creating joy in the face of feelings of sadness or depression, and stress and anxiety, too, revolve primarily around making intellectual decisions with what you know, as opposed to how you feel.
Strategies for creating joy when you have feelings of depression:
1. Accept your heart and your head
Recognize that your heart and your head are rarely in lockstep, and that’s an advantage when it comes to creating joy. Just like you know you need to pay your taxes by April 15th regardless of how you feel about it, you likely know that any one of a number of activities will help you feel better, even if you don’t feel like doing them. Pay your taxes when they’re due and engage in activities that help you feel better, regardless of your feelings about either. Your feelings will lead you astray if you don’t, on both counts.
2. Schedule things that make you feel good — don’t wait for inspiration
We usually wait to feel like doing something to do it, which is counterproductive if you’re not feeling well and need to do something to feel better. If you already know you’re feeling down (and feeling like staying rooted on your couch with a pint of ice cream), do yourself a kindness and treat going on walks, calling friends, taking a bubble bath, or any other helpful activity as if it were a dental appointment … put it on your calendar and do it because your calendar tells you it’s time to do it, regardless of your feelings of motivation in that moment.
3. Err on the side of distraction
Often when we feel depressed about a particular issue, we decline to engage in distracting activities (socializing, exercising, and working) because we get some sense of control or satisfaction out of hyper-focusing on the problem. You know, as if keeping our eye on it ensures that it won’t get any further away from us. Of course, we know intuitively that this isn’t helpful for our mood or for solving the issue. Yet we often will turn down offers from concerned friends and family to get us out of the house. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to feel obligated to “act” somehow better than we’re feeling; or we don’t want to be surrounded by merriment when we’re feeling low.
If you need time to yourself, you should take it, and there’s no reason to force yourself into social settings where you feel like you have to fake feeling well. But if and when you decide to have some alone time, don’t wallow on the couch. Work on a project, get some healthy movement, organize something you’ve been avoiding, or do some journaling. Give yourself the gift of constructive alone time, not destructive isolation.