10 Lessons of Depression

Contributing Editor
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Helen Keller once wrote, “We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.” As debilitating as depression is at times, it is also the teacher of invaluable lessons. Although I often wish for easier times, I am grateful for the pearls of wisdom learned along the way that make me a wiser, more compassionate person. Here are 10 of the most important lessons I’ve learned.


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Progress is uneven

If you read the biographies of the world’s most influential people, you’ll find that their climb to the top wasn’t linear. It involved its share of humiliations, blunders, and falls. The journey to wellness is like a labyrinth, winding us in different directions before guiding us to the center. It’s more circular than it is square. Although a relapse or setback feels like we’re starting over, it is part of the trajectory forward.


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Stress makes everything worse

Stress is a termite that gnaws away at our vulnerabilities until we are left with gaps in our health. Like a frog in a pot of warm water, we don’t often notice the temperature rise at first. However, over time, stress becomes the boiling water damaging our physical and mental health, eroding our emotional resilience. Stress not only aggravates existing symptoms of an illness, but it can cause disease as well.


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Your brain has a negative bias

Our brain filters the world through a negative lens. This bias is left over from our older, reptile brains, and serves an evolutionary purpose. That means what you hear, especially when you’re depressed, is often very different from what someone said. Once I began paying attention to my brain’s negative filter, I could analyze my thoughts with an objectivity that brought me closer to the truth.


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People need people

We are social creatures who thrive with connection. Research indicates that social connectedness helps us live longer, reduces the risk of suicide, strengthens our immune system, and helps us recover from disease, among other health benefits. People who are connected to others have higher self-esteem and greater empathy for others. Being in relationship makes us accountable to our behaviors and turns our gaze outward. We find that we are not alone and that suffering is universal.


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Your truth is what matters

Listen to your doctor and therapist, read up on your symptoms, but at the end of the day, it is your journey of recovery, and you get to decide how to proceed. Listen to all the solicited and unsolicited advice you get, but pluck out only the nuggets of wisdom that align with your truth — because you own your story. Your path to healing is unique to you.


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Food is tied to mood

I wish it were otherwise, but what I put in my mouth has a direct effect on my thoughts and actions. If I consume protein, complex starches, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids, I embrace a more optimistic outlook. Reversely, my negative ruminations increase with nicotine, caffeine, processed food, and sugar. I don’t need science to make the link between nutrition and depression, though the research is certainly there. My food experiments confirm that my diet absolutely affects my mood.


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Play is as important as work

Meaningful work is an important piece of wellness, but just as important is play. Evolutionary biologist and animal behavioral specialist Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., once said that “play is training for the unexpected.” And psychiatrist and play expert Stuart Brown, M.D., said, “Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor.” Play is critical to the development of the brain, giving us the cushion to absorb and process the stress of life.


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Sleep is crucial to sanity

You may think you can get more things done by shaving some time off of your sleep schedule, but the restorative action of sleep makes you more productive in the end. Your brain works night shifts. Hours of REM sleep are when it files and processes of all the input entered during the day. If you deprive the brain of its office hours, you wind up with irrational thoughts, forgetfulness, and cognitive mayhem. We need our ZZZs.


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Gratitude can’t be forced

Research studies say gratitude can lower blood pressure, improve immunity, help sleep, and reduce depression and anxiety. However, gratitude can’t be forced. Pressing yourself to see a cup half full when you are in excruciating pain is only going to make your symptoms worse. We all should be mindful of our blessings and try for an optimistic outlook. However, honor where you are and feel the sadness. Gratitude can come later.


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A sense of humor is key

According to G. K. Chesterton, “The reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly.” Humor adds a necessary space between us and our suffering. When I can laugh, I know that I’m not helpless, that I still have my hand on the helm. Abe Lincoln and Art Buchwald, two of my mental health heroes, said wit was essential to sanity, that comedy can save you from despair. Think of it this way: If you’re laughing, you’re not crying... even though the two look similar from 10 feet away.