Don’t Make Depression Your Identity: Make It Your Map to a Happier Life
During high school and college, I struggled with my mental health. A lot. I battled self doubt and negative thoughts constantly. I lost interest in the friends and hobbies that used to be the highlights of my life and gained tons of weight. Nearly every time I went to sleep at night, I thought I was completely worthless.
My family could tell that something was wrong and were desperate for answers and for someone to “fix” me. So it’s probably no surprise to hear that they took me to a psychiatrist who promptly diagnosed with depression. The diagnosis felt liberating for about 15 minutes. Suddenly, none of this – the mood swings, the growing number of absences from school, the self-inflicted isolation from everyone who loved me – was “my fault.” Instead, I could blame a disease for making me this way.
Plus, I was told, this diagnosis meant that there were “sure” ways of treating me. (AKA, drugs and talk therapy). If you’ve ever struggled with mental health problems or a physical health condition before, I’m sure you can relate to the initial feeling of relief that washes over you when you can finally put a name on the cluster of symptoms that have been controlling your life.
As I soon discovered, however, receiving a diagnosis of depression and “healing my depression” were two very different things. Not to mention that the first didn’t necessarily lead to the latter.
How My Depression Diagnosis Actually Hurt Me…
Why? Well, first of all, meds and therapy apparently weren’t as “sure” ways of overcoming depression as my therapist made them sound. When I failed to transform back into a healthy, happy girl just by taking medication, I felt even worse about myself. “I must be so bad that not even medicine can save me!” I remember thinking.
Plus, being given the label of “depression” suddenly made my feelings become my identity. I was not the athletic, blond high school cheerleader who struggled with depression. I was the “depressed” girl. The more depression became the core of my identity, the more I couldn’t ever imagine not being depressed. Who would I be then?
Perhaps the most worrisome consequence of being diagnosed with depression (at least when I look back at the experience now) is that accepting the “depressed” label completely shut down my curiosity to look for the root cause of my mental health problems. I didn’t think about how my lifestyle or beliefs could impact my happiness. I simply accepted what my therapist and doctors and parents told me: that I was born with a “chemical imbalance.”
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who’s felt limited by being diagnosed with or equated to their depression. I see the exact same struggles in my clients all the time. What started as a collection of symptoms they were experiencing became the essence of who they were. As a result, they feel trapped in their own depression and unable to change or escape. They come to me in desperation, feeling completely victimized by the disease that has become their identity.
The Change In Mindset That Transformed My Mental Health
So what can you do to actually overcome depression? I certainly believe that you have the right to call it “my depression” (like I did in my own story about my mental health problems here) and accept that label. However, I invite you to embrace a deeper thinking process around depression. Don’t think of depression as a disease that consumes your whole life. Instead, I’d like you to experiment with thinking of it as a symptom of misalignment…misalignment that you have the power to change.
So if you can relate to these feelings of hopelessness, I hope you choose to take an imaginary journey back in time with me, back before you were diagnosed, in order to gain a more empowered understanding of what’s really happening with you.
Remember, we’re not trying to undermine what you’re going through by taking the label of “depression” away. We’re just trying to address you as a whole, complex person rather than a disorder.
Five Questions About Your Depression History to Consider
Think back to when your negative feelings and mental health problems began. Then, ask yourself these questions:
- Had you been through some sort of trauma? Not everyone who experiences trauma develops depression. However, one 2013 study identified traumatic life events as the biggest cause of anxiety or depression. The trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be direct, either. Even constantly hearing about traumatic events happening to other people on the news could trigger mental health problems.
- What was you diet like back then? Perhaps you were lacking in key nutrients that are necessary for synthesizing all those happy chemicals in your brain. Research has linked depression to low levels of various nutrients, including selenium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, antioxidants, zinc and protein-rich foods. Studies have also found that caffeine, alcohol and processed foods and oils can worsen depression symptoms by increasing anxiety, mood swings and inflammation.
- For me, diet was a huge factor in my depression symptoms. It was also a big reason why antidepressants didn’t work: because they weren’t addressing the underlying issue. Over a decade after I was diagnosed, I started to do my own digging and realized that I was insanely low on vitamin D. Taking vitamin D supplements and eating a vitamin D-heavy diet did more to alleviate my symptoms than any antidepressant I ever took.
- What might have been going on with your hormones? Hormones play an important role in your mood. For example, consistently high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, or too high or too low levels of thyroid hormones, are all associated with depression. Sex hormones also influence your mood. In fact, studies have found that depression occurs evenly in boys and girls until age 15, when puberty typically occurs. After age 15, depression is twice as common in females.
- A few years ago, after I had improved my emotional health and all of my symptoms of depression had receded, they suddenly started to come back. That’s when I discovered that my cortisol levels were crazy high. After I balanced out my hormones using yoga, meditation and dietary changes, my depression symptoms soon dissipated.
- Were you living in a culture, environment or house that was completely out of sync with your personality, values and needs? More and more research is reporting that social interaction, a sense of belonging and an ability to connect with others can be just as important to your health as eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. As a result, living somewhere that prevents you from being able to form strong emotional bonds with others could negatively impact your physical, emotional and mental health.
- Were you surrounded by many depressed people? Could you have just learned/absorbed depressed ways of thinking from your environment? As far-fetched as it might sound, depression actually can be contagious. In fact, a study of college students found that, within six months, many students’ had “caught” their roommates’ negative thinking process. Those students also showed twice as many symptoms of depression. So if you spent a lot of time around people struggling with depression, you might consider how much their depressed mindset or behavior rubbed off on you.
This is not an extensive diagnostic quiz, of course. Each one of these bullet points could also be expanded into their own post. (Keep an eye out for more thorough posts on each of these topics soon).
Moreover, because of the mind-body connection, even if your depression starts because of one of these reasons, it might be fueled by and even contribute to other reasons as time goes along. For instance, maybe you started feeling depressed because of a traumatic death in your family, but your mental health problems are further complicated by living in New York City when you prefer a slower lifestyle.
How to Use Your New Mindset to Overcome Depression
Once you see depression as a sign that something is out of alignment in your life instead of a be-all-end-all disease, you can have a much more nuanced and empowering conversation (with yourself and others) about what you’re going through.
For example, after I really understood what was going on with me, I slowly stopped constantly saying (and thinking) “I’m depressed” and “I’ve got a disorder.” Instead, I would think and say:
“I’m Caitlin. These days, I just feel really out of touch with the person I used to be. Somewhere deep down inside of me, I know that I’m still a good person with a lot of talent. I just can’t reach those feelings lately. I struggle the most when I’m surrounded by new people, but I do feel better when I’m around close friends and have the courage to go to the gym. My teenage years were really difficult, and I think I’m still holding onto a lot of the negative opinions about myself that I developed during that time. Plus, for many years, I ate nothing but simple carbs. These days, I think my body needs some extra nutritional support to produce the ‘happy chemicals’ my mind needs.”
Beyond creating a more empowering narrative, having a better understanding of your depression’s possible origins also lets you experiment with treatments that are personalized and relevant to you.
One great example of this is essential oils.
What do I mean? Well, when I see clients who are struggling with a low mood and GI issues, I’ll recommend a different oil blend than I would for clients whose low mood is occurring with alongside PMS. Those blends are also different than what I recommend for those struggling with depression and high levels of anxiety. To learn more about using essential oils to improve your mood and motivation, check out my simple guide to finding the perfect essential oil blends for you.
Of course, this personalization can apply to any other lifestyle change you make to treat your depression symptoms, from how to you exercise to how you meditate to how you combat negative thoughts. The more you understand your depression, the more knowledgeable you’ll be about what treatments might work best for you.
From Me to You: What to Remember About Depression
I didn’t write this article to give you the “one secret” that will cure your depression. I also didn’t write this article to say that you should never use the “depression” label ever again. However, in light of my own journey with depression, I wanted to remind anyone who has ever struggled with similar problems that you are not your depression, and that having a more nuanced mindset about your depression symptoms might actually improve your mental health in the long run.
And at the end of the day, “you” are what matters…and the real “you” includes your whole, amazing, messy identity, not just a diagnosis in your medical file.
Have you ever struggled to not equate your whole identity with a health problem? What is your favorite mood boosting activity? Tell me in the comments!