“Essentially, even if at a small level, when taking action you are proving that: I can do something, and I can not be overwhelmed by doing it, so therefore I do have some efficacy in moving out of the depression.” – Marty Cooper
One of the hardest elements of depression, as you who have experienced it will know, is that when depressed, it takes more energy, and more time, to do less, and to do it less efficiently. Yet, the dilemma of this fact is that to do nothing has about the same effect as napping in quicksand.
So I want to focus here on a core principle of working with depression, being: match your work to your amount of energy, and build energy by working. I’ll use a near-at-hand example—me—to illustrate this principle, and then do some theorizing towards the end.
Ok, so I have a break during a recent afternoon, of a couple hours, and earlier in the morning, looking at my schedule, I think, “Great! I have an article to write for the blog and newsletter, and some other computer work to do—I’ll get a ton done.” I engage my morning appointments and sessions, and then it’s noon and I sit down in my office at the computer…to find a saggy pile of motivation and energy awaiting me. Imagine wanting to dig a basement and then finding your shovel is made of rubber—I feel like that.
So, I check in and notice that I’m not depressed per se, but for a couple known, and some unknown, reasons, I can see I’m not going to get that article started. Having worked with depression for decades (personally and professionally), I of course have the presence of mind to respond creatively and adaptively: I start futzing about on the internet.
Not too far towards the back of my mind I hear the voice that says, “You know, I don’t think that’s going to help with productivity or energy.” To which the then dominant voice says, “Yeah, I should just stop being stupid and get to work!” Which, weirdly enough, is not motivating.
It’s remarkable how articles about pop stars become fascinating at times like this.
(When we’re in a depression—or a depression-ish event like mine—our whole system is contracting because that is what depression is designed to do. It pulls us away from engagement, contact, and work because to keep at those things threatens to increase overwhelm. So in that state to say, “Just push through it!” is often stiffly resisted because our depression circuits are registering pushing as already a failed strategy, and so we default to inaction.)
About an hour later, I start feeling more acutely the irritation of that part of me that wants to be active and engaged against the retractive part. So then I think, “Ok, the forceful approach didn’t work, how about just doing something?” That clicked—“Ok, I can compromise and do something less taxing than writing.” I looked through my to-do list and saw, “Straighten out office wall lamp,” and when I checked it out with my recalcitrant self, it kind of shrugged and signed off on that.
Now what I know—and forgot for an hour—is that working with what energy one has, and completing a task at that level, provides a sense of accomplishment/mastery, which comes with an increase in energy and motivation. Essentially, even if at a small level, when taking action you are proving that: I can do something, and I can not be overwhelmed by doing it, so therefore I do have some efficacy in moving out of the depression. Fundamentally, this is a contradiction of the logic of depression, which is: what I’m doing is futile and therefore I need to disengage. Our nervous system does not care too much whether it’s winning high office or fixing a lamp.
So, that lamp task had been nagging at me for at least a year, and my last attempt at fixing it had failed miserably. But I got out the screwdriver and within five minutes had fixed it! Sure enough, I got the surge of energy I expected, and then the next thing on the list (which had also been languishing), “Clean office windows,” was met internally with, “Oh, hey, that’s small, I can do that!” So I did, and then how about some dusting? Did it. And I got the added surge of satisfaction from deleting these items off my list.
While doing these simple tasks, that inherently confront the “be small” logic of depression, I realize I’m getting a good idea for the article, and it’s carrying now excitement rather than heaviness. So, fifteen minutes after starting the tasks, I sit down and easily begin this article. There’s not a sense of resistance or grumpiness. Rather, I’m involved, interested, and energized.
So, for the theory part: when we are depressed, we often zig when we should zag. Instead of slowing down we rev up. Instead of working more simply, we collapse. Both of which are unsustainable, unpleasant, and dispiriting. To do work, there has to be a meeting of the task’s requirements with our own energy level, and a dynamic adjusting of that balance so that we don’t fall into one rigidity or the other, over or under-active.
You’ll notice in my example that the first flush or response to finding myself de-energized was towards the rigid poles: veg out, or be heroically forceful. Then it took an hour (with severe depression, of course, it takes a lot longer) for the irritation of inaction, coupled with the recognition and acceptance (that’s a key term) of my energy level, to produce a workable solution. At that point, I had enough of my fore brain online to think through the options, and find one that was at that elegant balance between its requirements and my energy/motivation. Hence, “straighten the lamp.”
Now, this principle—match your work to your amount of energy, and build energy by working—applies whether we are in a dip like mine, or a major depression like many of my clients. One has to be careful not to be glib about how serious and disabling that one depressive message, “Be small!”, can be. Still, this principle is real and useful, even if at times difficult to enact, and even if that elegant place of work is just swinging our foot over the side of the bed. As long as we can accept our limited range and avoid self-judgment (often with others’ support), that small act can result in a building of confidence and energy, which then can keep building on itself.