The Thief of Joy – Depression

That feeling as the darkness starts to descend, the lights slowly dim, until you’re left in a dingy, grey space. You have no mental energy to do anything, and then you feel worse because you haven’t done anything. You sleep for too long, and wake up lethargic and tired. Motivation is out of reach, or if it shows up it will be at random times – like 10pm, when everyone else is winding down, or in bed. Little glimmers of zest for life occasionally bubble up, only to quickly die. Depression. 

This is a feeling that was very familiar to me for many years. It was hard work, unsatisfying, and a constant, hopeless barrier to the life I knew I could live if I could just feel better. I thought it was my lot in life. With a history of poor mental health and trauma in my family, it had become expected that each new generation would simply continue this sad journey, as if it was our cross to bear, and there was no getting out. 

To add some neuroscience to the mix, that feeling of grey gloom is due to the lack of chemicals being produced in the brain when we experience depression. The battery is flat, and just like when a car battery is flat, it takes a fair while to get enough energy to get the motor running smoothly again. 

When we feel depressed, it is because our stress bucket is full, and this means we are spending too much time in our Primitive brain. This is a place of survive rather than thrive. The Primitive brain wants to keep us safe, and the only tools it has available to do this with are anger, anxiety, and depression. Anger makes us big and strong so we can fight off the enemy, anxiety primes us to run away, and depression keeps us still and sedated until the danger has gone. 

The way we empty this stress bucket is through REM sleep. That last 20 percent of our 90 minute sleep cycle, when our eyelids twitch. At this point we are moving memories out of our Primitive brain, and into our Intellectual, rational, sensible brain. Once they are safely stored here, we have emotional distance from them, and they no longer bother us. The only problem is that if the bucket is overflowing, the brain has to work really hard to empty it. So we end up sleeping for longer and longer, working overtime, in a desperate attempt to empty out as much as we can, and get as much REM as possible. The difficulty here is that REM itself is tiring. During REM the brain is working incredibly hard, and this itself makes the brain tired, leaving us feeling like we need more rest. Hence that drained, foggy feeling. 

When I suffered from Depression, I would sleep, and sleep, and never feel energised. This would upset me, and cause feelings of guilt that I was lazy. This sadness and guilt I now understand was causing more and more negative thoughts, which were piling more and more into my stress bucket, and so the cycle continued. A cycle that for so many people, feels unbreakable. 

So when did things change for me? 

Exercise made a huge difference, as it kick started that production of chemicals – Serotonin, Dopamine, and Endorphins. It would give me a rush of energy, I would feel relaxed, have a better appetite, and be more productive. Because it made such a difference to me, I decided I wanted to do that for others, and became a Personal Trainer, a job I did for 12 years. In many ways exercise limited the amount I put in my stress bucket, because I felt better post workout my thoughts were more positive, things got to me less, and I made better decisions for myself. But exercise alone wasn’t enough, and because I had made it my job, after a time it became a task. Also, listening to clients problems constantly started to overwhelm me. At the time I didn’t realise this was because my stress bucket was full to bursting, due to my complete lack of boundaries. I was allowing everyone else to call the shots, not saying no, not setting expectations, justifying myself constantly, and most importantly – not giving myself permission to not be OK with things. By telling myself I should be OK with everything, and that I was being unreasonable if I wasn’t, was filling up that stress bucket constantly, until I went numb, broke down, and couldn’t get out of bed for days. That cloud of grey descended, and I was back in the depths of depression, and this time exercise alone couldn’t fix me. Things needed to change. 

My thoughts. That was the change that was needed to break this endless cycle of feeling OK, letting other people walk all over my life, feeling hopeless and out of control, becoming depressed. 

I was a few months into my Solution Focused Hypnotherapy training and the penny was starting to really drop. I didn’t just need to change a few things, I needed to change almost everything, and all these changes needed to come from me challenging, and changing my thought patterns. The way I explain this to my clients is, 

‘imagine your current thought patterns as motorways, negative thoughts move quickly and easily down them. What we want to do is build the A roads around these motorways. New neural pathways that with practice, will get easier and easier to use’ 

If we are repeatedly doing activities we don’t like, seeing people that don’t make us feel good, and thinking negative thoughts, we can’t expect the right chemicals to flow in our brains, and we won’t be happy. I became acutely aware of this. I couldn’t stay in the same place, and expect this cloud to lift. Nothing would change if I didn’t change. 

I can’t expect the happy chemical Serotonin to flow if I’m not doing things that bring me joy, and I can’t expect the reward chemical Dopamine to flow if I’m not undertaking enjoyable, rewarding activities. 

A tough year followed. It was hard to take everything apart, but I now had the skills to put it all back together properly so that it worked, and anytime it doesn’t work I now know what tools I have in my tool kit to get me back to where I want to be. 

I became hyper vigilant about what went in my stress bucket, boundaries became, and still are, my favourite hobby. In every situation I take a beat, ask myself if I’m OK with this, and make sure I’m happy with what I’m going to say before I say it. Protecting myself with healthy boundaries allows me to open my heart in the right way to the right people. 

Now when I sleep at night, that REM sleep has an opportunity to empty old traumas, stuff that’s sat right at the bottom, because I’m not constantly throwing rubbish on top of it. 

Depression sucks the life out of you. It gives you an identity you don’t want, but trust me it is not a cloak you have to wear for the rest of your life. 

Solution Focused Hypnotherapy changed my life, because it allowed me to build a new lifestyle. It reminds you that you have a choice, and it allows you to find control again.