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When You Can't 'Think' Your Way Out of Depression

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This blog post about depression was recently reposted by Tim Ferriss, a self-help author, podcaster and TV personality. He has a massive reach across his platforms with piles and piles of influence. His main point in the post was: how you “think” about depression is the problem, not the actual disorder.

Long story short, he blamed you. He blamed you for not being grateful enough. He blamed you for seeking out help from a doctor who diagnosed you with depression and you now call it “depression.” He blamed you for your thoughts.  He said all you have to do is practice gratitude training and *poof* you’re cured, or … maybe you’re not cured since you know, you only have depression if you “think” you have it.

I listen to Tim’s podcast, I’ve bought his books; I know he “means” well. But does he really think someone who has lost all joy in life and is just wishing they no longer existed can just “think positive” and get themselves out of it?

What about people who haven’t been diagnosed with depression? How many people who don’t struggle with anxious or depressive disorders have a hard time moving forward in their lives? So, if “normal” people can’t seem to climb out of a habituated hole, do you really think someone who may carry a genetic predisposition, and perhaps trauma, and has probably worn a neurological rut in their brain can just “think different?”

When you carry the shame of taking medication just to be able to get through the day, when you watch your life pass before you just wishing you could find the ability or desire to participate, when you’ve lost your adolescence or adulthood and carry the grief of what your depression has taken from your children, can you just “think positive?”

Does he think we haven’t tried and failed at that too? I wonder how he would talk to someone who just broke a bone. Instead of going to a doctor to get physical therapy or pain medication while you heal from a “fracture,” just think of it a “temporary bone partition” because semantics would make it all better.

In his effort to “help” people who struggle, he minimized and showed a painful lack of understanding of the difference between “the blues” and depression.

Oddly enough, if I dig through what he was “trying” to say versus the way he said it, there are several points that make sense and can be helpful at some point of recovery.

1. “Depression is just one phase of a natural biorhythm and thus both transient and needed…”

I’m pretty sure he meant to say “the blues” or just regular old sadness and not depression. Feeling “bummed out,” feeling grief after the end of a relationship or not getting a job you were vying for? Yeah, sadness is a part of life we all have to deal with. This “normal, needed cyclical biorhythm” is not depression.

2. “How you label determines how you feel.”

Semantics? So instead of calling it depression, let’s call it Unicorn Glitter Farts!
OK, OK, saying that might actually make you feel better, so point Ferriss.

And yes, I agree people can get stuck or use their depression as an excuse to not move forward. They can get comfortable in others taking care of them and not find the motivation to begin the climb to get out of the hole (even if that climb means going to bed for a day or two until the worst of the storm passes).

But if you’re in the depths of depression, you can’t see there’s a way out, you can’t see tomorrow and each minute that passes feels like an hour. The thought it will never end is debilitating. Yeah, at that point, I couldn’t give an eighth of a poo what you call it; it’s an incredibly miserable way to live.

3. Gratitude training.

(To be fair, he did say this could be helpful for pre- or mid-depression.)

Again, I agree it can be helpful; however, if a person isn’t even aware their negative thoughts affect the way they feel, I doubt this where to start. And considering the blog post was about suicide, it’s beyond minimizing to say, “Hey! Thinking about killing yourself? Try gratitude instead!”

How about we start with whatever it takes to keep that person alive, and not telling them all they have to do is “think positive” and be grateful?

The last thing someone who is struggling to stay alive needs is a lecture about things they’ve most likely already tried, and most likely already failed at.

People who are struggling need compassion; they need to know (hopefully by someone who’s lived it and come out the other side) that recovery is possible. Slowly, gently and without this Stewart Smalley, “gosh-darn-it-I-like-me” positive psychology nonsense.

Look, there’s room for all of Ferriss’ ideas, but he’s not talking about major depression. And people with mild depression tend not to attempt suicide. So let’s try to leave the judgment at the door. Let’s have some compassion and stop pathologizing normal human emotion into an illness.

Tim Ferriss and people with highly regarded platforms such as his need to be more responsible with their words because of their reach. Do I personally think depression might be over-diagnosed? Yes. But what about people who are correctly diagnosed? Telling someone who’s contemplating ending their life that:

1. What they’re experiencing is “normal” and will just go away, therefore they don’t need to seek help.

2. Telling them they need to call it something else, and when you do, you’ll stop wanting to harm yourself.


3. Telling them to be grateful and their pain will vanish…

… is irresponsible, cruel and dangerous.

All these things will do is make people feel, “if only they were stronger, if only they tried harder, if only they bought that new gratitude journal on Amazon,” they would be better. They might feel more shame, less worth, and worse yet, they may not seek treatment for their symptoms, thinking they can just white knuckle their way through an episode.

People with depression need to be able to talk about it. There needs to be more conversation about the difference between the normal peaks and valleys of emotions and a full-blown debilitating disorder. We need to stop blowing people off by telling them to just “think positive” and listen, give them a hug and let them know they’re safe with you.

No more judgment. No more stigma. More conversation. More compassion.

 Follow this journey on Oh My Anxiety

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Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

Originally published: September 8, 2017
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