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When You Do Everything ‘Right’ but You’re Still Depressed

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“Go outside!”

“Eat better!”

“Wake up earlier!”

Many of us with depression have heard this sort of well-meaning, but unsolicited advice before. Though there’s less of a stigma around it now more than ever before, someone who has never experienced that soul-crushing emptiness probably can’t quite imagine what it’s like. It’s not something that’s easily cured by taking a walk.

However, there is some merit to that advice. Research has shown moderate walking can help ease depression symptoms by releasing endorphins. Recent studies indicate those who wake up earlier are at a lower risk for depression, and those who ate a diet with more fruits, vegetables and fish also show a decreased risk.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, many of us took stock of our lives and set out to better them while we had all this sudden free time. Having struggled with depression myself for most of life, I decided to be one of them. There’s a cliché about people reinventing themselves during the summer (the “hot girl summer”), but I’d be the one to reinvent myself during the pandemic.

At first, it seemed to work. I started taking my dog on longer walks, I planned better meals instead of eating whatever was lying around, and I tried to go to bed earlier. I opened my blackout curtains and let the sun in. When I saw people during my walks, I’d make an effort to say hi (while keeping my distance, of course). I tried to spend less time mindlessly scrolling through the internet and instead taught myself embroidery and cross-stitch. I splurged on some nice fabric and made some stuffed animals. I tried to make each day a little different, so I didn’t simply slog through it.

For a while, things were great. I looked forward to waking up and having my smoothie. Taking the dog on the walk was an adventure. I finished tons of cross-stitch projects and sold a couple of those stuffed animals for extra cash.

But after two months or so, I realized something:

I was still tired. So tired.

And numb. Ridiculously numb.

I couldn’t understand it. I was doing everything “right,” and while I didn’t expect my life to do a 180, I thought something would’ve been different. Maybe I’d feel lighter or better about my life.

Yet, I still felt as empty as I always did.

Why then, I wondered, should I bother putting in this effort when I still feel like this?

It usually takes a lot more energy for someone who’s depressed to go through the motions than it would for someone who’s not. A lot of us spend so much time putting up a front to show we’re OK (because we want to seem “normal” or convince people we’re fine), there’s just no room for anything else. That’s why many people with depression spend all day in bed or neglect hygiene — it takes an enormous effort to do otherwise.

And when acting “normal” doesn’t take away that emptiness and sadness, there’s little cause to keep doing it. It’s so frustrating to think you’re doing everything “right,” but it does little or nothing to actually help.

I’m still keeping up my hobbies and going outside from time to time, but a lot of my other efforts have fallen by the wayside. I spend most of my time going through the motions.

No matter what I do, depression grips me and I feel exactly the same inside: numb and sad.

Many of us are trying, even if it doesn’t seem like it. And while advice might be well-meaning, many of us have been there before and tried and tried again. Sometimes things are just bigger and need more attention than simply taking a walk can give it.

Instead of telling someone who’s depressed to go outside or take up yoga, ask how they’re doing. Really listen and lend an ear. Get them help if they’re in crisis. Most of the time, this is the very best thing you can do.

In the meantime, please be patient with us. The whole world is struggling right now. Some of us are just struggling a little more.

Getty image by stockfour

Originally published: July 10, 2021
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