In my work as a doctor, depression is one of the most common conditions I see, day in and day out. There is no doubt a difference in people who are merely feeling ‘unhappy’ and those who are severely depressed and anxious. However the more experience I get in this area, the more it makes me wonder about the separation of the two.
We seem to think that being ‘unhappy’ is merely having a bad day or week, while having ‘depression’ is having an actual diagnosis or disease. What if the two are not so different?
Perhaps it is more of a continuum than we originally thought in medicine. If this is the case then there is so much more we can do to prevent depression before it starts to really significantly affect our lives. In our very productive and busy lives, we seem to address depression and anxiety when the symptoms are severe enough to be given a ‘diagnosis’ and be treated with some sort of therapy, whether it be pharmaceutical, lifestyle or both. While there are times that medication can be useful, and therapy of the right kind can almost always be helpful, I wonder if we were to address the ‘unhappy’ days or weeks when they come, if we could avoid much of the ‘full blown’ depression that we see walk through our doors every day as doctors.
It doesn’t have to be complicated and there are plenty of things we can do. However today I want to start with three things we can each incorporate in our lives every single day and week. I believe this will go an extraordinary way to combating bad days, which lead to bad weeks, which can lead to unhappiness that can lead into that dark pit of depression.
A little over two years ago I was studying hard for exams, working in a job I wasn’t enjoying. I left little time for connection and thought myself too busy to invest in relationships. Moreover, I had a tough wall of self-preservation up around my heart, and although I would deny it, I would not truly let anyone close enough to see the real me. Little by little, while surrounded by people, this lack of authentic connection left me more and more unhappy with each passing year.
Despite my super busy, productive life, I was complete unaware that my unhappiness had a lot to do with the fact that I was deeply lonely.
Learning how important relationships are, as well as the importance of vulnerability and trust, has been integral to me prioritising connection and building friendships which are deep, nourishing and restorative. It has been truly life changing for me. This isn’t always easy because connection takes vulnerability. And vulnerability for someone like me, who likes to have everything under control and appear successful and happy is hard and humbling. In fact, I hate appearing vulnerable. Learning the importance of being vulnerable in order to connect and how foundational it is to building authentic connection has been life saving for me.
Brene Brown is a leader in this field. Have you heard of her? I love this Ted Talk on Connection.
I am convinced that true connection, which is only possible through vulnerability, is an antidote to unhappiness. Making this change over the past few years has literally been a life saver for me.
We live in a world where we are obsessed with self-care and ‘taking care of us’, all of which I am also a huge advocate. However, what is even more rewarding and enriching is ‘others care.’ The times that I feel the deepest joy, and the most rejuvenated and energised is not when I am getting a massage or taking time for myself, but rather when I go out of my way to do something for someone else.
Johann Hari wrote a book called ‘Lost Connections’ after suffering with depression for decades and decades of his life. He interviewed dozens of social scientists around the world who had studied various aspects of depression and unhappiness.
He found doing something for others, living for something greater than one’s self is something that is so integral to our happiness.
He writes that now when he feels depressed, instead of doing something for himself like buying a shirt or renting a favourite movie, he tries to do something for someone else. He always feels better for it.
We can all start small. Buying someone a card and writing a thoughtful note. Meeting and greeting your neighbours with a cake. Babysitting for your friends so they can go on a date. Often it is the small things that mean the most, and it brings us outside of ourselves and reminds us that there is a world beyond our own to live for.
I have learned when feeling unhappy, instead of retreating into my own world and self-caring, I go out of my way to do something for someone else whether big or small. I find it to be a powerful way to regain perspective and so much more lifegiving than ‘self-caring.’
There is something about exercise and the outdoors that is a powerful antidote to feeling unhappy. When feeling unhappy, even getting out of bed can feel like too much. Let alone putting on your joggers and gym bra and working out! However, I have seen first hand and the research backs this up, regular exercise is as effective as medication for relieving depression symptoms.
Beloveds, I know you are busy, but this is important to your physical and mental health. Aim for 20 minutes a day. Just put on your joggers and get out in the warm sun. Tell yourself you will go for 20 minutes and if you go for longer, bonus! Research shows even a ten-minute walk can improve your mood for two hours.
One of my favourite things to do with friends or my husband is to go for a big walk together. We use it as our time to connect and catch up. If I go on my own I catch up on my audio books, podcasts, or use it as my time to self-reflect, meditate and pray.
Even John Howard while he was PM, had time to walk for an hour every single morning. Each of us can carve out the time if we prioritise it.
There you have it beloved.
Three things to think about to combat unhappiness and prevent depression.
Let’s be proactive about our mental health and go out of our way to reign in life in every area.
You are deeply loved and richly cherished.
Dr Christine Greenwood
Reign in life
P.S If you are feeling severely depressed or anxious, I encourage you to reach out to a friend. It may be that you may benefit from seeking further medical attention from your Doctor or psychologist. Beyond blue have some great resources.