“Just Do It” Doesn’t Work When You’re Depressed
No, New York Times, you can't self-discipline yourself out of depression
Dear readers: are you ready for peak “draw the rest of the owl”? The well-intentioned Brad Stulberg, a performance coach and author, has recently written some pieces on “Behavioral Activation,” a premise revolving around the idea that motivation and energy follow action. Don’t wait until you feel like doing something, he says—just do it. The old adage “Move a muscle, change a thought” is one of the hallmarks of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and recovery.1 As he writes:
The extreme example of clinical depression is useful. For many people, it manifests as a feeling of nothing mattering, an intense apathy, a fatigue so bad it is painful. But depression hates a moving target. The best way out is to force yourself to get going, even, and perhaps especially, when you don’t want to.
Got that? If you’re depressed and can’t do anything, simply force yourself to do something.
Thanks! I’m cured 😃
I’m currently coming out of a depressive episode and write about behavioral science, meaning that all of this hit home for me. Here’s a time lapse photo of the past month or so:
Self-discipline takes you to the hard places. It offers the firm persistence to keep going. Self-compassion is what gives you the courage when you are at the gate, and what helps you get up when you are down. And then, self-discipline gets you moving forward again.
Counterpoint: No matter how much self-discipline you have, simply “forcing yourself to get going” is quite literally the one thing you cannot do when you’re depressed.
Saying “just do something!” to a depressed person is as helpful as “sit down and do your work!” to someone with ADHD, or “stop thinking about that thing!” to someone with OCD. It’s “stop worrying!” to someone suffering from anxiety. “Just get a higher paying job, poor people!”
It’s a great slogan for a coach to share with clients. But for those suffering from actual clinical depression, it’s overly simplistic and, in my opinion, destructive. I say this because over the past month (ever since the dog bite episode), I’ve been stuck in a downward spiral of feeling bad about myself because I haven’t been able to get moving: I’d try, fail to do something that was once so easy, and feel even worse about myself, making it increasingly harder to try again.
Click the buttons, do the thing:
Depression for Non-depressed Weirdos
Depressed people are in the middle of a hellacious Marie Kondo-like event, but instead of gathering and obsessing over the entire contents of our closets, we’ve collected every regret, mistake, poor life choice, flaw, negative self-belief, hangup about the world—and made these the center of our universe. This complex network of maladaptive patterns leaves you “stuck in a rut” of inactivity and hopelessness.
Negative aspects of the environment automatically capture your attention—like magic—and, some how, have an uncanny way of circling back to your failings as a human being. An editor didn’t get back to me after I pitched an article? It’s really time I stop trying to pretend that I’m a writer. I can’t think of another publication that would even consider publishing it. And who do I know at the publication anyways? No one.2
My bathroom rug is dirty? Why on earth did I pick white, it always looks dirty. I’ve bought so many things that I shouldn’t have—I’ve probably wasted tens of thousands of dollars on crap. God, I’m so financially illiterate and broke. But holy shit, what am I going to do with my life since that editor didn’t get back to me?
A depressed brain can magically conjure an endless list of negative thoughts out of any idea. The moment I considered joining a gym—trying so hard to do the thing—was immediately followed by my brain listing every potential downfall and worst case scenario: membership dues, driving, traffic, should I take Daisy to day care or leave her at home, I’d like to socialize her more but that’s a whole other thing and more money, gas is so expensive, what if it takes forever to find parking, this is going to disrupt my work day, more laundry to do, won’t meet people at the gym, may meet boring muscle heads or people who think I’m weird, what if I get injured—and all of this, for what?? Vanity? Can’t I just be happy with my body, as-is?
All of these thoughts are so tightly linked, so real and awful, that you’re exhausted as soon as a thought crosses your mind. (As this paper states: “Episodes of unproductive processing often end in exhaustion, avoidance, numbing, and hopelessness.”) It’s like a game of Chutes and Ladders, with greased chutes awaiting you at every square, rendering you paralyzed at the futility and madness of existence. A depressed brain is a magical black hole where energy goes to die.
Climbing Out of the Black Hole
First, let’s keep in mind that chronic or sudden stressors underlie the onset of mental health episodes:
In some cases depression follows a stressful experience; conversely, the experience of depression is itself stressful. Indeed, depression shares several features with chronic stress, including changes in appetite, sleep, and energy. Major depression and chronic stress may also share biochemical changes, such as persistent activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
An imbalance between situational demands and the available resources to deal with them (i.e., stress) can both trigger and prolong depression. A depressed brain behaves as though it’s allergic to positivity—a bias to the negative and decreased sensitivity to rewards that some researchers call a “positive blockade.” Plus an intensive inward focus. Everything reminds you of your failures and how pointless life is. Physiological changes perpetuate this increased fatigue. Fun.
And, to repeat: you can’t force yourself to do something if you’re running on empty or feel like your actions won’t lead to any meaningful outcome.
To escape this cycle of muck, I’ve been doing the opposite: making life easier on myself, connecting, recoiling from negativity, and flooding my world with positive things.
Instead of hyper-focusing on myself and my failings—or leave my brain unattended for even a goddamn second—I am flooding my life with unmistakably positive things and turning my attention outward.
On repeat: comedy. Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. Smartless. Stupidly silly movies. Reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. David Sedaris. Joyful. In my stomach: ice cream, without guilt. I treated myself to a visit by a new housecleaning service, which was the best money I’ve spent in a very, very long time. I’ve been reconnecting with old friends (and realizing that I’m not the only one in a funk.)
ALL THE WALKS. ALL THE TREATS.
Negative people who just want to vent, or relish in pointing out every flaw in the world? Sorry I can’t talk right now. 12-step meetings with whiners? Nope. News? I know shit is fucked up, thank you very much. My downstairs neighbor who only talks about her divorce/why the price of gas is Biden’s fault/remember how she had to put down her epileptic cat last year? YEAH, THAT’S GREAT JAN, BYE!
I’ve been kinder to myself and removing as much stress as possible, including the self-imposed nonsense of getting angry if I can’t just do the thing, or I do but the thing ends up taking all day. I’m reminding myself that the world can be magical and surprising and beautiful, leading myself out of the black hole with soft, warm love and NOT MOTHERFUCKING SELF-DISCIPLINE, YOU BALD BASTARD.
When I felt particularly empty a few weeks ago, I scribbled this new mantra on my kitchen whiteboard; forcing myself to keep in mind that blank slates and valleys make the best starting points:
EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE
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The Behavioral Activation System, or BAS, played a key role in the chapter on confidence in my first book.
If you’re an editor, give me money and I’ll write for you.