I have learnt a great deal about mental health, and it’s stigma, since I began this blogging and advocacy journey. Shamefully, I had many misconceptions before experiencing mental illness myself and I now fight to correct these in others. However, there is one question I remain asking which may well be frowned upon even by my fellow advocates; can you think yourself well?
One of the worst misconceptions about depression and anxiety is that the sufferer ‘brings it on themselves’ and should simply ‘snap out of it’. The theory that we can talk ourselves out of our depression is a very tricky concept as we don’t want to feed the stigma that mental illness is somehow our fault. But my own recovery teaches me that thinking positivity and learning to drag ourselves out of our illness are in fact really powerful tools that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Let me start off with a few facts:
- Mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer
- Mental illness is just that – an illness
- Depression is not the same as ‘feeling a bit low’
- You can’t help an anxiety sufferer by saying “You don’t have anything to worry about”
- Doctors believe that many cases of depression are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain and require medication to cure
Despite this, I honestly believe that a change of attitude and thought training can help cure anxiety and depression. After all, that’s what therapy is, right? It’s true that during the chronic, early stages of depression medication is often required to get our minds to a place where they are more receptive to a new outlook, and this is likely what happened with me, but recovery is a long process for many and the hard work continues long after the drugs have done all they can do.
My recovery was made up of many different turning points – the moment I asked for help, the moment I finally slept for five full hours, the moment I realised I loved my son etc, but one that always sticks in my mind is the day I realised that I was keeping myself ill. Several weeks into treatment I was getting ready to leave the house (as I couldn’t bear to be home alone with my son) and I could feel the begins of a panic attack. I was in a terrible, self-pitying hell at that minute. I was scared of the anxiety attacks, I was bitter that I wasn’t experiencing motherhood in a normal way and I was angry that I’d been afflicted by mental illness.
I was lying on my bed, crying, feeling at one of my lowest points and struggling to see a way out, when suddenly a thought hit me. I was choosing to feel this way. No, I hadn’t chosen to become ill in the first place, PND wasn’t my fault, however, in that moment I was choosing to feel sorry for myself. I was choosing to lay on my bed and dwell on the fact that I felt so awful, that I had to take tablets now, that I didn’t love my new life.
I suddenly realised I had a really distinct choice. I could continued to ruminate all day on these negative thoughts. Or I could start accepting what was happening, re-engage in the world and try to focus on something else.
I got up, dried my eyes and grabbed the scrawled, dog-eared notebook that had been my closest companion for the past few weeks. I wrote four words:
Don’t dwell, just do.
I got up and said it over and over in the mirror. Don’t dwell, just do. Don’t dwell on this horrible illness and how dreadful you feel, just get outside, get with other people and do something with your day. Anything. Anything but thinking about how horrendous you still feel.
Don’t dwell, just do.
Was I instantly cured? Of course not. I still felt shocking for the coming weeks and months. But I definitely felt a shift in attitude during that moment, and I ended the day feeling better than I did when I started it. Subsequently, I used those words over and over to remind myself that I had the power to make my situation more bearable.
Since that day, and reinforced by many therapy sessions, I’ve come to realise the true power of positive thinking. I used to be a very glass-half-empty kinda gal and thought ‘positive mental attitude’ was nothing but a buzzphrase for hippies. But it’s not. I came to realise that the connection between your thoughts and your emotions is very strong – I figured out that just as my unpleasant emotions lead to awful thoughts, I could use positive thoughts to feel more positive emotions.
Here’s an example. I was struggling with clinical grade anxiety, right? So every morning I would wake up feeling dread in my stomach and with a head full of unwanted intrusive thoughts. I would be thinking “Oh God, another day feeling terrible. How can I carry on like this? This is so unfair.” With lots of practice, I would stop that thought and instead force myself to think “I may feel anxious today but nevermind. Some really good things might happen too and I might start to feel better,” Although I didn’t yet believe the second thought I compared how they both made me feel. The first thought made me feel physically sick, scared and sad. The second thought made me feel lighter and marginally more hopeful. So, I figured I’d keep telling myself the positive thought because at least it made that moment a little more bearable.
We often hear the phrase ‘fake it ’til you make it’ and that’s essentially what I did. I began each day, or each minute, forcing my brain to think a positive thought, despite the cynic inside me thinking it was rubbish, until I realised I’d spent a whole day feeling better, and then a whole week, and then a whole month. So actually, this positive thinking idea is now real not fake.
This strategy has proved to be useful in the rest of my life, outside of depression and anxiety. Many of you know I had a miscarriage earlier this year. If I’d experienced that before PND I would have dwelled on the negative for much, much longer. But because I now have the skills to use my thoughts to change how I feel I’ve been able to feel more positive more quickly than I would have otherwise. Believe me, I’m not saying I’m not sad, bitter, angry and scared about it – I am, very much. But I now have the tools to try to counter those emotions with hope and gratitude. With a lot of practice.
So can positivity cure depression? No, not alone. Recovery from anxiety and depression requires many factors from medication & therapy to support & selfcare. But changing your mental attitude can play a huge part in facing your fears or pulling yourself out of the depths. Perhaps a different question is more useful; can negativity prolong and worsen depression? In my opinion, 100% yes.