How to understand and overcome depression

Depression is one of the most common forms of mental illness – maybe you have been depressed or know someone who has – and can be mild, moderate or severe. It is associated with various symptoms, such as negative thoughts, emptiness, irritability, and suicidal thoughts and actions in extreme cases. While there are different types of depression, the most common form is ‘reactive depression’ *, where someone experiences depression due to adverse and challenging life events such as divorce or redundancy. In this blog, I offer six different perspectives on reactive depression so you can better understand and overcome it.

* for a list of all types, see this excellent MIND guide

Depression and our conversations

The first perspective is to think of depression as a reflection of our conversations, those we have with ourselves (self-talk) and those we have with others. Conversations can be a direct cause of depression, such as those that are abusive, critical or negative in some way, or an indirect cause, such as when they fail to help us deal with our difficulties. All conversations that play a role in depression are missing important qualities and characteristics such as respect, a lack of judgement, unconditional support and helpful solutions. Overcoming depression means identifying what is missing and finding conversations that can provide it.

Activity: identify what is missing from your existing conversations using my Conversation With Impact Questionnaires set out in the boxes below. Both Questionnaires work in exactly the same way. Choose a number between 1 and 7 that reflects the degree to which a conversation possesses each quality or characteristic. When scoring your conversations, consider the importance of each quality or characteristic to you. If one is not important to you i.e. it makes no difference one way or the other, just give it a 7. For those that are important to you, score it appropriately.

Questionnaire for your conversations with others

Complete a questionnaire for every individual conversation you feel is important to you and what you are going through.

  • I trust the person
  • I feel respected by them
  • They do not judge me and accept me for who I am
  • The conversation follows my agenda, not theirs’
  • They give me the time that I need
  • They respect my need for confidentiality
  • I can say what I really want to them
  • They understand me and what I need from them
  • They have the ideas, skills and knowledge I need
  • I am not too close to them
  • They believe in me and my potential for change
  • I feel challenged by them in a good way
  • I feel they genuinely listen to me
  • They are truly interested in me
  • They help me to make sense of my situation
  • They help me set clear, realistic goals and strategies
  • They help me find solutions
  • My conversations with them make a difference
  • They have the X-Factor

Questionnaire for your conversations with yourself

Complete this Questionnaire to capture how you talk to yourself.

  • I trust myself
  • I respect myself
  • I do not judge myself and accept me for who I am
  • My self-talk follows my agenda, not others’
  • I give myself the time I need
  • I respect my confidentiality and do not overshare
  • I can say what I really want to myself
  • I understand myself and what I need from me
  • I have the ideas, skills and knowledge I need
  • I can look at myself objectively
  • I believe in myself and my potential for change
  • I challenge myself in a good way
  • I genuinely listen to myself
  • I am truly interested in myself
  • I can make sense of my situation
  • I set clear, realistic goals and strategies for myself
  • I can find solutions by myself
  • My conversations and self-talk make a positive difference
  • I have the X-Factor

What did you discover? There are no right or wrong combinations, which means there are no right or wrong scores. However, in my experience: 

  • Conversations with mostly low scores (3 or below) tend to make things worse
  • Conversations with mostly medium scores (4 or 5) tend to result in little or no change
  • Conversations with mostly high scores (6 or 7) tend to result in positive change

Looking at your scores, what do they say about your current conversations and do they explain your depression? Think about how these conversations can change so they give more of what you need – or whether you need someone new to talk to.

Making sense of depression

When it comes to ‘making sense’ of why things are as they are in our lives, emotions are a great guide. I have always subscribed to the idea that emotions are messages, a form of communication containing vital information to help us thrive and survive. So the second perspective on depression is to think of it as a message indicating our ability to thrive and survive is being threatened or hampered in some way. This idea is of profound importance because it means we do not experience depression for no reason. While this might seem an obvious point, many people exist in a state of mystery about their depression.

There are two parts to the emotional message contained within our depression. The first is about the causes of depression; the second is about its resolution. For the causes, we can look to the main areas of our lives, which are listed below. Once we know these, we are in a position to find resolutions.

Activity: looking at the list below, choose a number between 0 and 10 that indicates whether an area is positive or negative for you. Any number scored seven or above is likely to cause depression, especially if it has been problematic for some time. Then, for any problematic areas, consider some possible resolutions.

  • Yourself – identity, role and status
  • Home and family life
  • Relationships
  • Work, career, professional situation
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Financial
  • Lifestyle
  • Social and cultural
  • Environment

What did you discover about causes? If you know or think you are depressed, did the activity confirm what you already knew or reveal something you didn’t know? Thinking about your support network, can it help you find the resolutions to your depression or do you need to look elsewhere?

Patterns – thinking, behaving, feeling and relating

Human beings are a thinking, behaving, feeling and relating (to people, places and objects) species. So the third perspective on depression is to think of it in terms of these four areas: when they are not functioning well, they can either be the cause of someone’s depression or, if not the cause, then a factor in sustaining it. Examples include:

  • Negative thinking: ‘I am useless’ or ‘I will always be a failure.’
  • Negative behaviour: overeating or other unhealthy lifestyles
  • Negative feeling: focusing on emotions such as guilt or regret
  • Negative relating: becoming involved in unhealthy relationships or avoiding certain situations

One effective way to overcome the depression resulting from negative patterns is to build a detailed picture of them. Once we have one, it can be easier to identify the positive patterns that can lift and resolve depression.

Activity: answer the questions below to build up a detailed picture of your negative patterns.

  • When, where and with whom were you when your depression started?
  • What stressors or changes were occurring in your life around the start of your depression?
  • How often does your depression occur, and how long does it last?
  • What significant persons are present or absent when your depression occurs?
  • Where does your depression occur?
  • What are the steps involved in the generation of your depression? Put another way, can you identify the stages where you go from not being it to being it?
  • When does your depression NOT occur?
  • What do you think other people know about your depression, e.g. friends, family or colleagues?
  • What are your beliefs about your depression? For example, I can never change it? It’s my fault that I have it?

What did you discover? Could your depression be caused or explained by negative patterns of thought, behaviour, feeling and relating?

Acceptance

The fourth perspective on depression has to do with acceptance. Sometimes, when we struggle with an aspect of who we are, when we fail to accept our value and worth fully, we open up what I call a negative ‘Fantasy-Reality Gap’ (FRG) as a coping mechanism. Creating a ‘fantasy’ self can be highly seductive as it allows us to escape who we are and the difficulties that accompany a negative self-image or identity. Few people do not choose this form of escape at some time or another. A negative FRG breaks down into the following:

  • who I am, is not who I think I am
  • who I am, is not who I think I should be
  • who I want to be, is not who I can be

There can be several reasons why we open up negative FRGs. The most common are low self-esteem, trauma or when a family creates a fantasy child rather than accept them for who they are. Whatever their origin, negative FRGs result in depression and the bigger the FRG, the more severe the depression. Negative FRGs hinder our ability to thrive and survive in life, and when this happens, as we saw above in Meaning, we receive a message in the form of depression. The way to overcome depression caused by negative FRGs is to replace them with positive FRGS. A positive FRG breaks down into the following:

  • who I am, is who I think I am
  • who I am, is who I want to be
  • who I want to be, is who I can be

Activity: reflect on the two sets of FRG statements. Which do you feel apply to you? Could my FRG idea explain your current emotional state?

The challenge of depression

Most people have heard of the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears and how Goldilocks eats the porridge belonging to Baby Bear because it is not too cold, not too hot, but just right. Well, my fifth perspective on depression borrows from this famous tale, and that is when depression results from too little or too much challenge in life. Too little challenge, if left for too long, can result in a meaningless existence devoid of any purpose. Too much challenge can lead to burnout when life demands more of us than we can deliver. The answer to lifting depression connected to challenge is the Goldilocks Principle: not too little challenge, not too much, but just right.

Activity: looking at the areas below and using a 0 and 10 scale, choose a number that reflects the level of challenge they present for you. 0=too little, 5=just right and 10= too much.

  • Yourself – identity, role and status
  • Home and family life
  • Relationships
  • Work, career, professional situation
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Financial
  • Lifestyle
  • Social and cultural
  • Environment

What did you discover? Is the balance of challenge right in your life, or do you need to find either more or less of it?

Personal and Professional Transformation

My sixth and final perspective on depression sees it as connected to our personal and professional transformation and whether it is on track or not. We all harbour hopes that our lives will transform positively in the areas listed in Meaning and Challenge. However, life is rarely that straightforward. Fairly or unfairly, as human beings, we are transforming whether we like it or not, otherwise known as the ageing process. If we are not in control of this transformative process, our lives can be put on hold or set back if we can’t confidently influence it. Periods of adversity can undermine our positive transformation, and when it does so in profound ways, we can experience depression. To overcome depression related to our personal and professional transformation, we need to identify the areas of our lives affected.

Activity: looking back over the areas listed in Meaning and Challenge and using a 0-10 scale, choose a number that reflects the degree to which your transformation in these areas is on track or not. Any number 3 or below suggests this area will be causing you significant concerns and possibly depression.

Getting support

If you would like any further information on or support for depression, either for yourself or for someone you know, then I’d love to hear from you. My IMPACT Model and IMPACT Transformation Programmes have enabled many people to overcome their depression and flourish in life.