Depression is when you start waking up feeling tired for no apparent reason and having little motivation or drive to do anything, to the degree that most things start to appear more overwhelming than usual. It can be described as running on a flat battery, everything becoming overwhelming, a strong desire to do nothing. The cycle of depression is really just a set of patterns that can become established once your energy and motivation levels begin to drop which can perpetuate the tiredness and lack of motivation. Regardless of what originally caused those two core symptoms, the impact on the persons life and how the cycle works is the same. The cycle of depression works like this;
- People start to struggle with little tasks and end up doing less. This can cause them to think of themselves as weak or lazy, which can undermine their self-esteem
- In addition, it might indirectly contribute to social withdrawal; when people end up doing very little, they may be embarrassed about it, which in turn might be a psychological barrier to meeting social needs, thus leading or exacerbating social isolation
- The above will also contribute to a low mood. When people’s mood begins to drop it can cause their comfort zones to shrink and can lead people to expect the worst, and can amplify fears. This can be a factor leading to social withdrawal
- When people start doing less and less, they become de-habituated; the less they do, the less they want to do, this can keep the low motivation going
- They may start to find taking steps to improve their situation feels like too much effort and thus can end up in a stagnant situation
- Over time, this can undermine your belief in your ability to affect change; it can result in a sense of reduced self-efficacy and learned helplessness, which can lead to a sense of feeling trapped. This sense of feeling trapped is distressing and contributes to the fatigue and low motivation
What a depression actually is..
Regardless of whether depression is precipitated by negative life situations or other things, the two common features are these symptoms and the impact they have on one’s life. In summary;
- An unhappy situation in which the individual feels trapped
- The motivation and energy start to drop
- Life begins to contract, the individual ends up doing less and less
- This undermines the self-esteem and self-efficacy, and can end-up making the person believe that they cannot affect change to move on from the original unhappy situation, this in turn can be distressing
- The result, further unhappiness and needs not being met
It’s actually very simple really. In any depression, there are primary factors (factors that caused and contributed to the energy and motivation dropping in the first place) and secondary factors, (problems caused by reduced energy and motivation).
1. It causes your life to contract
When motivation and energy start to disappear, people generally withdraw from their lives. You may lose interest in socializing, hobbies and everything else. You may run out of steam. Everything that gives life meaning, you either lose the energy to do, or the drive to. It is this withdrawal and disengagement from life that is one of the key self-perpetuating factors since this leads to other things. It can become a source of thoughts such as ‘I can’t do anything’, ‘I’ve got nothing going for me’ etc.
2. It can add to the sense of feeling trapped
Since a lot of depression arises from a situation where one feels stuck in an unhappy place, the worry of never moving on being likely to be one of the main reasons why it started, the disabling effects of depression can add to that. The worst symptoms; the tiredness, lethargy and low motivation can feel totally disabling and paralyzing, making any course of action that might change life for the better seem impossible and out of reach, thus leading to a bigger sense of being trapped. The exhaustion can undermine your belief in your power to affect change. This is one of the things that needs building-up.
3. It can destroy your self-esteem
Once the tiredness and lethargy starts to tighten it’s grip, it can not only make everything feel like an effort, and cause you to withdraw from the things that give life meaning, it can also make you feel like you’re useless. Once this happens, it might cause you to compare yourself with others and narrate the situation as you being a lazy, weak, waste of space in comparison to others. It can make you feel like a failure.
It can also contribute to a belief that one is incapable, hasn’t got anything to offer, that you’d be no good as a friend or lover, that everyone’s better than you, that you’re good at nothing etc. which can be one factor causing a depressed person to hide away. It’s important to learn to reflect on the impact depression has on your life and your behavior in a kind and compassionate manner. It’s not that you’re a useless waste of space, you’re exhausted from feeling trapped in an unhappy situation.
It should be mentioned also, that the embarrassment of behaving been ‘lazy’, or of not having done much with your time can be another reason that drives people to withdraw socially when they become depressed.
4. The fight-flight mechanism becomes more responsive
When you’re tired, the entire fight-flight mechanism becomes beefed-up and responsive. Just like the ‘gain’ on a microphone or guitar amplifier. This means for example, that you’re much more likely to reflect and narrate things far worse than they really are, to give more attention to things that support negative ideas about yourself (e.g. ideas about yourself being unlikeable), or to reflect on how your life is going in much more catastrophic ways than you would if your mind was properly rested. This means your mind is a lot more prone to emotional arousal, contributing to exhaustion and low motivation.
What’s more, you’re also more likely to over-estimate the risk involved in social situations, which can be a factor driving people to withdraw socially, if such fears are present. It can amplify existing social fears to the point where they appear seemingly insurmountable, thus contributing to a sense of feeling trapped and helpless. When depression sets-in, your comfort zone shrinks too. What was once do-able with a minor bit of courage becomes too scary.
One of the reasons exercise is recommended as a remedy for depression is that it can help to tone-down the fight-flight mechanism. Re-engaging with others and reducing isolation can help too, since loneliness also amplifies the threat mechanism.
Breaking the cycle
There’s a number of things you can do to minimize the impact it has on you
- Figure out what needs are not being met and what needs to change; it’s highly likely that many of your emotional needs are not met whether it’s your original situation. Take steps to get them met as best you can, even if you’re feeling exhausted
- It’s important that you share how you feel and don’t suffer in silence, that you feel that other people understand your situation. A problem shared is a problem halved. It’s also important that you don’t feel all alone and unsupported. Just be being acknowledged will make you feel better. Bottling things up and feeling all on your own can contribute to the fatigue
- Keep a journal; if sharing isn’t an option at any moment in time, writing down how you feel can make a difference. Like talking it can make you feel like a weight has been removed from your shoulder leaving you feeling less agitated
- Keep as active as you can; try to re-engage with things. It’s important that you have evidence that you’re not weak, lazy, incapable. This is part of the rationale of behavior activation therapy
- Be kind to yourself; even if you’re not keeping as active as you can, you’re not lazy, you’re not weak, you don’t have no potential, you’re simply mentally exhausted and have possibly gotten out of practice with a few things
- Take steps towards any goals; similar to the above, it’s important that you create a sense of movement towards getting out of whatever unhappy situation you’re in. Doing little steps will start to build up a sense of self-efficacy and start to build the belief that you can make the changes you want, which will help you to feel a sense of hope and to feel less trapped and agitated, and hopefully will lead to more energy
- Keep engaged socially; if depression has already set in, you might feel it’s too much effort or you might be embarrassed about having been lazy, it’s important you do. Being isolated and lonely will only contribute to tiredness and lack of motivation. I hope by following everything else, you’ll be more willing to do so
- Don’t overlook basic lifestyle factors that might be contributing to fatigue; things such as spending long unbroken periods sat down, lack of exercise, lack of daylight
I hope everything’s clear
Depression is not an illness, it’s a set of patterns that we’re all vulnerable to falling into when we’re in an unhappy life situation. It’s important to differentiate between secondary factors; patterns that resulted from generally withdrawal from life due to tiredness, lack of motivation and everything becoming too overwhelming, and primary factors, such as things that caused the depression in the first place.