There is a Chinese proverb that says:
Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.
In escaping my depression, I had to learn to monitor my thoughts and, as I did, I also learned how much my thoughts colored my speech. If someone asked my opinion on anything when I was just beginning to monitor my thoughts, I realized that my first response was usually critical and negative. My thoughts really did become my words.
Next, I had to learn ways to respond in a positive manner, even when I didn't feel positive. I admit, that wasn't easy, nor was it comfortable, but I reminded myself that depression is a disorder of feelings and had to consciously make myself speak and act positively, no matter how I was feeling.
I know this sounds Pollyanna-like, but your actions really do become your habits. And when you develop positive habits--surprise! You begin to feel less depressed!
And maybe that is the secret. If you begin with negative feelings and let them color your thoughts and actions, is it any wonder you get depressed? When you're depressed, every disappointment or setback seems much larger than it actually is. I compare it to swimming in an ocean of black gel on a moonless night. Paddling as hard as you can doesn't get you anywhere, and you can't stop paddling, or you'll sink.
It's empowering to realize that you can change your life if you're determined to do so, one step at a time, one thought at a time, one word at a time, one action at a time.
Many people are put off by the very word, "therapy." The idea of confiding in a stranger is difficult to accept. They reason that if there are pills for depression, why not take them instead of investing money and time in therapy. Yet others will say they've tried therapy and found it unhelpful.
I guess I was desperate, because even after visiting several therapists and taking antidepressants without getting better, I kept trying to find someone who could help me. Ultimately I was successful, and therapy--good therapy--changed my life because it taught me how to change my thinking.
Among the many things I learned was that our brains develop habits. The more you think a certain way, the harder it is to think differently, and as I mentioned in a previous piece, your thoughts affect your feelings, and depression is a malady of feelings.
Just as walking through the grass by the same route every day makes a path, a thought creates a pathway in your brain. The more you think the same thoughts, the easier it is to follow that path, and the harder it is to deviate from it. If you think negative thoughts over a period of time, it becomes more and more difficult to think positive ones. The world begins to look like a dark and threatening place, and when people tell you to "cheer up" or snap out of it,"
they may as well be telling you to walk on water.
One of the most important things I learned in therapy was to monitor my thoughts, so I could become aware of my negativity and work against it. Even now, because I spent so many years thinking depressive thoughts, I still occasionally slip back into old patterns. Just this weekend, I did it again. My husband was watching the Masters golf tournament. I came into the room and watched for a couple of minutes when I found myself thinking, "Isn't that silly? A grown man hits a ball with a stick and then walks after it in order to hit it again and again until he finally sinks it into a little hole in the ground. Then he takes the ball out and does it all over again. What a waste of time! And people pay to watch them do this? How foolish!"
Yes, I actually did think these thoughts. A person in a negative state of mind cannot comprehend play or fun. Fortunately, because I have learned to monitor my thoughts, I quickly realized what was happening and told myself that a certain amount of play is healthy, even if I couldn't see that right now. I recognized that I was feeling negative at the moment, and my perceptions and feelings were skewed. Back when I was in deep depression, I would have continued these negative thoughts, convincing myself that everyone else was wrong or foolish, and only I saw things as they really were.
Now I'm able to recognize the beginnings of depressive thinking and steer myself away from old habits. I know that the feelings I'm having at the moment are connected to my thoughts, and I actively change my thinking. It takes time and a lot of practice, but it's great to understand what's going on and to know that you can control your negative feelings.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.