f What makes a person susceptible to depression? Some say genetics, some say experiences. Whatever the cause, a depressed person lives with a sad, negative outlook on life that tends to feed on itself and become a firmly entrenched belief that life is just a series of unhappy experiences, and what you believe influences how you see things.
I know a woman who invested her children's college funds in penny stocks because someone promised her a 20 per cent profit. Of course, she lost it all, but she shrugged the loss off, saying, "It was just bad luck." No matter how anyone tried to convince her that it was a poor decision that resulted in the loss, she continued to believe that everything that happened in her life was simply a matter of luck, and--funny thing--she always seemed to have bad luck! Because of her belief, she never took responsibility for her actions and continued to make poor decisions, which proved to her that she did indeed have a lot of bad luck!
Some people go through life believing that a parent never loved them. Without questioning that belief, they may go through life miserable, thinking they are unlovable or wondering what they did wrong to alienate the parent. Sometimes, in a desperate search to find someone to love them, they make hasty and poor choices and end up even more miserable.
In fact, many parents truly love their children but have never learned to be openly affectionate, often because their parents weren't demonstrative. Other parents have been taught that praising a child will spoil them, so they criticize the child's efforts, believing that they are teaching the child to do things better, not realizing that they are discouraging their offspring. Even if the parent really doesn't love the child, it doesn't mean the child is unlovable. It means the parent is deficient!
If you're depressed, it's important to examine your beliefs. Are you making unwarranted assumptions? Are you assuming that what's wrong is all about you? Can there be another explanation for what's happening? Take responsibility for your actions, but never assume it's all about you!
I once had a woman in a writing class I was teaching. She wrote a nice short story, and when I complimented her on it, she was near tears. She explained that she always wanted to write, but years earlier she had taken a writing class, and her teacher had mercilessly criticized her work. She was so discouraged that until now she had never tried to write again. All those years were lost because she believed that one teacher was infallible!
As a teacher myself, I believe that the first thing a good teacher does is to tell the students what they've done right, then show them how to make their work better. I also know that when I'm tired or in a bad mood, my judgment isn't what it should be. Maybe that woman's teacher was tired or in a bad mood or just wasn't a good teacher.
The next time you find yourself thinking negatively, ask yourself whether you know or simply believe what you're thinking. If you don't know for certain, ask yourself if your belief could be wrong.
I've talked about thoughts and emotions, how they affect each other, and their roles in depression. Today I want to talk about how moods add to the mix. The difference between an emotion and a mood is the length of time they last. An emotion is generally brief and is a reaction to an event or a conscious experience. You can have a great number of different emotions during a day, and you're generally aware of what brought them on. Moods, on the other hand, can be caused both by ongoing events and by unconscious triggers.
Imagine waking up and discovering it's raining heavily. You have to drive to work and you know that traffic will be slower than usual. You'll probably be late for an important meeting. You may feel frustrated, helpless or annoyed. Then your mother calls and informs you that her doctor is recommending exploratory surgery. Now you may feel frightened, anxious or worried. These are all negative emotions and may leave you in a pessimistic or anxious mood. When and if things take a turn for the better, your mood will lighten.
Why do we need to think about moods when we're dealing with depression? If we're already monitoring our thoughts and emotions, isn't that enough? Not really, because moods not only affect our thoughts--making them more negative--but they can make our emotional responses more intense. If your mother's surgery is a few days off, and you spend them in an anxious mood, you're more likely to snap at others and overreact to daily annoyances. You may be distracted and make mistakes that you'd ordinarily never make, adding to your anxiety. On the other hand, if you're consciously aware of your anxiety, you can modify your behavior. You can pause before reacting to the everyday annoyances and take your time to make sure you're doing things correctly. You can also take steps to modify your mood. Your worry about your mother may be alleviated by getting more information about her condition, what the surgery is looking for and what can be done should they find a serious problem. Meditation or even sharing your fears with a good friend can help enormously.
Here's the kicker. We often don't know what causes our moods, for the triggers are often unconscious. I may be aware that I've been feeling sad all day, but have no idea why. Perhaps a song on the radio that morning--a song I wasn't paying conscious attention to--triggered memories of a romance that ended badly. But even if I don't know what caused my feeling of sadness, I can do something about it. Knowing that there is no immediate reason for that emotion, I can take positive steps to change it for the better. Remembering a pleasant experience or a joke I heard recently, thinking of a good friend or a beloved pet, doing something I enjoy--all are quick and easy ways to defuse the negative emotion and prevent it from becoming a mood that unnecessarily darkens your day.
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.