Depression is a heavy blanket that weighs you down and tells you lies. How do we keep moving when we're ensnared in its trap? Author Julie Fast has been dealing with her own depression for decades. She talks to us today about her tried-and-true strategies for taking back the reins from depression so you can live your life.
“I can’t. I don’t want to. What’s the point? I suck at everything. I’m not in the mood.”
These are the lies depression tells us when we’re in its grasp. Depression is not just a mood or a feeling; it’s a brain disease that changes our bodies, our thoughts, and our actions. The self-defeating thoughts it creates are especially strong, and they feel so real that sometimes, we willingly follow them to bed, curl up, and resign to feeling miserable.
Depression is not just a mood or a feeling; it’s a brain disease that changes our bodies, our thoughts, and our actions.
But the magical thing about the brain is that you can actually change its state through your actions.
This is something author Julie Fast has been learning for decades. She is an award winning mental health writer, researcher and educator. She has over 40 years of personal experience with depression and 20 years of working directly with those affected by it. Her latest book is Getting It Done When You’re Depressed, Second Edition (Julie A. Fast and John D. Preston, Psy.D., ABPP). The book offers 50 strategies to break the cycle of inactivity, anxiety and lack of focus that so often accompanies depression.
Today, she talked to me about busting depression myths, using concrete strategies to break through depression, how COVID-19 has affected people with depression, and why you have to create your own hope when you’re depressed. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Dr. Jade Wu:
I just wanted to start by asking you to clarify about depression a little bit, because I think often people think of depression as feeling sad or being pessimistic. And while depression can certainly include those elements, there's a lot more to it than that. Could you speak to how depression affects us in our day-to-day life?
Well, I break depression into three main categories. The one you described—weepy, hopeless, sad depression— that's what people think about when they think of depression. But then we have irritated, agitated, depression, where we have more energy, but we feel mean or we are snappy with the people around us. We kick things. We don't like our lives and we're upset. And then we have what is by far the worst of all, and that's catatonic depression, where you can't move, you can't think, or you think you can't. Within all of those depressions, you have hopelessness and pessimism, but how they present is either weepy/sad, irritated/angry, or immovable catatonia. You can be suicidal in all of those as well, and you can be psychotic and anxious. So it is an incredibly serious illness that I wish we paid more attention to.
That is really fascinating how it can be really different flavors of depression. One thing you mentioned was immovability, or just feeling a lack of ability to do things, to get out of bed. How does this affect our daily functioning and productivity?
Our feelings are very chemical-based. We know this because if people take medications, it changes our feelings, right? It changes how we interact in the world. So we are basically serotonin and dopamine and norepinephrine creatures. We're cortisol creatures. And when depression changes those neurochemicals, it actually affects our physical body, as well.
Depression tells us that we can't move. It is lying to us. It's actually the thought that we can't move that we're dealing with.
And as a person with bipolar disorder, I have both sides, right? So I have the inactivity of depression, or I have the extreme activity of mania. So I know that my chemicals are determining whether I move my body or not. Depression tells us that we can't move. I call it “concrete body.” It tells us that we can't function. We can't unload our dishwasher. We can't play with our pets or our kids. It is lying to us. It's actually the thought that we can't move that we're dealing with.
If you have the thought and then actually try and move your arms, or actually stand up from bed, you can do it. So we have to break that depression barrier that says you can't move, you're inert, you're a piece of concrete, you're worthless. And we have to figure out—how do I break through that and somehow move this body? And when we make even one movement, we go, “Oh, depression’s lying!”
One day I said, 'I'm going to move anyway.' I focus on results, not how I feel when I start. And that is what I think saved my life.
It took me years to figure this out. There were no books on it. This was in the 90s when I was first diagnosed. And I used to just stand on a corner and not even be able to know what direction to move. And one day I said, “I'm going to move anyway.” I focus on results, not how I feel when I start. And that is what I think saved my life. I still deal with it constantly, but at least I know I can move when I'm depressed. Depression lies and tells me I can't.
I think that's so powerful. And in fact, one of the lines from your book that really stood out to me immediately was: “Depression may take over my mind, but it doesn't have to take over my actions.” So that's what you were just speaking to, right? That your mind can think one thing or feel one way, but that doesn't mean you're physically restrained.
I'm a huge football, international soccer fan. And I just love sports. You know, there's a lot of depression in professional athletes, but they managed to move their bodies. I'm not saying their home life isn't affected, but you very rarely see a professional athlete not be able to function with their body, even when their mind might not be doing well.
So I have a strategy called “think like an athlete.” And I remember when I used to have to mow my lawn… “I can't do it. I can't do it.” But then I'm like, “If I were an athlete, I would push this mower and I would just push.” I didn't feel good while I was doing it. I thought it wouldn't work. It won't work. I'm no good… even while I'm actually mowing the lawn. And then when it was done, my depression lifted a little bit.
We have to somehow move our bodies when we're depressed. You know how you'll lie in a ball in bed when you're depressed? That doesn't help anything. It's a symptom.
I also have [a strategy] called “be your own drill sergeant.” We have to somehow move our bodies when we're depressed. You know how you'll lie in a ball in bed when you're depressed? That doesn't help anything. It's a symptom. That's only when we move and move forward can we start breaking the hold depression has on us. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's possible.
Jade: I love that. That is basically a better version of “fake it ‘til you make it!”
I call it “act as if.” In other words, I'm going to act as if I can move and then I can move. Fake it ‘til you make it!
And I think that's really revolutionary in some ways, because often we feel like we have to have motivation, or feel like going out, or feel like calling our friend, or "I just don't feel inspired yet," or "I don't feel in the mood yet." And if we wait for that mood to strike, we might be waiting for a long time. So you're saying, “Just go ahead and do it, even if you don't feel like it.”
Well, one of the first strategies in the book was: “Don't wait until you want to do something to do something.”
We have to take care of our children and our pets and support ourselves. Even if you're on disability, you still have to fill out the paperwork and you have to do what you need to do. We have to brush our teeth and comb our hair and depression will take that from us. The really serious depression.
I have a friend who's never been depressed in her life. And she got depressed during covid. And I remember her talking to me about how immovable she was, this very active person. And I went, “Yeah, I've lived with that.” It shows you even situational depression can do this.
I had to teach myself not to judge my work before I start, because depression will never like it, and also not to focus on how I feel when I start. I have to wait until I'm done, and then I get to have the good feelings. They will never be there when you start when you're depressed. So you can't wait, you just have to act.
And I want to stress: If someone depressed is listening to this, they're going “Oh, that's easy for you.” Oh no, it's not. It's really hard for me. It's just that I don't want to spend my life in bed like I did before I was diagnosed. And so I just had to find a way.
You've struggled with depression for years. Decades, even. How has your relationship with depression changed from the beginning to now?
You know, nobody has ever asked me that question. And I think it's incredibly important because the depression has not changed at all.
My depression is genetic. There's nothing wrong with my life. If you saw my life! My problems are brain illnesses. And so depression has not changed one iota. It talks to me the same. It makes me feel the same. But the difference now is I say “Oh, I know why I'm like this. I know why I'm constantly looking at social media, why I'm depressed, why I'm paranoid, why I'm jealous…”
I used to have two-year depressions. Now I can keep it to a couple of weeks and sometimes even only a day.
And I'm getting excited even talking about this because I had to learn to separate the real me—I call her the stable Julie—from the depressed me and talk to myself. So that's how my relationship with depression has changed. It has no host in my body. It is not allowed in my life and I will fight it ‘til it's gone. I didn't know what it was. So I just stopped everything. Now I use the plan in the book and in all of my books. And that's how my relationship with depression has changed. I'm also not sick as long as I used to be. It's as intense, but it's much shorter. I used to have two-year depressions. Now I can keep it to a couple of weeks and sometimes even only a day.
It sounds like you're much more in the driver's seat instead being led by the nose by your depression. And you did also mentioned covid and situational depression earlier. Of course, there's so much going on right now… and I know everyone calls it "unprecedented times," but it's true. So what have you heard from people about their experience with depression, either new or older returning, during this time?
I have heard from a few people that they've enjoyed their time with covid because they're introverts and they like to stay home and it's fine and they're financially stable, but 99% of people are struggling. They're struggling. And for many, this might be the first time where they wake up in the morning and go “What's the point of getting out of bed? I've got nowhere to go. Why does it matter?” And so for the first time in their lives, they're like, "Who is this? I'm not normally like this. What's going on?" And so they don't even know it's depression. They don't know that most depression has anxiety. They don't know that hopelessness and helplessness and the inability to move can be situational.
And so with this new situational depression that many people are facing for the first time, should we use the same strategies to counter that as for someone who has long-term depression?
It's the same thing because the depression is the same. So there's really two kinds of depression. There’s the kind I have—I was born with it. One day when I was 19, I just literally got depressed and didn't know what it was. It runs in my family, but my family never told me about the depression. They hid it because they didn't know what to do. They had it in the 50s and the 60s and the 70s. And we didn't talk as much.
Anybody who has a brain, no matter what age, can get depressed.
But situational depression is in every person's brain. So anybody who has a brain, no matter what age, can get depressed, and it has to do with cortisol or serotonin, and stress is what causes it. So yes, anybody can experience situational depression. And is it the same depression as genetic depression? Yes. The difference is that when you work on the situation, your depression tends to be a lot better. Whereas with long-term depression, we often don't have a situation. So we're having to work on a much larger scale with a general illness. But the symptoms are the same, yes.
That's a little ray of hope because, whether or not you've had it for a long time or it's coming up for the first time, there are concrete, actionable things we can do about it. I know you've described a couple of strategies already, and you write this in a lot more detail in your book, but could you just share one or two of your favorite strategies that you haven't mentioned yet?
One of the most important ones is “focus outward.”
Depression is insular. You turn in, it's all about yourself. "I am miserable. I'm unhappy, I'm needy, I'm angry, I'm jealous, I'm upset." And we will seek out others who are the same. We will be much meaner or unhappy online because we match how we're feeling. So we'll go to nastier websites. I get really into true crime when I'm depressed really badly. I just seek out the terrible things when I'm feeling terrible. So when you focus outward, it's physical and mental, you put your shoulders back and you say, I'm not going down that rabbit hole of CSI or whatever, or reading gossip. I am going to focus outward. And when you do that, the next step is: I'm going to call someone else and help them and say hi to them, instead of waiting for everyone to call me because I'm miserable and nobody calls me.
So I have to teach myself not to just get in this bubble, and covid has made it so much worse. I make myself pick up the phone, which I don't like to do. And I force myself to comment nicely online. So I never give negative opinions.
Do something that's not just focused on how miserable you are, because that's what depression wants you to do. We have to focus outward.
The book has a lot about social media. I find myself wanting to go, “What are you talking about? You're wrong. That's stupid.” That's depression. I'm not going to do it. And then I also try to do things like flower arranging, photography, art, working on my Instagram account. And it's hard. And I know a lot of people working on cars, building Lego sets, building a model airplane, something with your hands.
So that's one tip that I would give: Doing something that's not just focused on how miserable you are, because that's what depression wants you to do. We have to focus outward.
I like that because it's so visual too. When you describe that, I can really see the curled up inward versus the expanded outward. And I think that's fabulous.
I still forget to use these strategies. That's how strong depression is. So I advise people to give themselves time.
This really takes practice. There's 50 strategies in the book. I still am learning. So I wrote the original version in 2006, but I actually came up with the system in the 90s for myself and my partner of 10 years, who has bipolar disorder. There just weren't any books. There were books on how to manage depression, but not how to make it through life when you were depressed. And I still forget to use these strategies. That's how strong depression is. So I just advise people to give themselves time. And with each one you integrate into your life, you'll get better and better at it.
It seems like you're speaking to self-compassion and having some patience for yourself.
Depression is so mean.
And it's ironic because the meaner you are to yourself, the harder you get stuck in depression, and the harder it is to see any sort of compassion.
And then you lose your love for the people around you, because you think they're out to harm you with that. They don't care that their lives are better. There's lots of jealousy in depression and it's a vicious circle. And so when we stop it in ourselves, we mend our relationships.
We can ask therapists and healthcare professionals and others for help. We don't have to do this alone.
And by the way, we can ask people for help with this. We can ask therapists and healthcare professionals and others for help. We don't have to do this alone.
What do you say to people who feel like depression is a weakness? “I shouldn't be putting this on other people. I'm burdening others.” What do you say to those folks?
Well, those are real thoughts that depression creates. I call that the language of depression. So, we have to write this down. What does depression say to us? “You're ugly. You're fat. You're never going to have a partner.” It'll say that when we have a partner and when we're not fat. Depression somehow knows how to get at your weakest spots. For me, it's my weight. So it talks to me about my weight. For me, it's friends. It talks to me about jealousy for others. It might be their cooking skills or their ability to surf. It really is. That's the part of depression that is different, but the language of depression never changes. And if we recognize it, we can say, “Nope, I'm not giving in to that today.” Journal writing helps a lot. And then just not using that language on others is really important.
And you know what I love about how you described depression and your experience with it? It's that you're not trying to put rose colored glasses on things, and saying, “Oh, actually it's not as bad as I thought” or “I should just think positive,” because those thoughts just don't land. They don't stick. But on the other hand, you also do have optimism and hope. At least, that's what I'm hearing. So what would you say as a final piece of advice to my listeners? What kind of hope can you offer them?
Hope comes. I call it the little pinprick of light. Depression puts you in a tunnel, but there is a little pinprick down there.
Hope is a byproduct. It's not the starting place. Don't expect yourself to be hopeful when you're depressed. One of the symptoms of depression is hopelessness. It would be like expecting yourself to be able to breathe well when you have pneumonia. Or let's say you have an ear infection. And you're like, I really should be hearing a lot better than I am.
So, when you're depressed, expect hopelessness. Hope comes. I call it the little pinprick of light. Depression puts you in a tunnel, but there is a little pinprick down there. And as you use the ideas in this book, or any system you use, you get closer to that light and then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and you get your life back. I've had to do it a million times. Hope comes with action, with being with human beings and pets, with getting things done. That creates hope and then helps you manage depression. Do not expect it first. No, you do it to feel better. And that's the message of the book.
Julie, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us. I'm so happy to have heard your perspective and your own experiences about depression. I bet this will be super helpful to our listeners.
And thanks for your very insightful questions. I appreciate it.