Depression and self-obsessiveness

Tim Ferriss is one of those voices who I’ve paid close attention to in recent years.

It’s well over a decade since his Four-Hour Work Week catapulted him into the minds of millennials everywhere who were intent on finding freedom before retirement age, but his thoughts and work related to the area of mental health, and major depression in particular, is something else entirely and one that may well reveal him to a much larger and much broader audience — at any rate a much more diverse audience — in time.

He has spoken at length about how depression brought him to the brink of suicide in the past, and last year revealed he was part-funding of potentially revolutionary research in treatments for depression, based on studies of the effects of microdosing of psilocybin, the mind-altering compound found in magic mushrooms.

Ferriss spoke with Ryan Holiday on his podcast last week, and after kicking off by talking about dogs, Ferriss riffed on the antidepressant benefits of owning a puppy because it forced him out of his tendency to ruminate.

Caring for a puppy, at least if you do it well, takes your attention outside of any type of self-indulgent reflection / obsessive-compulsive rumination. I’m someone who has had a history of depression, which is being stuck in the past and being highly self-referential.

Depression is, I think, as someone who has experienced it a lot in life, very self-obsessive. So when you have something in front of you that requires and demands care or it’s gonna pee on your carpet every two and a half hours, like Molly my dog, it’s incredibly antidepressive because it forces a complete refocus.

A key element of cognitive behavioral therapy is to address rumination: the seemingly endless and unbreakable cycle of typically negative and, yes, self-obsessive thoughts of the depressive.

These thoughts are generally, although not always, focused on the past. Things that didn’t work out as well as they could. Things that might have gone differently. Mistakes made that have brought you to this point in time, and the inability to reverse the clock and change them.

Anxiety and depression: two sides of one coin?

Anxiety feels a bit like the flip side of the depression coin. Many people who suffer from depression also suffer from anxiety, and vice versa; it’s unclear where causality or correlation lie, but it’s well established that depression might cause anxiety and that anxiety might cause depression, in an ever-spiralling negative cycle that needs to be broken if life can be lived at all.

Anxiety is obsessing negatively about the future, and depression is obsessing negatively about the past and the present, and both hugely affect the present, where one or both can be totally debilitating. It’s not for nothing that the World Health Organisation describes depression as a leading cause of disability globally.

The most debilitating thing about depression

The most debilitating thing, however, might just be the thought that depression (or anxiety) are just an unavoidable part of who we are, and therefore an empirical fact that cannot be challenged or changed.

The way I think of it in my case: I have struggled for years with many bouts of major depression. But depression is not a part of me. A susceptibility to depression is. And that’s a very different thing.

As always, the recovery starts first with awareness, and secondly action based on that awareness.

The awareness is mostly already there — as Guru Singh has said, “If you’re depressed you’re paying attention” — and it’s the beating down of that awareness, the refusal to believe the things of which we are deeply aware, that can make us depressed.

The action can be a different task entirely. For us depressives, taking any action can often be a step too far, but finding a way to take even one small step, and finding our footing there before trying another, can have massive positive long-term benefits.

The far-reaching benefits of one small step

Taking even one small step forward shows us that taking a step forward is possible. And if we can take one small step, and follow it sometime soon with another, perhaps we can keep taking small steps until our condition is under control, or at least not a constant threat of inflicting cataclysm on our lives.

Doing something that doesn’t just encourage us to take a few steps forward, but forces us to — something like owning a puppy — can set the ball rolling in a way that might have far-reaching benefits in months and years to come.

Doing something that forces action upon us can lift us up and out of the self-obsessiveness for long enough to take a couple of these small steps.


We get what we tolerate

Our full selves, including our bodies and minds and personality traits and habits and everything else that adds up to that thing called our “self” are in continual mass flux, and science and medicine is only really just beginning to understand how this whole thing connects together.

If I’m to consider the statement “we get what we tolerate”, does that disable me or empower me?

Clearly, it empowers me. If there’s something that’s making me unhappy, and I continue to tolerate it, how is it going to change?

Accepting is not the same as tolerating. Acceptance is necessary when we find ourselves in a situation that we cannot undo. Tolerating something is different. Tolerating is putting up with a situation we can undo, if we had the courage to do so.

This could possibly go deeper and further than just surface discomforts.

I’ve started reading a fascinating book by a Dutch psychiatrist who has dedicated his career to specialising in in post-traumatic stress, called Bessel van der Kolk. The book is called The Body Keeps the Score, and it outlines ways in which trauma and traumatic experiences cause physical residue inside our bodies.

Sample line:

Our gut feelings signal what is safe, life sustaining or threatening, even if we cannot quiet explain why we feel a particular way … If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations … you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings and your self. However, traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.

This line in particular leapt out of the page at me:

The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.

What is the outcome of this gnawing interior discomfort? Is it possible that deep unease within our innermost self can manifest in illnesses of the body and mind? Is it possible that dis-ease can cause disease?

I don’t think the “we get what we tolerate” message means that everything we get is something that at some point we’ve tolerated. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes we’re exposed to toxic chemicals that will wreak havoc with our bodies, and there’s not much we can do.

But I suspect there is a lot that we tolerate, a lot that we find ways to cope with without really addressing, a lot that is simmering under the surface ready to bubble over into depression or anxiety or more severe mental conditions, and also into physical ailments that can become debilitating and even life-threatening.

If we get what we tolerate, becoming aware of the things we tolerate and can with courage find a way past could be the key to unlocking a flourishing happiness we never thought could be ours.

For more on toxicity and chemicals and the food chain, check out this phenomenal conversation between Rich Roll and Dr Zach Bush. For more on nutrition and how what we eat can affect our bodies and our minds, my podcast interview with nutritional therapist Orla McLaughlin might be worth catching. To buy Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, go here.

Chemical imbalance in the brain

The chemical imbalance in the brain is often put forward as a primary cause of depression.

And it’s true. Too little serotonin is not good for mood levels.

The trouble is, maybe we’re not told the full story.

We’re given a script for some antidepressants and we go away and try it, and if that doesn’t work the dosage is increased, and if that doesn’t work we’ll try a different medication.

And it’s true that all these medications are designed to alter the chemical imbalance in the brain.

But you know what else changes brain chemistry?

Almost everything.

Reading a book. Going for a walk. Opening Twitter. Lying down. Standing up. Eating anything. Or taking a long breath deep into the bottom of your lungs.

All change the chemistry.

The narrative that has been allowed to take hold says we have a chemical imbalance, and that we need drugs to correct it.

But maybe we’re not getting the full story.

The spectrum of the human condition includes everyone

The human condition is everything, and by the very definition — we are human — it affects all of us. Let me go further: The human condition is all of us.

But first, a definition (as offered by Wiktionary). The human condition is

the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.

Wise old Shakespeare gave his take on the human condition memorably as the seven acts of being in his “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It.

The human condition — this state of being human — contains everything: joy and sadness, love and grief, certainty and doubt, clarity and overwhelming ambiguity.

In this era of extraordinary and unprecedented technological change (I hesitate to say “progress”), it contains all the collective state of figuring-things-out that all of us now experience simultaneously.

This can become manifest in anyone as fear or anxiety or violence or addiction or depression or self-sabotage.

The difference, at an individual level, is not between those who experience suffering and doubt, and those who do not.

The difference, knowing that suffering and doubt affects everyone, is in how we respond to it.

To learn from the past but not wallow there. To plan for the future but not become slave to its multitude of possibilities.

To choose to stay present as much as we can, to decide what is the next right thing to do, and to do it as best we can.

What’s in a name? Names, labels and depression

There are a few lines in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the “what’s in a name?” lines about names and titles and labels.

Juliet is locked in passionate conversation with Romeo, talking about the fact that the obstacle to their joy is nothing more and nothing less than his family name.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.

What matters most, she says, is what something is, and not what it is called:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

It transpires over the rest of the play, of course, that a war over names can be an unwinnable one.

(Arthur Miller, three and a half centuries after Shakespeare, was just as aware of this. John Proctor, his protagonist in The Crucible, talked about his name in a scene made memorable to many by Daniel Day-Lewis’s film version.)

Names vs Labels

Labels, on the other hand, are different to names.

We are born with our name, most of us, but labels are a story we tell ourselves.

That story can serve us, but just as often that story can limit us.

I vividly remember, during a spell of counselling three years ago, taking the GAD-7 and PHQ-9, the two short questionnaires that determined if I was suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Depression, and if so where I sat on the scale, from Mild to Moderate to Severe.

A couple of years previously, during a series of sessions with a psychotherapist, I had taken the tests and been diagnosed as clinically depressed, my score giving me the label Severe Depression.

For the next two years, I clung to that label like a crutch. I had Depression, and it was so bad that my label was Severe.

When I sat the test again two years later, with a different counsellor, the score came back as Moderate.

“No,” I thought, illogically. “I’m at the Severe end.”

I didn’t voice it but my unspoken thought was,

Please don’t take away my Severe Depression.

It was the first time that I started to think about these labels and what they were doing, how they were propping me up and holding me back.

Shakespeare wrote and Juliet said, “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Labels that can empower us and those around us can be beneficial for our world and everything in it.

On the other side of the equation, though, recognising that labels can limit us and hold us back can be more powerful still.

What’s in a name? The heavy label of depression

Now, I don’t consider that I “have” depression. Occasionally, I become depressed, and that depressed state can run deep and lay me low. It can still confuse me, overwhelm me, de-energise me, so much that there are times that I need an outlet. Times that I need to retreat to a dark room where my phone and my email can’t reach me.

Jim Carrey says that “depressed” can be rewritten as “deep rest”. That being depressed is out body’s way of telling us that we need deep rest. That resonated with me.

Now, I choose to see what I previously thought of as “depression” as something different. As something even positive. It is a call from my core to pay attention, not to push through. When I try to push through, the wheels can spin and I embed myself deeper in the dirt. When I pay attention to what’s going on, and choose to take some deep rest, I find that I return to positive energy quickly.

In this way, I’m extraordinarily grateful what may in the past have turned into a couple of months of depression I can now limit to a couple of days or even a couple of hours.

Labels can be as powerful as names. When we attach a label to something, we give it a realness and a normality and a power that we might find impossible to overcome.

But when we consider that labels are artificial, and that we can remove them or change them whenever we please, just by deciding to, they can be overcome.

When deep down we want to move forward, labels can justify procrastination. When deep down we want to lead the way, labels can prevent us from stepping up. When our inner spirit urges us to speak up, labels can compel us to quiet down.

Overcoming a name can be an insurmountable challenge. But a label is different. Labels are artificial and we can take it off and choose a different one, one that serves us and empowers us, almost any time we please.

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I Gave Up Social Media For a Month. Here’s What I Learned

On March 1st, I made a spur of the moment decision in a fit of … what was it? Anger? Frustration? Clarity? I announced to my family, friends and anyone else who happened to be shown the message by the various algorithms at play that I would give up social media for a month.

Shane Breslin

By Shane Breslin

I had a big month ahead of me, I said, a month where deep productivity and headspace was required. I deleted the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn apps from my phone.

(I don’t classify YouTube as social media so that stayed — The Nerdwriter and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are just about my only recurring “television” appointments these days. Day-to-day I make my living by helping individuals, businesses and nonprofits navigate the confusion of the online world to achieve their goals, but I’ve always been confused by Snapchat, so that wasn’t there to delete.)

While the primary driver, as I told myself and my friends, was the need to find a new level of personal productivity and that the time-suck of social media was swallowing hours of my day when I didn’t have hours to waste, a motivating factor that was just as powerful was more subconscious: the feeling that social media in all its many guises, and for all its incredible, era-defining benefits, was causing some seriously negative tremors deep within my psyche.

Depression, social media and the happiness matrix

I’ve spoken and written at some length about dealing with regular bouts of fairly debilitating depression for more. That situation was ongoing for than 20 years, perhaps longer, before I took some firm steps to address it, but I had a feeling was that the combination of particular personality traits that made me susceptible to depression with the feverishness and 24/7 world of social media was not helping.

Over the past 18 months or so I’ve committed to a journey of self-exploration. One of the exercises I regularly take, and encourage others to take, is what I loosely call a “happiness matrix”: an A4 sheet of paper with four boxes each to represent everything that’s in my control, everything I’m choosing to do.

  • A: Is this pleasurable and good for my soul?
  • B: Is this not pleasurable but good for my soul?
  • C: Is this pleasurable but not good for my soul?
  • D: Is this not pleasurable and not good for my soul?

I’ve found that every choice I make about everything — what time I get up, how I spend the first two hours of my day, who I spend time with, where I live, what I put in my body, and everything else — fits snugly into one of those four categories.

My aim is simple: to do more things from A and B categories, and fewer from C and D.

When I asked myself the question about social media, the answer was a hard one, however. It didn’t fit snugly in any category. There were times when it was definitely in A. I’ve made some friendships that I hope and expect will last a lifetime, and those friendships would just not have been possible without Facebook (Facebook is, unsurprisingly, the primary influence among all the different platforms.)

Very occasionally it was B. Speaking on Twitter about my experiences with the service offered by the Samaritans was definitely not pleasurable, but I got something deeply valuable out of it, and hope that my messages gave some value and meaning to others.

But I couldn’t deny that on many occasions there was a hollowness about much of social media that saw much of my time there enter into categories C and D.

What sort of things?

On Instagram, I joined a pod. I thought I was joining some likeminded people who might support each other in helping to learn better the techniques of that particular platform. Instead it quickly became clear that several people in the group were obsessed. I hesitated to say demented, but that’s what it felt like. The “rules” were that everyone in the pod must commit to turning on notifications for everyone else’s Instagram posts, and then liking and commenting on them within minutes of each post being published. In this way, it might game the Instagram algorithm into thinking that these posts were gaining good traction early, and thus give it a better chance of appearing to more people and even making its way — O Holy Grail! — to the Discover tab. What happened there? Well, clearly, great treasures awaited. In the form, I guess, of higher reach, more followers, more hearts, more comments.

On Twitter, I found that my own stream, built haphazardly over eight years, was filled with the loud hum of incessant and irrelevant retweeting, incessant and self-serving tweets sent by various automated schedulers and incessant angry noise. (Twitter, for all its intrinsic and undeniable in-the-moment value, often feels like a million pissed off people shouting in a lift.) Added to that, every second or third notification was a new follow from a clearly fake bot. (The New York Times “The Follower Factory” exposé in January was clearly an influencing factor in my growing awareness of how shoddy so much of Twitter especially had become.)

Twitter is still the social network I love the most, but I fear, from a business perspective, that it will never work, and it may well be doomed to fail. One analyst suggested recently that it has dipped to sixth most popular social platform in the US (behind Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat) in terms of time spent. This is despite the PR perfection of having a President who uses the service as his personal global loudspeaker.

Facebook: A 21st Century Pandora’s Box

And then there was Facebook.

The big daddy of them all.

The Pandora’s Box of the 21st century, unleashing its combination of hope and the seven deadly sins on the world every minute of every day.

There were already whispers about the growing Facebook data storm at the time I started my social media break. For anyone paying attention, Facebook’s access to and use of data has been well known for the longest time. Max Schrems, a bright Austrian lawyer and activist, has been taking legal actions against Facebook for years. The General Data Protection Regulation, the new EU law which could change the world as we know it when it comes into force in May, is prompted in large part by EU legislators who have been closely scrutinising the way Facebook has been amassing terabyte upon terabyte of personally identifiable data on billions of people around the world.

Still, the revelations when they came, through a Channel 4 News secret camera exposé to the offices of Cambridge Analytica and an admission by Facebook that 87 million accounts were mined by third parties with distinctly ulterior motives, were damning, and didn’t do much to dissuade me from my decision to give this whole thing a break.

So what happened when I decided to give up social media?

Firstly, it became clear that using social media had become a deep-rooted habit.

I might be reading a book or newspaper article, come across a paragraph I liked and before I knew it my phone would be in my hand in readiness for the pic to share.

Same thing with an early morning sunrise, a blossoming daffodil or a smoothie. I found myself composing the first words of the post or tweet in my head before waking up to the fact that no, I wasn’t allowing myself to do this for a while.

Such moments were both liberating and very fucking frightening for me.

It was good to be able to resist, but it was scary to think how deep a grip these services, powered as they are by multi-billion-euro, profit driven companies, had taken on my senses.

It struck me that this could actually be classified as a form of madness. This hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute compulsion has set in with vast swathes of people in the space of just ten years.

The external and internal dangers of social media

Where do we go from here?

There are benefits. Massive benefits. If you have a message that would benefit the world, and it’s compelling enough, the world can hear about it

For all the benefits, though, there are massive dangers.

Those dangers are external:

  • trusting massive companies, all of whom are compelled to report continued growth in their quarterly profit announcements;
  • the erosion of personal privacy, and all the dangers, known and unknown, that go with that
  • the ease of one-to-one communication that sees Facebook cited in one in every three divorce cases (and those figures are from as long ago as 2015)

Those dangers are also internal, and this is the part that is, I think, the thing we most need to do something about.

I’m drawn to psychology — how people behave the way they do, and why — and I fear that the combination of social media with the smartphone is a perfect storm that arrived in around 2008, and in the decade that followed has had a lasting negative impact on human psychology that will not be fully understood for another generation or so.

Back to social

I’ve been easing my way back in.

Slowly, steadily, with a new understanding of the pros and the multitude of cons.

I unfollowed everyone on Twitter and started anew in a bid to bring only people who add value into my headspace.

I have made a decision to stop posting video content to my habits of happiness Facebook page and I don’t have any real desire to, for the time being at least.

I acknowledge that buried within the noise and restlessness and threat of social media there is still a massive opportunity for deep and meaningful human connection, connection that can positively impact on the world without any negative undertones.

I understand now, more fully, the benefits and both the external and more importantly the internal dangers of all social networks.

Throughout my self-exploration journey, I’ve committed to controlling the controllables.

My habits and use of social media is controllable.

The fact of social media is not.

This is the world.

Like the real world off the Internet, it offers the best and the worst of everything, and each of us can only do what we can.

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(Photo credit: Tim Bennett on Unsplash)