Overcoming Depression

June 29th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

Earlier this week I wrote about How to Help Negative People.  But what if you’re the one who’s feeling chronically negative?  In this article I’ll give you a process for helping yourself out of negative emotional states, not just temporarily but permanently.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use the example of depression, but the process works for other chronic negative emotions like anger, worry, resentment, etc.

Understanding depression

Depressed people often seem to have good reasons for feeling down, and from the outside looking in, those reasons may appear perfectly valid.  If you’re dealing with financial scarcity, health problems, or other unwanted challenges, then any reasonable person might easily look at your situation and agree, “Yup, that’s depressing.”

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by saying your problems aren’t that bad.  On the contrary I imagine that your situation may be downright awful, giving you every right to feel depressed.  I can empathize with what you’re going through because I’ve been there myself.  I know how horrible it is to feel bad most of the time, to have a life filled with negative results, and to feel powerless to change any of it.  I’ll share a personal story about that later.

If you currently find yourself in such a situation, you have my compassion.  But more importantly, I have a solution to share with you.  I think you’re smart enough to know that there’s no shallow quick fix for what you’re going through, but there is a workable solution.  Your depression is by no means permanent.  This solution will work if you take the time to understand it and apply it, using whatever energy you’re still able to muster.  This isn’t an all-or-nothing solution, so even a partial implementation will yield partial results.  Best of all, you don’t even need to take any direct physical action.  You can do the whole thing lying motionless on your bed.

The upside is that once you permanently overcome your depression, you’ll be able to use your experience to help many other people.  So as difficult as it may be to endure right now, there may come a day when you look back on these times as a tremendous gift.  That has certainly been true for me.

This quote from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet contains some deep truths:

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see in truth that you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

The real cause of depression

Let me be very direct.  It isn’t your situation that’s causing you to feel depressed.  What depresses you is the attention you give to that situation.  Your life may indeed be filled with circumstances you don’t want, but that isn’t the real source of your depression.  Negative circumstances can only induce depression when you focus your attention on them.  If you withhold your attention, your circumstances are powerless to affect you, regardless of how bad they seem.

Consider a simple example.  Suppose you’re deep in debt with no end in sight, and you hate being in debt.  The debt is only depressing when you think about it.  If you think about something else that makes you happy, something good about your life, then at least temporarily, you won’t be depressed.  So it’s not the existence of the debt that depresses you.  It’s only your noticing the debt and not wanting it that depresses you.

Another example:  Suppose you’re feeling lonely.  You notice you don’t have an intimate relationship, and that makes you feel lonely.  But is it the absence of the relationship that makes you feel lonely?  Or do you only feel lonely when you pay attention to the fact that you don’t have the relationship you desire?  When you’re engrossed in a really good movie or a compelling book, you completely forget that you’re lonely, don’t you?  But if you stick your head up and notice you’re all alone, or if you notice a happy couple and contrast it with your own situation, then your loneliness quickly returns.

I know this sounds overly simplistic and perhaps even useless, but just humor me for a moment.  I think you can agree that you only feel depressed while you pay attention to negative circumstances, such as your lack of money, lack of a relationship, or lack of good health.  But here’s the key point:  Your circumstances are NOT the true source of your depression.  The true source of your depression is your attention… specifically your habit of putting your attention on what you don’t want.  In the case of chronic depression, it’s likely that what you don’t want is what you’re already experiencing right now.  So the simple act of noticing what you’re already getting is what’s really making you depressed.

Understanding the insidious trap of depression

This is why depression is such an insidious trap.  Once you sink to the level where you’re not getting what you want, and you keep paying attention to the fact that you’re not getting what you want, your depression becomes self-reinforcing.  You’re seriously stuck.

You see… the mistake you’re making that’s causing you to remain stuck in depression is so devious that you’ll probably think you’re just being intelligent, when you’re actually being quite dumb.  You probably think it’s just common sense that you should observe your circumstances, notice what you’re getting, and react within reason.  And you’d be wrong.  If you’re depressed, that is perhaps the worst strategy you could possibly use.  I know it seems completely counterintuitive, but that’s why depression is such a bear for millions of people.  Common sense thinking is part of the trap.  This is why some of the most intelligent people can get stuck in long-term depression and even commit suicide.  Their best attempts to use their intellect to reason their way out of their depression only ensnares them more deeply.  The more you struggle to reason your way out, the worse your depression gets.

After endless frustration trying to reason their way out of depression, many people settle for temporary relief through medication, alcohol, drugs, TV, video games, or other habits that lower their awareness.  Of course none of these things actually resolve the underlying negative circumstances.  They usually make it worse.  Running from your problems won’t help you get out of debt, build loving relationships, or improve your health.

The solution to depression

The solution to depression is actually quite simple, but it’s totally counterintuitive for most people (unless you’re immersed in living in congruence with the Law of Attraction, that is).  The solution is to withdraw your attention from what depresses you and place it on what makes you feel really, really good.  If you’re chronically depressed, however, it’s possible that virtually nothing in your life makes you feel good.  Your whole situation may be unpleasant from top to bottom.  So in that case you need to withdraw your attention from your external environment and plug into your imagination.  Within your mind’s eye, you must construct completely imaginary circumstances that make you feel good when you think about them.  Then spend more of your time focusing your attention on your imaginary creations and less of your time observing external reality.

This may sound like escapism, but you’re not trying to escape.  Your goal is to construct new, realistic circumstances within your imagination that are attractive to you.  Picture yourself experiencing financial abundance, loving relationships, good health, a fulfilling career, and more.

At first this may be very difficult, but you’ll improve with practice.  Obviously you’ll still need to attend to your basic needs and deal with certain external problems as best you can, but only devote the bare minimum attention to them.  Give your problems no more attention than is absolutely necessary to keep your head above water.  Then spend the rest of your time withdrawing into your imagination.

Within your imagination you are free to do anything you want.  There are no limitations whatsoever.  Think whatever thoughts make you happy.  Imagine them as real, and enjoy them.  Build your imaginary dream home.  Travel around the world.  Create your ideal friends.  Imagine the perfect relationship for you.  Give yourself superpowers and save the world.

Be patient with yourself.  If you catch yourself worrying about your problems, keep going back to your positive mental creations and expand them.  I find it best to focus on constructing locations first.  The more I think about them, the more detail I add.  I keep modifying them to make improvements.

In my imagination I’ve built a huge 100-acre estate that I can mentally walk through.  I can swim in the imaginary pool, play tennis, work out in the gym, sit in my private office, run along the perimeter wall, relax in the meditation lounge, stroll through the beautiful gardens, or dip my feet in the stream.  I can even have interesting conversations with the persistent characters who live there.  The place has become so stable in my imagination that I remember it more vividly than most real locations I’ve been to.  And it’s accessible to me whenever I want.  I often load it up when I’m meditating and spend time building it out a bit more.

How does this resolve depression?

As you remove your attention from negative external circumstances and refocus it on positive imaginary thoughts, you’ll spend a lot more time feeling good than bad, so your depression will soon lift.  The more you shift your thoughts, the faster your depression will lift.  This is a rather obvious consequence of spending more time thinking about what makes you feel good and less time thinking about what depresses you.

Now it’s nice to feel good again, but what about your negative circumstances?  Even though you’re feeling better, you may still be trapped under a pile of problems.  Don’t worry.  This approach will help you improve your circumstances too.

Your circumstances will improve in two ways.  First, because you’ll be feeling better, you’ll be more motivated to take action to help yourself directly.  Depression is disempowering, but positive emotions are empowering.  So you’re far more likely to take appropriate action to get yourself out of debt when you’re feeling good than when you’re depressed.  Depressed people dwell on their problems, but as your depression lifts, you’ll begin to think about solutions.

Secondly, you will find that when you’re feeling good, through the Law of Attraction you will begin manifesting more positive results in your life almost effortlessly.  I can’t claim to understand the mechanism by which this works, but I’ve seen it work too many times to doubt it.  It’s the same process behind the Million Dollar Experiment.  When you think about what you desire and feel good about it, you attract it to you in ways that cannot be explained as a result of your direct action.  It’s as if you become luckier.

Through the combination of your own direct action as well as the activation of the Law of Attraction, your depressing circumstances will completely turn around.  For this to work you must think about what you want AND feel good about it.

A real-life example

Here’s a true story from my own life that explains how this entire process works.

At the age of 19, I was arrested for felony grand theft.  After spending three days in jail, I returned home to learn I’d been expelled from school too.  My court date was months away, and it seemed the most probable outcome was that I’d be spending the next year or two of my life behind bars, since this was my third offense in less than 18 months.  If I recall correctly, I was still on probation from my previous offense.

This was not a happy time in my life.  I had a hard time dealing with the situational stress.  My expectation that I was about to spend a good part of my life in jail shut me down emotionally.  I slipped into a period of darkness and depression.  I slept each day until 2pm, ate mostly fast food, and devoted my waking hours to escaping through video games, alcohol, and poker.

But as my court date approached, I began to shift my focus.  I stopped resisting what was about to happen and finally surrendered to it.  I began going for long walks to contemplate my situation.  I said to myself, “Well, I’m going to jail, and that’s really going to suck.”  But since it was too unpleasant to imagine what jail would be like (three days was more than enough for me never to want to go back), I began to imagine beyond that point, thinking about what I’d do after I got out.  I saw this event as a total life reboot.  After jail I’d essentially be starting my adult life over from scratch.  I imagined myself going back to school to earn my computer science degree.  I saw myself eventually working as a computer programmer, which is what I wanted to do for a living ever since I learned BASIC programming at age 10.

What I was imagining seemed so positive that I began thinking about it more and more, spending less time worrying about what was going to happen with my impending jail time.  In my mind I nearly blotted out the impending jail experience and mentally fast forwarded to where I wanted to be.  Since I wasn’t in school and didn’t have a job, I spent a good deal of time thinking about what it would be like to return to school and become a programmer.  I figured that even while I was in jail, at least I’ve have something positive to look forward to.

When I eventually went to court, what happened was almost miraculous.  By mistake the court treated my case as if it were a first offense when it was actually my third.  They had no record of my priors.  Even my own lawyer thought the case was a first offense.  When I realized what was happening and wondered if I should say something, I swear I heard a voice in the back of my head saying, “Keep your damned mouth shut!”  I had to check the courtroom docket to verify they had the right case, but everything else was accurate.  I knew from experience that a first offense was likely to get just a slap on the wrist, so it didn’t surprise me that I was offered a deal whereby the charges would be reduced to misdemeanor petty theft instead of felony grand theft, and my sentence would be 60 hours of community service and no jail time.  I tried to hold back my enthusiasm as I pled “no contest,” and the case was closed.  I was just a little too happy during the couple weeks I spent picking up trash.

It wasn’t until I learned about the Law of Attraction that I really understood these events.  Even though I was in a bad situation, by focusing my thoughts on what I wanted and finding a way to feel good, my whole situation transformed in a way that I didn’t think was objectively possible.  After these events I took a year off to get a job, save up some honest money, reconnect with friends, cure my kleptomania, and rebuild my life.  Then I went back to college, starting over as a freshman and earning B.S. degrees in both computer science and mathematics in only three semesters.  I wrote about that experience in the articles Do It Now and 10 Tips for College Students.  After that I did indeed achieve my dream of working as a computer programmer and even started my own game development company.

My life was completely transformed for the better, and I left my negative thinking in the past.  This seemingly dark experience turned out to be one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received.  It made me much less fearful and more willing to take (legal) risks.  As long as I wouldn’t end up in jail if I failed, the risk seemed minor.  I began to jump on opportunities that previously intimidated me.  I still enjoy these benefits today.  If I hadn’t been through this ordeal 15 years ago, I’m sure I’d be a much more timid person today, ruled by imaginary fears instead of inspired by imaginary wonders.

I shudder to think what might have become of me if I didn’t accidentally stumble upon the Law of Attraction back in 1991.  For all I know, I could be sitting in prison right now.  Perhaps in some alternate universe, I am.

From chronic depression to lifelong joy

Do you realize what an incredible gift your freedom is?  Regardless of your physical freedom, you always have your mental freedom.  You’re free to hold any thought you can imagine – so free that you can turn your life into a depressing hell if you fail to understand your power… or into a joy-filled heaven if you master it.

Are you still hurting yourself by thinking about what you don’t want?  Even the mere act of observing and noticing the presence of what you don’t want in your life can trap you in a negative state.  Turn your attention away from such thoughts, and concentrate on what you do want, even if your only viable option is to withdraw into your imagination.  Let your imagination become your private refuge of positive thought.  Use your creative imagination to get yourself to a state of feeling good, regardless of your external circumstances.  This will activate the Law of Attraction, and it won’t be long before your external reality improves to match the pattern of your thoughts.  Eventually your circumstances will become so good that simply noticing what you’re getting will make you feel terrific.  Instead of the downward spiral of depression, you’ll shift your life onto the upward spiral of joy.

If you want to change your outer reality, you must first change your inner reality.



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