- While clinical depression affects 7% of the population, 18% of Americans say they feel depressed.
- The common drivers are real-world stresses, being should-driven and self-critical.
- The key is identifying the problems driving the depression and taking action to resolve them.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 7 percent of the population suffers from depression. Here, we’re talking about clinical depression, major depressive disorder. Often, this has a genetic and biological component: The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, had four brothers, three of whom committed suicide, and depression in his family went back generations.
In a Gallup survey of 100,000 Americans published in May 2023, 18 percent of the participants reported feeling depressed. Why? While it’s likely that some of these folks have undiagnosed clinical depression, for most, the depression isn’t biological but situational. Here are some of the common drivers:
You have real-life stressors
You’ve just gotten laid off from your job or have money worries; you’re getting divorced or going through a breakup; you’re isolated and lonely; you have chronic health problems. These real-life problems drain any joy from your life and make for the wear and tear, the hopelessness, the feeling trapped, the sense that life sucks.
You’re driven by shoulds
Rather than life events, here we are looking at personality. If you are constantly “shoulding” yourself—the “mustabation” that psychologist Albert Ellis used to talk about—you likely have a laundry list of rules and orders running your daily life. And when you fail to do them—forget to call your grandmother on her birthday or make your bed—you feel guilty.
But most often, the shoulds running you inherited from others—society, your parents. And because so many of them tell how to be and do that are often contradictory, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and like you are never doing a good enough job.
If you tend to be self-critical, you’re fueling this fire. There’s a bully in your head, always looking over your shoulder and beating you up not only when you don’t do what you should but when you make everyday mistakes or don’t do a good enough job. Does that make you feel depressed? Sure. You’re always in the dog house; your life is filled with negatives and few positives.
You have untreated anxiety
Depression is often described as being about the past with its stirring of regrets and guilt, while anxiety is always about the future—the what-ifs, worst-case scenarios—but often, they go hand-in-hand. The constant worry, the always looking around corners, and bracing for disaster makes your life bleak.
What to do
If you can step back and figure out what is driving your depression, you’re halfway towards solving it. Here’s what to do next:
Actively tackle your life problems.
Real problems require real action, but the accompanying depression creates an undertow of hopelessness that causes you to say to yourself, "Why bother?" "I can’t," and the fatigue makes you want to stay in bed and pull the covers over your head.
But if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep feeling the same way. Here, you need to find support, take baby steps, get information, and get perspective from someone who knows what they’re talking about to counter the garbage your head is making up. Your depressed brain is telling you that you need to feel better to act. Instead, you need to act to feel better. It’s about moving forward, doing something different.
Push back against self-criticism.
It’s not about doing it right. If the antidote to problems is action, the antidote to self-criticism is pushing back against the bully in your head. Your emotional brain tells you that if you don’t want to feel bad or be bullied, you just need to do better—not make mistakes, follow the rules—which only increases your stress. Instead, you need to realize when that bullying voice is taking over and get back in your rational brain: Say to yourself that everything is not important, that mistakes are okay and can be fixed, and that you’re doing the best you can.
You won’t automatically feel better, but thinking this way will help you act differently, which, over time, will help dampen those voices and rewire your brain.
Replace the shoulds with your values.
Create your values rather than being run by others’ rules and orders. Start by paying attention to when you’re doing that must-abation. Take time to decide how you want to be as an adult, your ethical code to live by; decide what’s important to pay attention to and what to ignore. Create a values list; keep it short—maybe ten essential items, not 30.
Treat your anxiety.
Like your depressed or self-critical mind, your anxious mind is telling you that if you don’t want to feel worried, you need to always look ahead, be prepared, get information, or be careful, be cautious, and stay within your comfort zone and away from situations that make your anxious. The problem with this tact is that it works; you feel better if you ignore the bills on your dining room table; you skip the party. But like the other drivers, the antidote is action—catching yourself going down those rabbit holes of the future and coming back into the present, realizing what you can control and can’t, taking baby steps to not only put real worries to rest but stepping outside your comfort zone to find that what you think will happen usually doesn’t. Again, this is about rewiring your brain.
Medications, even at low doses, can help reduce your depressive symptoms so that you can tackle your problems, change your behaviors, break the downward spiral, and put things in a more realistic perspective. Therapy can provide the support and skill training needed to move forward.
Like most problems, the solution lies in identifying the problem under the problem and putting it to rest. Time to tackle yours?
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Taibbi, R. (2017). Boot camp therapy: Action-oriented approaches to anger, anxiety & depression. New York: Norton.