Depressed and Productive?

Two unlikely allies that will sustain you today.

Posted Sep 02, 2020

I’ve learned that it’s the seemingly insignificant choices that direct our lives most powerfully.

Standing in the middle of a three-bedroom ranch style home filled from floor to ceiling with an unimaginable hoard, a former client turned to me and said, “This place used to be pristine. I just let it go.”

She went on to tell me how her ex-fiance contributed to her behavior. “Two months before the wedding, he just strolled in here and announced he couldn’t marry me. I was devastated. I stopped cleaning and started ordering take-out nightly,” she said.

A pile of pizza boxes and a decision to remove them stood between her and four years of debilitating depression. A simple mess had become an eight-room nightmare overflowing with forgotten meals and rot.

We build a narrative around our sadness. That narrative often dictates whether we experience depression as mild and episodic or severe and long-lasting.

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, with more than 264 million people suffering at any given time. At least 7 percent of the United States population will find themselves seriously depressed at some time this year. The reasons may vary, yet the emotional impact is difficult for everyone. Coping is hard.

Odds are slim that you will outrun a bout with depression in your lifetime. Rather than exhausting yourself on that cross-country trek, why not funnel your energy into building a rock-solid resiliency plan to help cope and bounce back should depression find you?

In the face of disappointment and despair, my client may have experienced a very different outcome if she had declared, “I’m heartbroken and this hurts like hell, but I refuse to stop cleaning my house and walking three miles a day. I must hold these parts of my life together.”

The messaging that we need to stop, curl up in a ball, and lick our wounds when we are depressed stands in stark contrast to the idea that we can be sad, productive, and empowered all at once. The refusal to master the ability to be depressed and productive at the same time virtually guarantees that your depression will linger far longer and possibly meander into the seas of clinical depression.

My client, who lost four years of her life buried under debris inside her home, said something that struck me: “My depression lifted a few times over the years, you know. I mean, I really felt good—like I wanted to get out and about. Then, I would look at all the filth and clutter in my home. I lost momentum and got sucked right back into the depression.”

Motivation and inspiration are found in the ‘doing’

Depression makes us forget that it does eventually lift. If you allow everything in your life to fall into disrepair while you’re depressed, you’ll have a lot of rebuilding to do. By the time you snap out of it, you could be thrust back into the abyss, overwhelmed by the task in front of you.

Come what might, decide what aspects of your life must remain functional and intact while you’re depressed. Make a commitment to do whatever is necessary to preserve yourself for the better days ahead.

If you take pride in having the most beautiful lawn on the block, then don’t neglect to seed the grass in fall. Despite your depression, get outside and get it done. Spring is just around the corner.

You may wonder, “What if I don’t feel like being productive while I’m depressed?”

In the great words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “May the force be with you.” Often there is no elegant solution when darkness moves in. We must force ourselves into motion.

Several years ago, I took off on a series of trips alone after a rough breakup. Friends wondered what had gotten into me. I didn’t want to go alone. Truth be told, I was afraid and I felt like a reject. I needed to observe myself being brave and doing something—anything other than rotting on my couch in isolation and sadness.

I unapologetically teach men, women, and children to prepare for the inevitable down cycles in life. Lao Tzu said we should do what is difficult when it’s easy. Take the time to build your resiliency plan when you don’t need it. 

Following are a few ideas to keep in mind as you build productivity into your plan:

  1. Work backward. If you are prone to overeating when you get depressed, plan a trip to the grocery store. Stock up on fruits and vegetables at the first hint that sadness has found you. Resolve to eat well to maintain your health.
  2. Call in the troops. Isolation is dangerous and generally makes depression worse. Schedule calls and visits with positive people in your life. If you would rather not talk about feeling low, use the time to escape into a lively alternative topic.
  3. Accept and commit. I’m not a huge fan of battling depression through denial. It takes an enormous amount of energy to convince yourself you’re happy when you’re not. Use the acceptance and commitment model to empower your journey into healing. Tell yourself, “I accept that I’m sad and I’m committed to supporting myself through it in a loving and productive way.”

The idea that we can place our mental health maintenance on autopilot and be okay for the long haul is seductive, but simply not the case. Major changes in our desired mood, functioning, and physical health are cues that we need to stop and give ourselves special attention.

Being depressed is not fun. It does, however, offer us an opportunity to bear witness to our resilient natures as we support ourselves into a more elevated state of being.

Copyright: Sheila Robinson-Kiss, Msw, Lcsw