A recent report in Britain suggested that to seriously tackle depression, the country should aim to build an “antidepressant society.” This would be a society that addresses large societal ills, such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment. This macro analysis, when scaled down, can be applied to our own individual environments, offering a strategy to reduce the effects of toxic stress that so many of us are facing today.
While it would be great if we could be the architects of our own destiny, there are obviously limits — our personal histories, biology, life circumstances, and external unpredictable forces such as the shared trauma of the pandemic. We can, however, partially be the architects of our own mood state. There are three domains in which we can make an impact: the physical environment outside of ourselves, the internal environment inside of the self, and the psychological environment of the couple or family of which we are a part.
The External Environment of the Self: The Physical Environment
Psychologists have long known that environment shapes behavior and impacts mood state. Examples include the lighting of a room, the color of the walls, noise level and quality of sound, clutter vs. an expanse of open space, design features of furniture, or the memories imbued in the place itself. Many of these can be altered to impact mood states. Consider looking around at your living space and imagining what you could change that might make you feel calmer or more buoyant.
One patient described the joy she felt once she painted a white wall over with a peach color. The room went from feeling cold to feeling warm. Another cleared out furniture so that the room had a minimalist feel and painted his walls all white. He reported his room then felt light and bright and was a pleasure to be inside.
The Internal Environment of the Self: The Psyche
I once had a patient who judged the men she dated by the outside house test and inside house test. The outside test was what he looked like; the inside test was his character. Using her model of the “inside house,” consider the internal environment of the self as your thoughts, feelings, and spirituality.
While catchy, the lyrics of the old song “Accentuate the Positive” by Johnny Mercer ("You’ve got to accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative/Latch on to the affirmative/Don’t mess with Mister In-Between") are creators of distress, not eliminators! Let yourself experience the range of all that you’re feeling. The winning ticket is not to turn fully away or deny negative emotion, but rather to allow for an “emotional blend.” This is termed “affect optimization” and it means that while you acknowledge and allow for negative emotions (or negative affect), you also lean in on or gravitate toward positive emotions. In addition, the act of naming your emotions has been found to benefit well-being.
If some of the causes of depression and anxiety are psychological, specific interventions aimed at each source might be helpful. For example, if you’re feeling a lack of control, you can consider what can be done to give yourself a sense of control (perhaps learning a new skill or even just cleaning out and organizing a closet). Or, if you’re dealing with COVID-19 fatigue, focus on what you can do that’s novel to break up the feeling of unrelenting sameness. Someone who’s hyperfocused on the negative could intervene by creating a list of what they’re grateful for.
The Psychological Environment of the Couple/Family
While a couple will be used to describe this next exercise, it can also be done with all members of a family who are cohabiting.
First, write down what you think an antidepressant home would be for your partner (or family member).
Then, have your partner (or family members) write down what you can do to make an antidepressant home for him/her/them. Each should ask the other.
Next, write down what an antidepressant home would be for you.
Finally, have everyone share what they’ve written with each other. Compare, contrast and discuss. Put a plan into action.
As an example, the Effies are a couple who have been married for over 20 years. He said he could make an antidepressant home for her by reducing his negativity, his tendency to spike in frustration, and by not cursing. She said she could make an antidepressant home for him by picking up the clutter around the house more often. She said an antidepressant home for her would be one with more connectivity, in which he would do little things like make a fire in the fireplace and rub her feet. He said an antidepressant home for him would be one in which they would do stuff together, like watch a movie—he suggested a horror film.
The next week, they reported that he built her a fire and massaged her feet, she made a point of cleaning some clutter, and they watched a film together. (The negotiated choice? Disney shorts.)
Louis Pasteur in 1854 wrote that “chance favors the prepared mind.” None of us predicted these difficult times, but to some degree, we can — and should — be the architects of how we handle them.
Baum-Baicker, C. & Sisti, D. (2012). Clinical wisdom in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy: A philosophical and qualitative analysis. The Journal of Clinical Ethics, 23(1), 13-27.
British Psychological Society (October 2020). Understanding Depression: Why Adults Experience Depression and What Can Help.
Janetius, S.T. and Amrutha, M.S. (2016). Art, Culture and Gender: The Indian Psyche. Mishil and JS Publishers, Thrissur, ISBN: 9781537075341 Pp 67-73.