Most of us will be familiar with the Nike slogan “JUST DO IT”.
The Nike slogan is interesting because it can be interpreted in different ways. One interpretation is that the word “JUST” makes it sound like doing whatever “IT” is, should be easy. This could seem dismissive of how hard someone may find doing “IT”. If we interpret the slogan this way, we may be inclined not to attempt “IT” at all.
Another way to interpret the slogan is to add some extra words on the end such as, “JUST DO IT (AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS)”. This way of looking at the slogan removes the expectation that somebody will be able to do “IT” fully. It is more of an encouragement to “JUST HAVE A GO” or to “JUST GIVE IT A TRY”.
Why am I talking about the Nike slogan? Well, because giving something a try means making an effort to change your behaviour. And whilst change can be daunting, it becomes less daunting when there is no expectation of perfection, the attempt to change is seen as good enough in itself.
So, when thinking about overcoming depression, you don’t need to believe that you will find doing it easy, you simply need to believe that you are capable of trying. Because trying is good enough.
Trying to change your behaviour effects your whole experience.
You may have come across something that looks a little bit like this picture (below) before. It shows how the different aspects of our experience are connected and how this connection can result in a spiral effect.
For those of you who are less familiar with this concept I will explain each part. But if you already know what each part of the cycle is, then skip to the section below.
The patterns in the way people think when they have depression can often make depression worse. It is natural for people with depression to experience more negative cognitive biases. Which often come in the form of negative automatic thoughts.
Because a lot of negative thoughts are automatic, they cannot be prevented. You can learn to challenge your negative automatic thoughts, which (in time) will reduce how often you experience them, but you cannot prevent yourself from having them. You must actively choose to challenge the thoughts after they have occurred.
Your thoughts are connected to your bodily sensations, your emotions and your behaviours. Each element of a person’s experience is equally connected to every other element. So, an increase in negative thoughts has a negative effect on all other areas.
Your sensations are anything you feel in your body. These feelings can be temporary (like a sinking feeling in your stomach, or a tightening of your chest). Or they can be more long term (like feeling tired most of the time).
Bodily sensations also include any health problems that arise or become more noticeable whilst you are depressed. Examples include headaches, worsening IBS or more noticeable joint pain.
As discussed in a previous article, you don’t have to feel sad all the time to be depressed. Any persistent or near continuous experience of negative emotions is a cause for concern.
The emotion we feel is likely to change along with our changing thoughts, sensations and behaviours. For example, we may feel sad when thinking “No one loves me” but angry when thinking “I am pathetic, it’s no wonder no one loves me”.
When we are depressed, we are likely to find less enjoyment in the activities we would normally enjoy, feel as though we do not deserve to do these kinds of activities, or feel too tired or unmotivated to do them. Doing activities which we would normally enjoy less often gives us fewer opportunities to find (some) happiness.
Depression can make us feel the need to isolate ourselves, (even if we feel lonely). Thoughts like “they wouldn’t want to be around me” or “I can’t let anyone see me like this” can result in us cancelling plans to socialise, communicating less, and withdrawing from others.
We are also more likely to postpone or abandon important tasks like going to work, completing university assignments, keeping up with housework or keeping ourselves clean and healthy. Neglecting our responsibilities and ourselves gives us fewer opportunities to feel as though we have achieved something. It also means that our responsibilities mount up and become more daunting.
Trying to change our behaviour is important because it is often the thing we can control the most.
A lot of the ways we experience depression are automatic or difficult to change.
You cannot simply choose not to have negative emotions (if it was that easy, then we would all be happy all of the time)!
Similarly, although you can challenge your negative automatic thought processes, doing so often involves writing thoughts down (and writing is a behaviour).
Even if you challenge your negative automatic thoughts in your head (so it is a thought process), you are responding to an initial thought. You couldn’t control your mind and prevent the initial thought from occurring.
Your bodily sensations are often a little easier to manipulate. We know that caffeine can give us a temporary increase in energy, that painkillers can help with aches and pains and that certain supplements can help us get a restful night’s sleep. However, taking action to manipulate our bodily sensations into feeling better demonstrates self-care and is in itself a positive behaviour.
Changing our behaviour is therefore one of the most effective ways to relieve depression and often the easiest part of our experience to control.
Behavioural change and depression
Trying to incorporate new, positive behaviours into your life when you have depression can be hard, which is why the act of trying is impressive, no matter how long you carry out the behaviour for.
For example, let’s say you are battling depression and don’t feel you deserve anything good. The new positive behaviour you want to develop is that you spend half an hour pampering yourself each week.
In the first week you don’t manage to find the time to pamper yourself, but you did buy yourself a new bottle of scented bubble bath. Buying the bubble bath meant that you intended to change your behaviour and took steps towards it, therefore you tried.
By taking the step to buy the bubble bath you have given yourself permission to look after yourself, which sends the message that you are worthwhile. This simple step is good enough right now. It is progress towards better self-care and a healthier mind-set.
Check back next week to learn how to spot opportunities for behavioural change.
Next week I’m going to write an example scenario for you, so you can see where opportunities for behavioural change could appear in real life and learn to take advantage of them.
In the meantime, if you found this article helpful in understanding the importance and the significance of trying to make behavioural changes then please consider sharing it with others on social media. (You can find the links below).