By Margaret Wehrenberg

When people want to move forward, depression holds them back.

Change is hard. Even when you want the change. You may be choosing a path that has all the hallmarks of the right thing and yet putting your foot on that path brings fear and an urge to turn around.

Manny has been depressed since high school. Smoking marijuana has brought him some fun, but he wants to quit because it makes him lethargic. He has goals to succeed in college. But he is conflicted. “It’s only with those friends smoking weed that I have any fun.” But he goes on to say, “This is the first time I have a real shot to finish college with decent grades and a chance to get a job. I could show myself I am worth something.” Without that, he thinks he will be worthless. A choice between fun and self esteem seems clear even to him, but he is scared that future of work won’t include friends. That future is not at all clear.

Callie wants to divorce. Her husband is verbally abusive and the stress is exhausting. But they have been married 20 years. “How can I give up now? What if he would finally change?” She is stuck. “But what if he never changes and I remain this depressed and hopeless for my life? If I leave now I have a chance to create a peaceful life.” Choosing between hopelessness and possibility of peace seems easy if you are outside looking in, but to her the future is unknown. What she does know is how to live with this man.

Charles wants to leave his job. His boss treats Charles like a slave, screaming and blaming him whenever something goes wrong. The stress has made him sick and he imagines working in a place that appreciates his work. His ability at work is the one thing that he feels proud of. Leaving makes him nervous and he says, “I know I could do this somewhere else, but I don’t know if anyone will hire me to do it.” He is dragged back by fear of knowing how to job search and fear of more rejection if he applies somewhere.

I see people confused about why they cannot make changes even when the choice should be clear and easy. One asks, “Why should I want to stay here, when going forward looks like the best chance I have to be happier?” The simple answer is because ‘here’ is familiar. Because ‘here’ is where you know what to do. Because ‘here’ has no surprises. And, because ‘there’ could mean you will face the possibility of embarrassment, failure, and continued unhappiness. ‘There’ there are no guarantees.

What does your depressed brain have to do with it?

That old expression “What a drag!” Perfectly describes depression.

  1. Depression drags on your physical energy. If you have been chronically in a tough situation and getting depressed, your stressed brain wears your body out. Stress is physical, even if you think it is only mental. Your brain generates all the necessary physical preparation to take action, and if you do not take action, you suffer: Tension and aches, exhaustion, sicknesses, and even weight gain.
  2. Depression drags you back. Change activates brain circuits that scan new situations for threat and reward. All new situations come with the energizing impact of noticing new things, but in depression, that may not be interpreted as excitement but as fear. Possibility is just that – it has more than one way to turn out. Depressed brains over-focus on what is negative, so they see the possibility of failure where others see the possibility of success.
  3. Depression drags your mental energy down. It makes it hard to go forward because it lowers energy, both mental and physical. Under-supplied with energizing neurotransmitters, the person with depression feels less mental “oomph”. That makes it harder to overcome lethargy with self-statements like, “Come on, we can do this!” that people give themselves to get through a tough time.
  4. Depression drags on your creativity. It makes it hard to see new solutions to old situations. Due to the impact of low supplies of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, the parts of the brain that shift gears, that think “outside the box”, that can suddenly see a new idea, are very slow to move.
  5. Depression drags your mood down. In a low mood, remembering that your current situation is a drag, it is too easy to believe that new things will also be a drag. That neural network of failure draw you into other moods when it was hard to go forward because of low self-esteem, the outcome of too many times when you felt like a failure. That pessimistic mood drags optimism down to the ground.

How can you overcome this drag?

Counteract the impact of depression with small steps that will energize you mentally or physically. Taking one step in the right direction is not as hard as waiting for the energy to make a big switch. These ideas are low energy output methods to gently pull against the drag of depression and strengthen yourself for action.

  1.  Start with a simple appraisal to get clarity about your choice. Make a list with two columns labeled:
    A. What is wrong with “Here?”
    B. What is better about “There?”
  2. Then do nothing more but imagine “There.” Create a vivid image of the new situation. Is there anything in it that gives you a spark of energy? Just like as park to start a fire, that spark needs some oxygen and some fuel to burn.
  3. Now create a literal image that will fuel that spark. Make a collage or just find a picture you can look at that symbolizes what you want. Then look at it every day.
  4. Use the energy of others to fuel your own. Who is already in your life who will strengthen your resolve? Who in your life can root for you? Tell that person or people what your goal is and what kind of encouraging you need. For example, tell them you have a goal to not smoke weed during the semester. Ask if they will go out with you, even just for a beverage, without it. Or tell someone you want to explore how to make a job search. Ask if they have ideas of how to do it.
  5. Use the drag. This is like swimming with the current to gradually pull out of it. Knowing what is potentially bad in your new possibility might be the best information you have. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen in the new situation?” But then also ask,”Could I deal with that?” More often than not, the answer is ‘yes’. So write that down. If it is ‘no’ follow up by noticing if the problem is a.) the worst outcome too awful to tolerate or b) you would need skills to handle it if it occurs. Now at least you have more information to swim with the current and look for new options to pull away.

When depression is a drag, do not expect to move all at once. These kinds of slow and steady steps will strengthen your mood, your body and your mental energy to move forward.