If you or a loved one suffers from depression, bipolar disorder or another type of mental disorder, you’ve probably heard this axiom many times. But what does it really mean?
A more accurate depiction is that mental health problems distort our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. They strip away joy and happiness, leaving desolation and despair in their place.
Fortunately, you have the power to rediscover — and reclaim — your joy. It just takes a little work.
HOW DEPRESSION STEALS YOUR JOY
The human brain is programmed to seek rewards that produce positive feelings. We might find our joy in reading, going for a run or spending the afternoon with a good friend. For those who live with depression, the activities that once brought happiness lose their luster.
Reward erosion is the psychological term used to describe this declining perception of joy or pleasure that depression brings about. Influenced by this cognitive distortion, sadness creeps in and takes over both our thoughts and behaviors. And as a result, we stop pursuing our favorite pastimes because they don’t sound like any fun any longer. Eventually, life becomes a blur of avoidance and emptiness.
The pursuit of rewards and enjoyment come naturally to most people. But with the right combination of intention, effort, and professional support, depression sufferers can overcome this cycle of sadness.
MAKE JOY A MISSION
For those who have never experienced depression, this probably sounds like a strange concept. For those of us who battle depression or bipolar disorder, however, fighting depression’s cognitive distortion requires commitment.
The first step is reacquainting yourself with rewards and their pursuit. Think about the activities you used to love, or that you had on your bucket list, and write them down. Ignore the inner monologue that encourages you to pooh-pooh each one, and write them down anyway.
Be sure to take a moment to be proud of yourself for making your list. It’s the first step to reclaiming your joy. Now, pick one of the activities on your list and do it. Don’t give yourself time to think; just do.
PRACTICE JOY AND HAPPINESS
Once you’ve taken this critical first step, capitalize on your momentum and take another one. To become good at reclaiming your joy from depression, you’ll have to practice.
Engaging in a particular pattern of thought — depression and sadness, for example — creates established neural pathways in the brain. The longer you maintain these negative thought patterns, the more entrenched they become. Imagine forging a path through a dense forest; the more often you take that exact path, the easier the passage becomes.
But like our forest path, you can forge new neural pathways in your brain, and all it takes is practice. The first trip through the forest won’t be easy. You’ll have to force yourself to keep whacking away at the tree limbs and brush. But the second trip will be easier, and the third easier still.
Practice seeking joy, at least at first, by following your list. Engage in each of the activities you listed and then go back and do them again. You may find it helpful to keep a journal about your experiences, because after a day or two, cognitive distortion will come knocking. When that happens, revisit your journal for proof that you enjoyed yourself. This will keep you focused on taking that next step in reclaiming your joy from the clutches of depression.
For a real-world glimpse into the process of reclaiming your happiness and well-being from depression, read Justin Peck’s moving new book, Bulletproof. In it, he shares his inspirational story of finding light at the end of the tunnel and reclaiming his zest for life in the face of bipolar disorder and depression.
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