Mapping the full scope of your depression requires a searching look beyond symptoms to include the way you’re living your life as a whole. When tracking symptoms, the focus is on what’s wrong, what you can no longer do. Following daily life means focusing on what you do, the specific actions you take in response to the situations you run into.
By following your daily actions, it’s easier to spot the patterns of depression’s impact on the way you’re living. You can see more clearly when the illness seems to drive everything you do and when you feel have some room to maneuver. Those are the openings for change that let you begin a recovery process.
Learning the Habits of Depression
You know too well the pervasive impact of depression in undermining your capabilities, vitality, sense of self-worth and the will to take action. One of the most damaging effects on daily life hits the expectations you have about your future. You come to expect that things will work out badly no matter what you try.
As this happens internally, you start acting almost by habit in ways that reflect all the negatives that now fill your mind. The worst experiences and the pain they cause become the standard guiding daily behavior.
You may be afraid that if you try to take on these difficult problems, even when feeling better, you will provoke a collapse. You come to expect that you won’t be able to handle them and avoidance becomes almost habitual, often triggered outside your awareness, like a reflex action.
I’ve found that tracking and mapping out what I do help me build the awareness I need to move forward. Here’s how I used the method and what I was able to learn.
Becoming Aware by Suspending Judgment
The first step is becoming aware of what I do and how that behavior is shaped by depression. Then I can start to ask questions. Why do I always act that way? Do I feel better as a result? Does it feel like a healing step or one I’m forced to do because of depression? Trying to answer at least gives me a starting point to work from.
To do this, I realized that I had to suspend judgment. I needed to stop blaming myself and listening to mental tapes of self-condemnation. Instead, I had to pause the obsessive thinking about all my shortcomings and failures – and simply look at what I did each day and the situations I had to deal with.
Patterns of Avoiding
Avoiding the dangers of a depression crisis was for years the most common element guiding my actions in daily life. It’s probably the best example I can give about how the mapping process works for me.
I put up many defenses to protect myself from depression, but most of them turned out to be self-defeating. I believed quite deeply at the time, however, that my best strategy for defending myself was to avoid the situations I couldn’t handle.
Finding the patterns of avoidance – and the variety of methods for doing it – was the eye-opener.
There were so many activities that triggered deep anxiety and the fear that they would overwhelm me. I’d tell myself: I just know that I can’t handle this right now. I’m exhausted or not up to it or incapable of responding. Often the trigger was an unfamiliar social situation, an unexpected demand at work, a difficult meeting.
Whatever it might be, all the depressive beliefs and symptoms came to the fore: the cloudy thinking, the anxiety, the expectation that I couldn’t do it, my lack of ability, the certainty of failure, the loss of short-term memory, my slowed-down thinking and speaking, the droning inner voice telling me no, no, no in a dozen different ways..
I felt I had to get away, to rest and recoup, find a way to deal with this – on my own, alone, safe. If I couldn’t get away, then I would disappear in place, hiding in plain site, saying nothing, feeling completely detached and uninvolved.
Being passive was another strategy, leaving it to someone else to take the initiative, constantly deferring, not daring to impose my own point of view. I felt fear about my own emotions, that any feeling would be dangerous to release.
I tried to avoid facing anger from anyone because I was dependent on what others thought of me. My own self concept sank so low that facing anger was unbearable, confirming my worst beliefs about being worthless. I avoided those situations as much as I could by trying to please everyone and preventing conflict.
Asking Hard Questions
These are a few of the patterns of avoidance that emerged. Only by recording what I did could I take a more detached view of what was happening. I tried to put down what I had done, what I was reacting to and what was driving me to act in that way.
I could then start to ask questions. They sound simple, but it was hard to answer them honestly since I so often wanted to say I had no control over what I did. That wasn’t always true.
Did it help to get away, to be alone? In a few cases, the answer was yes. There are times when severe depression leaves you no choice and you have to get help. You’ve got to get away. The isolation may not cure anything, but it’s one way you try to help yourself.
Most often, though, avoiding hard situations plunged me deeper into depression. I felt like a failure. Stress and anxiety increased as I battered myself and sank into hopelessness.
On balance, I realized that avoiding difficult situations usually cost me more than it gave. I was acting on fear most of the time, and I felt terrible living that way.
Instead of giving me strength and time to get some energy back, it only increased the stress I was generating. I could feel myself frying in it.
What stood out from the mapping was the way I was narrowing down the scope of my life. Trying to stay safe meant defending myself within a constantly shrinking perimeter.
So long as I kept myself confined and alone, I excluded any opportunity for breaking out of depression. Mapping what I did provided no answers or solutions, but by adding a new level of awareness it helped me find a place to begin to change.