How to Be Happy When You’re Not in the Mood

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I’ve been depressed, on and off, these last few weeks. Maybe more. I don’t know.

My depression as a teen didn’t weigh on me. It was angsty and expected. But it worsened. I remember one time in college, locked in an icy Massachusetts winter, dreaming of shedding all my clothes and walking out into the snow. I remember one night at midnight, vacuuming my dorm room, as if cleaning could clear away the awful feeling of being detached from life.

I could live with it, though, until I became a mother. It’s not okay to be depressed while caring for small children. There isn’t room for that shit. There were times I did not want to live. That wasn’t an option, though, because I was a mom and my kids needed me. Since my life was so privileged, I felt churlish and ungrateful to be depressed and not want to live. So on top of being depressed, I felt awful that I allowed myself to be depressed. I refused drugs – who knows what are the long-term effects of those things? – and yet I really really wanted a magic cure.

Being a mother required that I become a much better person. It wasn’t okay to be depressed and tired. I ate less sugar so my blood sugar wouldn’t spike and I wouldn’t become so nasty and hangry. Still, my kids recall that I yelled. A lot. That was me being unable to handle stress. And blowing up. I have never had a high-stress life but I have lived, each moment, holding my breath a fraction too long. I have lived with the constant sense that I am not good enough or doing enough good, and this keeps me on the edge of unworthiness and despair.

I used to say our dog Lola was my Prozac. We’d go out for long walks and somewhere an hour into it, my mood would shift. This was before I was running. Besides walking and running, I discovered Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness. She says happiness is about half genetic and about 10% whatever’s happening in our lives. That’s why I can be depressed even though I have a spectacular life—a home, a family, always enough food to eat. Healthcare. A car of my own to drive. Work that I enjoy. I have a very long list of what makes my life particularly easy and wonderful.

The rest of our happiness is the 40% of techniques and behaviors we choose. The most powerful are the ones that connect us to others, such as expressing gratitude or helping others.

After reading Lyubormirsky’s book, when a bout of depression would overwhelm me, I’d go into solution mode. I’d write out everything for which I’m grateful. I’d write down things that I’d done well (or well enough) to remind myself I have worth. These activities always helped, or maybe there would be some other change – the end of the term, for instance, or the resolution of some conflict that had been wearing me down. I expect that bouts of depression will recur, and my goal is to make those bouts shorter and less intense with more time in between them.

It never feels okay, but I’ve stopped wishing for a drug or a cure. I’m calmer about the whole thing: “Oh, look, depressed, again. Shit. I hate this. I feel haunted. Help. Help! Okay, I’m deep in it now, the really yucky part where I don’t want to live. But other people depend on me and I have a great life, so I’m going to keep moving forward and really hope this starts to feel better soon. I wonder what I can do this time to make it go away. I hope it doesn’t last long. Long walk. Write it out. Tell a few people about it. Distract myself with a good book. Notice how beautiful the sky is and how awesome that Nia class was. Keep breathing. Try to get better sleep. You got this. Keep going.”

One theory of depression is inflammation. Our bodies are inflamed, and we respond by wanting to go hide in a cave until we’re better. This theory makes a lot of sense to me. I saw it with Lola, when she was hurt; she didn’t move or eat or respond for a few days while she healed. I think (think think think think) that certain foods have caused inflammation in me so dramatically that within 24 hours, I’m wishing a truck would take me out. That’s why I stopped eating wheat (btw, current theory is that it’s the fructans, not the gluten, that causes negative reactions in non–celiacs, and I think think think think that could be true for me).

I’m also more depressed when I’m tired because, duh, go to sleep and feel better. Perhaps the sleep helps with the inflammation. Some depression maybe is a response to a change in hormones. Maybe it’s my vagus nerve or my gut biome or my brain chemistry or my genes or my gene expression. Or all those things, cascading. Maybe it’s habit.

When I’m disconnected from spirit, I’m stuck in my head. I’m thinking negative thoughts; I’m worrying or feeling anxious. I may have a glorious hour of relief when I’m dancing or moving or out by the river with Zee. But then I’m tired, and I despair. Everything that aches or itches on my body calls for my attention. I’m staring at everything that’s wrong and that is all that matters. It’s all I can think think think think about. Got a rash? Why? What am I doing that I have a rash? That rash bothers me. Maybe it’s what I’m eating. Or not eating. Let’s look it up online. Let’s try solutions X, Y, and Z. A supplement? What if that supplement makes me worse, not better? This rash means something is wrong with me.

Beth, it’s just a f**king rash. Put on some cream and get on with life.

Anxiety is thought to coincide with a tendency toward depression. There’s some evidence that there are certain genes that predispose us to both. Rumination is the silly human thing we do when we cannot stop thinking about something in an attempt to fix it when really there’s nothing to do but live through it and give it btw waaaaaaay less energy instead of that constant think think think think. Rumination may precede depression and anxiety or maybe it’s all just one big unhappy mix.

I have never used the word anxious to describe myself. Sure, I get depressed, but I rarely have anxiety attacks.

However, I’ve been tracking my brain the past few weeks, and that weird worrying seems a lot like anxiety to me. For instance, on Friday, I spent the morning cleaning. When I’m in the mood, cleaning feels very satisfying. But on this morning, I spent the whole time I was doing things thinking about the other things I wasn’t getting done. I love checking things off a To Do list, and by 8pm, I had checked off so many many things – yet I still felt dissatisfied. I was anxious all day because while I was doing one thing, I was not able to do something else simultaneously. I spent the day being anxious, feeling ill at ease, unable to relax into what I was doing.

Then it hit me: holy heck, I’m an anxious person. Do not laugh at me, those who have met me and have noticed I have a certain tendency to be, oooh, dramatic or intense or completely unable to sit still. I didn’t until this week think, hmmm, maybe “anxious” also describes me. I thought I was cranky or irritable or judgmental or restless or impatient and certainly depressed but I never labeled myself as anxious.

You might think that I would resist this label, but it’s a great relief. Whatever its origins, now I have a name and a perspective. I am not a bad person because on Friday I should have been feeling okay but couldn’t relax. I’m an anxious person who didn’t have the skills to work with my anxiety that day.

When I’m anxious, I can say, “This is what anxiety feels like. It’s a feeling, not a reality. I do not have to respond to it. I do not have to think about it. I just do what I’m doing and it will resolve on its own.” The special name for this is self-talk or mindfulness. Notice what’s happening, give it a name if that helps, and stop the process of distress. I may not be able to stop being anxious but I can stop the distress I feel at being anxious. Or if I can’t stop the distress, I can at least note this isn’t permanent and it’s not a sign of total system collapse.

I think a lot about what I eat. I mean, a constant think think think think. Did those walnuts cause the rash? If I ate just the right things, would my inflammation lessen and my Achilles would not ache so much? I think think think think and I think I might be eating disordered. Maybe so, and also I’m an anxious person and I fixate on food.

One of the cures is to, you know, just eat and don’t worry so much. That doesn’t mean not eating a healthful and nurturing diet. It means not freaking out about walnuts. It means if I have a rash or a speedy heart or any number of unsettling reactions, I can ponder for a short bit and then STFU. Thinking through a problem is good. Rumination should be reserved for life-threatening situations in which I must really think through an issue. Otherwise, stop it. Stop.

Lyubomirsky has suggestions for when we are stuck in rumination. The first is my favorite: distract. Do something to take our mind away. I like to read, immersed in another world, a fake one, and most enjoyably an impossible one (sci fi and fantasy and none of that political allegorical stuff). Lyubomirsky also suggests writing it down, which does help me. Movement helps. Hugs help.

Neither my depression nor my anxiety is life-threatening. They drain my joy and energy, but they haven’t stopped me from being functional and productive. There’s possibly a positive flip side to them; in some ways, perhaps they have stimulated growth. 

I recognize that for some people, depression and anxiety is debilitating and life-threatening. I recognize that self-talk, writing things down, and distraction as coping skills could be like using a fly swatter to deal with Godzilla. I’m not talking about depression and anxiety as conditions; I’m talking about me. 

This depression and anxiety and worrying and rumination are simply part of who I am now. Here’s the kicker: I can love these things about myself. Yeah, I’m a sometimes depressed and frequently anxious Jew who overthinks things. Yeaaaah, that’s me.