Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Positive thinking won't cure your depression

"Also, I was in possession of a positive outlook, which is just a trick whereby you convince yourself that the desolution of your world is a phase in your personal growth. The weird thing is it works." - Sam Lipsyte 'The Fun Parts'
I've just finished another self-help book that promises to hold the keys to findings happiness. And it got me thinking.

One of the most annoying and frequent things you hear when you have depression and anxiety is “Don’t be so negative.” Or maybe you hear “look on the Brightside.”

I get it; I’m not the most optimistic person on the planet. I don’t gush about making the most of all opportunities or finding the one good thing in a shitty situation. And I never will. I consider myself more of a realist if I’m honest.

Now I don’t know about you, but despite being told to be more positive on countless occasions and trying not to think that the worst may happen, I’m still depressed and anxious.

You see, I think positive thinking is overrated. It’s lauded as the saviour to mental health problems, when in reality it’s more like slapping a mentally ill person across the face with the false promise of the happiness they could have had if their brain was wired differently.

Positive thinking will not cure your mental illness. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its benefits.

I did fall victim to the self-help cult of positivity. I thought that if I read enough books on the subject I would absorb at least a little bit of optimism and happiness. I can’t say I didn’t learn anything, but I certainly didn’t learn how to stop being depressed.

Over three years ago, when my depression first started to ease and I could smile and laugh and feel happiness again, I decided to start reading every self-help book I could get my hands on. I wanted this feeling to last, I wanted my mental illness to stay in ‘recovery’, not to be a daily struggle. So I read and tried to put what I read into practice.

I focused on building resilience. How to make myself stronger in the face of depression and anxiety. I was forging armour for the next time I had to go into battle with my mind.

I learned that I have negative thinking patterns, and spiralling thoughts. And I learned how to challenge negative intrusive thoughts. This is important and a huge skill. But self-help books are all too rarely written from the perspective of someone who has a mental illness. 

And often these skills fail you when you need them most.

When my depression returned to smother me, when I curled up in bed with a self-inflicted migraine and dreaded the next day - telling myself to 'think positively’ didn’t help. When I felt anxious and scratched myself enough to break the skin on my arms, I couldn’t challenge those negative thoughts. When I felt the weight of my mental illness on my shoulders, I felt guilty for not being the positive, happy person those self-help books were supposed to make me.

But yesterday when I was sitting in the canteen in work and thought, “Everyone here must hate me” I could challenge that thought and rationalise how illogical that EVERYONE hates me. Maybe one or two don’t like me, but they probably don’t care enough to hate me.

Positive thinking is something we should be doing every day - not only as a last resort. It’s one of the many coping skills you learn on the path to recovery. But we also should think twice about shoving positivity down the throats of people with mental illness. It’s not always helpful, and can cause more harm than good.

Until next time,

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