Along with its other unpleasant side-effects, depression often wipes out motivation. This is unfortunate, since overcoming depression requires energy and focus. And for many, the loss of motivation in itself drags them down and deepens the gloom.
The Nature of Depression
Whenever the topic of depression comes up, it is always important to first be clear just what is meant by that over-used word. Those afflicted with depression often resent the casual way in which friends and colleagues use it. In particular, they resent people describing mere boredom or irritation as “depression.” Indeed, some people say things like, “I hate rainy Mondays – they make me so depressed,” or even “I was so hungry at lunchtime, but they’d run out of my favorite sandwiches. God, so depressing!” Depression is quite different to the moments of frustration and low mood that characterize an average week.
Those who really suffer from depression describe it as “like annihilation,” or like being “wiped out.” All color, joy and interest drains from the world (think of Hamlet, undoubtedly the most famous depressive in literature, who says “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world”). Things that used to give you a thrill now mean nothing. Some find it almost impossible to move and sit all day staring out the window; others will literally refuse to get out of bed. Many yearn to disappear, to simply not exist (Hamlet famously speaks of his body as “too, too solid” and longs for it to “melt, thaw, resolve itself into a dew”).
The Loss of Motivation
When it comes to loss of motivation, first there is the simple effect of depression itself. Stephen Fry, a sufferer of bipolar disorder, once said that when depressed it takes discipline just to rise from his chair and walk across the room. Depression affects the body as well as the mind. Indeed, many experience physical symptoms: a lurching stomach, shivering down the arms, aches and pains, and so on. The body can seem almost paralyzed.
More generally, depression affects your thoughts and perceptions. In other words, not only is it difficult to get the body moving, people cannot see any point in doing so. In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer says “what’s the point of going out, we’re just going to wind up back here.” Of course, this is a joke, and yet it neatly captures the way many depressed people think. Since nothing means anything, and since everything is black and colorless, why bother to summon up the energy and effort to go to the park?
The neuroscientists explain this through the operation of “neurotransmitters.” This explanation remains controversial (SSRI anti-depressants work by raising the amount of serotonin in the brain), but it is backed by research and evidence. Some focus in particular on dopamine. This is a key neurotransmitter, not only in depression but also in Parkinson’s. And it has been noted that those taking drugs to boost dopamine levels often become over-motivated – indulging in reckless sexual encounters, gambling, and so on. When depressed, people cannot be bothered to do anything; when pumped with dopamine they seem unable to restrain themselves.
Getting Motivated When Depressed
So what can you do? Obviously, you must start by trying to reduce the depression itself. Those vulnerable to the disorder usually have an action plan they can put into operation when it strikes: cutting out sugar, caffeine, alcohol and junk food; beginning a regimen of regular, gentle exercise; watching lots of lighthearted, cheerful DVDs; reaching out to kind and loving friends, and so on. Such things may not rid you of depression, but they will reduce its impact.
Depressed people tend to be very harsh on themselves, as their self-esteem drains away and they obsess over every failing and mistake. When they struggle to get motivated, this in turn becomes a source of shame and deepens their self-loathing. For example, a mother may be so depressed she cannot motivate herself to take her daughter swimming, though she promised her last week. The child’s disappointment cuts her to the heart and intensifies her sense of worthlessness. Be kinder to yourself. You are in the grips of a serious illness, one that causes immense pain and can even prove fatal.
Next, be realistic. Don’t expect to be the life and soul of the party. Don’t even expect to socialize. It cannot be said too often that depression is serious. It has nothing to do with being “fed up” or “whiney.” Make your goals small and realistic. And when you achieve them, pat yourself on the back – or give yourself a little reward. It is also important to avoid being overwhelmed. When people are depressed, they feel guilt. To compensate, they set themselves unrealistic targets in order to prove they aren’t worthless. When they fail, it then seems to confirm the opposite.
So make your goals attainable: even if it is just making a sandwich or washing your hair. And tackle them one at a time. People who endure a trauma often recall how they survived, for example, a trek across the desert, by saying to themselves “just reach that tree,” and then, having reached it “well done, now forget everything and try to reach that boulder,” and so on. The key is to get moving. Once you do, the momentum will build.
People feel motivated when life seems worth living. Don’t allow depression to rob you of this. It is true that depression turns everything into a soulless black sludge, but you can fight it. Gradually, as the depression eases, chinks of light will shine through (what the English-British poet Robert Graves called the “shining space between dark and dark.”). In the meantime, remind yourself of all the good things. Avoid the news and avoid social media. Instead, read aloud from favorite poems or novels. And maybe order yourself lots of silly, inexpensive little treats online (cheap, secondhand paperbacks or DVDs for example). That way, a new present will appear in your mailbox each day.
As the depression recedes, try something new. It doesn’t have to be radically different or scary, but it may help if you can break your normal routine. Walk the dog somewhere different, for example, or do the weekly shop in a store on the other side of town. For now, just make it your goal to do these things. Don’t put yourself under pressure to enjoy them, or even to complete them.
Three words you often hear from a depressed individual are “what’s the point?” Of course, this is meant as a rhetorical question. Depression is a nasty, vicious illness that poisons the mind, altering how people see the world. So be careful not to feed your negative thoughts. Protect your mind. The depression will urge you to fill it with dark and miserable things – even to seek them out. One way to combat this (assuming you feel up to it) is by acting as if happy. Try smiling, allowing yourself to laugh, or wearing bright and cheerful clothes.
The American psychologist William James famously likened depression to bad weather. After a couple of days of low, grey sky and drizzle it hardly seems possible that the sun will return. But depression is no different. When trapped in it, you cannot believe you will ever feel different. But, as James stressed, you must remind yourself that the clouds do disperse and the sun does return.