I woke up one day and decided to be happy.
I’d been struggling with anxiety and depression for a long while, and I’d had enough. My friendships were being impacted, my body was being affected, and it was even beginning to shape what kind of mother I am.
I didn’t want to be depressed.
I didn’t want to feel so anxious.
I hated gasping for breath and feeling so on-edge all the time. I hated how short my fuse was and how easily I’d lose my cool. I wanted to feel joy again, wanted to care about what I ate for dinner, wanted to care about if I ate anything at all, care about whether I saw my friends this month, care about when I’d last showered. I was miserable, and I’d been that way for far too long.
So I decided it was time to make a change. I decided, instead, to be happy.
I woke up and smiled. I made my bed. I thought about all of the blessings in my life, all of the good things I have going for me, how fortunate I am, especially in comparison to so many around the world. I reframed each inconvenience as an opportunity for growth. I drank plenty of water, soaked up the sunshine, went for a walk, and snuggled my dogs. I filled my body and mind with positive, enriching things and fed myself goodness instead of depression, peace instead of anxiety.
I decided to be happy . . . and it didn’t work at all.
Social media is full of well-meaning (and often ill-informed) posts and platitudes about how happiness is a mindset, how we choose joy for ourselves, as though depression or anxiety were an option we’d been selecting all along. Tweets and memes flood our consciousness with advice that is more harmful than helpful, urging sufferers to get out, get moving, get happy.
The problem with telling someone to choose joy is that it assumes the person had a choice at all to begin with. Reducing anxiety and depression to a simple lack of sunshine and exercise is dangerously arrogant. Taking a walk and spending time outdoors may improve a bad mood, sure, and most people are lacking in Vitamin D as it is, so enjoying some sunshine can certainly be beneficial. But simply breathing fresh air or making a list of all you have to be thankful for does nothing to balance the chemicals and hormones that have put your body into a state of anxiety or depression. A hike or a smoothie won’t help train an anxious person’s thoughts to become suddenly rational.
Depression and anxiety are not a state of being ungrateful or worried, nor are they a mindset that is chosen by the sufferer.
Someone suffering from anxiety or trapped in depression cannot just change their mind and decide to be happy any more than a diabetic person can choose to suddenly produce enough insulin.
Clinical depression is not a mindset that needs re-directing, it’s a diagnosis that needs treatment.
Anxiety is not a decision that can be changed or a perspective that just needs adjusting, it’s a battle within the mind that puts the entire body into fight-or-flight mode and often requires medical intervention to control.
I decided I didn’t want to be depressed anymore, but it didn’t help.
I decided I wasn’t OK with being anxious, and I had four panic attacks that day.
Yes, I prayed. Yes, I journaled. Yes, I was determined, truthful, desperate, and committed to improving my mental health. But I just couldn’t do it on my own.
And I definitely couldn’t do it just by deciding to.
I spoke with my doctor. I spoke with my counselor. I made appointments. I filled prescriptions. I took my pills. I shared my feelings.
I did the work . . . and I noticed a difference.
I didn’t need help adjusting my perspective, I needed help producing serotonin. I didn’t need to be told that my anxiety was a lack of faith, I needed to recognize it as an abundance of panic chemicals. I didn’t need judgment, I needed trained intervention.
I still struggle with depression. I still find myself held captive by anxiety. I still try to think positive, eat well, take deep breaths, and do things that bring me joy. I also take medication, speak with professionals, and recognize that anxiety and depression are not my fault, nor are they my choice. I see them for what they are—conditions. Conditions that need to be treated.
We cannot bully away depression with aggressive happiness or thankfulness. Anxiety isn’t intimidated by lists or gratitude. Depression isn’t something we select each morning, as though we’re ordering our attitude off a menu.
These are very real, very treatable conditions that are incredibly prevalent yet wildly misunderstood.
If you’re feeling sunken into a pit of depression, you don’t have to stay there. If your body is always bracing for an attack and your mind brings you frequent panic, you can be free of these anxious binds. If you need help, please ask for it. Don’t feel guilty that you couldn’t feel better on your own. Don’t punish yourself for continuing to struggle. Recognize that your pain is real and this needs real help.
Mental illness is not looking to be convinced to leave, so take no shame in rounding up a posse to run it out of town. Don’t change your mind about how you want to feel, change it about how you find the help you need to do it.