Back in December I opened up about taking a break from writing my dissertation to focus on my mental health. As scary as it was to walk away from research, it turned out to be the right choice for me. Here, I highlight the lessons I learned during this difficult time.
1. Depression Lies
If you’ve never experienced depression, it can be hard to understand what it feels like. The best way I can describe it is that my brain was constantly lying to me. The very things that would have helped me overcome the depression were the things my brain was telling me to avoid. I withdrew from everyone around me, even though just a short phone call with my family would have made me feel better. I stayed in my apartment for days, when a brief walk outside would have lifted my spirits. My brain also said that I would never feel better. The hardest part was gathering the energy to actively fight those lies so I could start the process of getting better.
A friend of mine who had gone through periods of anxiety and depression told me that all of this would eventually pass. She told me about her own struggles during her final PhD year and could relate to all the feelings I was having. The only difference between her and I was that she was past it, and that moment would come for me, too. She encouraged me to convince myself of it, even though it felt like a lie.
3. ... But it Does Take Time
One of the most important pieces of advice I got during my depression was that I needed to learn two things: patience and gratitude. When I was depressed, it was challenging to come up with things to be grateful for (more on that later), but learning patience seemed downright impossible. I had told my advisor I’d be back in three weeks. Eight months later, I’m still not “back to normal.” But the moment I started thinking of overcoming depression as a process - a journey rather than a one-time accomplishment - I stopped suffering.
4. A Break May Not Be Visibly Productive, and That’s OK
I felt guilty taking time off because, not being physically ill, I didn’t feel that I “deserved” to stop working. At first I felt like I had to do something useful with that time, like completing projects I had neglected while I was doing research. Instead it turned out to be a period of apparent inactivity, but immense personal growth. I learned how to be kind to myself, how to have a growth mindset, how to ask for help. None of these lessons are tangible, yet they helped me get to a place where I can see my dissertation for what it really is: a hoop to jump through on my way to better things, rather than a Big Scary Monster that can cause me physical harm.
5. The Side Effects Can be Worse Than the Condition
One of the reasons I ended up taking so much time off is that getting on the correct type and dosage of medication is a lot more complicated than it seems. It takes about 4-6 weeks for a typical SSRI to cause a noticeable effect, so until that happens it’s impossible to tell if the medication is actually working. And even if it does work, the side-effects can be so bad that you might prefer being depressed or anxious. One of the medications I took gave me restless leg syndrome, which happens to fewer than 1% of patients. This was a full 8 weeks after I had asked for time off, and afterward I had to start all over with a new medication.
6. Relationships Get Stronger
There was nothing easy about dealing with anxiety and depression. The past few months have been among some of the most dark and difficult of my life. When I was finally able to reach out to my friends and family (thank you, medication!), it was in a moment of total vulnerability. I had to ask for their help. I had to open up about how awful I felt. I had to try to explain depression to people who had never experienced it before, and it was exhausting. But somehow, these honest and deep conversations we shared helped us grow closer, in a way that I don’t believe is possible when everything is fine. I want to be clear, I definitely would not recommend being depressed as a shortcut to developing relationships! But I do see now that out of all that darkness, something tremendously valuable emerged.
7. Gratitude Is A Powerful Ally
As I mentioned before, a dear friend of mine encouraged me to learn gratitude throughout this process. It seemed kind of futile, but I tried it anyway because I figured it couldn’t hurt. Before bed I would think about everything I could be grateful for, including the ability to take a break from grad school, which is not an option for everyone. I know it sounds kind of hokey, but the point of practicing gratefulness is that the story we focus on is the one that comes true. I could fight depression by forcing my brain to focus on the good aspects of my life, even though I wasn’t feeling very grateful. Depression may be one of the most important moments to apply the “fake it till you make it” mentality.
8. Meditation Is Key
Okay, here’s where I may lose a lot of you. Trust me when I say that I was the most skeptical about this one, and now that I’ve tried it I have to say it truly works (and the literature backs this up). Meditation is one of four clinically proven ways to fight depression, along with medication, exercise, and therapy. On its own it is fairly effective, but when coupled with the other three methods it can be life changing. It was for me.
I’m not talking about sitting cross-legged in an incense-filled room and ridding your mind of all thoughts (although that may work for some people). Meditation is really about becoming more mindful of your thoughts so you can actively engage them and counter the negative ones. Since a spiral of imposter thoughts is what got me here in the first place, practicing mindfulness through meditation has turned out to be the most effective tool in overcoming my anxiety. I had to learn that meditation is a practice, which means you won’t initially be good at it. I got very easily distracted at first, but with time I’ve learned to focus. The Calm app was extremely helpful because it talks you through meditation exercises, so you don’t have to rely on willpower alone.
I want to stress that depression is an illness, one of the most common in the U.S. (in fact, it has recently been shown to be a systemic disease). While I have listed some ways to help fight depression, there’s no bootstrapping your way out of it, or “sucking it up” until it goes away. You have to treat depression just like you would a broken bone - taking it seriously and getting help from a doctor so that it heals properly.
Sometimes psychotherapy, or exercise, or meditation don’t help by themselves and antidepressants are necessary. Sometimes depression can come in waves, and you have to fight through it each time it comes back around. Depression manifests itself differently in everyone, even though there are some common experiences. What worked for me may not work for others, and that’s okay. As Jane McGonigal discusses in her TED talk, the key to fighting the bad guy is to build your endurance, surround yourself with allies, and reach out for help when you need it.