How to pull yourself out of depression
I have suffered from depression and I pulled myself out of it so I wanted to write something to help others. I was very reluctant to write this, however, because I know that everybody is different and my “advice” may mean nothing to you. So please take everything with a grain of salt.
This is a work in progress so please let me know your thoughts and how to improve it. It’s probably my most ambitious work so it needs a lot of help.
Step One: Understand What Depression Is
The first step in battling depression is understanding what depression is. Depression is fundamentally a chemical imbalance in your brain. Your brain releases chemicals that make you feel good (dopamine, serotonin, etc...) and chemicals that make you feel bad. Depression is simply when you have too much of the bad chemicals.
Why do some people have too much of the bad chemical? Science does not know for sure. Some severely depressed people believe that the chemical imbalance is solely caused by genetics or other things they can’t control. That might be true to an extent, but I believe that at least part of your depression is caused by things you have control over: your thoughts and your actions. Even though depression is fundamentally a chemical imbalance, we can do things to change the chemicals in our brain. In this article I will focus on things that you can change – there is no use of fretting over things you can’t change.
Here is my slightly scientific guess of what causes depression:
Depression, like all emotions in human beings, has an evolutionary reason. Humans evolved to feel good when we do something good (i.e., ate healthy food, or make love to a beautiful woman) and to feel bad when we fuck up so that we don’t fuck up again. When something bad happens and we become depressed, our emotions dry up and we ruminate because we are programmed to put everything to the side and just think to figure out what we did wrong. Scientists have identified different types of depression for different types of fucking up –rejection depression happens when somebody we care about rejects us (i.e., a break up): we lose our appetite and can’t sleep because we literally think we are in the woods alone. There is also a type of depression where we feel useless to society so we just want to die – evolutionary, it makes sense for the useless members of the tribe to just die.
Depression is so destructive in human beings because those evolutionary emotions don’t correspond to reality and therefore don’t help us in the real, modern world. Usually they hurt us. For example, we may FEEL like we “fucked up” when we really haven’t or feel like we are useless when we are not. Our parents, friends or teachers may make us think that we “fucked up” if we didn’t get a job that pays $100,000 a year. In reality that’s dumb - you can be perfectly happy without $100,000 a year, but if you’re convinced you fucked up then the depression emotions kick in. The reason depression is sometimes called a “chemical imbalance” is because we have too much of the bad chemical even though nothing bad actually happened.
Rumination also doesn’t help if we don’t have all of the necessary information. If your girlfriend dumps you, you may ruminate endlessly to figure out why (BTW, this is why guys want “closure” so much – who gives a shit about closure when the relationship is over?). But rumination is useless because you can’t read her mind so you will never really know why she dumped you. Maybe she was cheating on you and you never did anything wrong. Maybe she never liked you in the first place. Maybe she’s just crazy. Even if you did figure it out, that rumination is useless because you need to move on anyway. Ruminating on something without adequate information is like a hamster running on a wheel – you will never get anywhere.
The real danger of depression is confabulation. Confabulation is when our emotions hijack our rational thought processes, so we THINK we are being rational but we are really just justifying our emotions. A recovering alcoholic will come up with a brilliant argument to justify why he should have JUST ONE DRINK. He may think he is being rational and logical, but really he is just being tricked by his emotions that want alcohol.
Depression confabulates negative thoughts in our head. If you get dumped, you may think to yourself “I will never find somebody else again.” Of course, that’s totally irrational – you can definitely find somebody else again. That thought is your depression hijacking your mind.
Here is why depression is super fucked up: let’s say you are depressed for 5 years. In that 5 years you will think a lot – but many times when you have a thought your depression will hijack your rational brain and make you think something negative rather than the rational thing. After hundreds of thousands of thought cycles, your brain will be now filled with negative thoughts about how much you fucked up and will never succeed and those negative, terrible thoughts will be reinforced and backed up with negative emotions. Those negative thoughts and emotions will then lead to more negative thoughts and emotions and you will form whole belief patterns and ideologies based on those negative thought processes, and those negative patterns will entrench themselves deeply into your neural networks and habits. A lot of times when you meet really unsuccessful people or people from the ghetto you will see that they have deeply entrenched negative belief systems.
That is why depression is such a miserable pit for people to climb out of – they are literally buried under piles and piles of negative emotions and limiting beliefs. That’s why it takes a lot of time and work to pull yourself out of depression and clear away those emotions and thoughts. To make matters worse, those negative emotions make us feel “comfortable” and even though they are harmful to us, we feel even worse when we try to be confident or ambitious.
Worse yet, humans beings are designed to be excellent at focusing. That’s why we have had so many great artists and scientists throughout human history – we have a tendency to get obsessed with something and block out the rest of the world. However, when that thing is bad, we may lose sight of the bigger picture and just focus on the one bad thing that happened. People that are depressed often get obsessed with their failures and forget about all the good things in their life and the positive possibilities.
Step Two: Change Your Thinking
I believe that to defeat depression, one must look at the world in a fundamentally new way. Our beliefs about reality, the meaning of life, and our future are crucial in determining how happy we are.
Assume all unknown information is positive
You have 3 types of information in your brain: good things that are going on in your life, bad things that are going on in your life, and things that you are still uncertain of because you don’t have enough information. If a good thing happens to you, you feel good because of evolution. If a bad thing happens to you (i.e., you get fired from your job), you feel bad because of evolution. However, evolution never figured out how to handle uncertainty – how do you feel when you don’t have enough information to figure out whether it is bad or good? Well, a depressed person just defaults to negative. If they don’t something, they just assume it’s bad.
This is incredibly harmful because 99% of the information that is relevant to your life is uncertain. You just don’t know what your future holds. You don’t know what people really think about you, how much your skills stack up to others, what luck you will have, etc... Life is just full of uncertainty. Depression takes all this uncertain information and just assumes it is negative. You just had an interview? You’re probably not good enough to get it. You want to approach a girl? She’s probably out of your league. “Negative” is the default for depression.
To fight depression, you must assume that all the uncertain facts are positive. You absolutely must believe that everything will be awesome, the universe loves you, you can succeed at anything you try, any girl will fuck you, and you will be happy beyond your wildest dreams. You’ve never acted in a movie? Doesn’t matter, you still might win an Oscar this year. I’ll be honest: this is a little delusional. Some of those uncertain facts may end up being negative for you. But you shouldn’t worry about that until you get there and you KNOW they are negative. As long as you don’t know, you MUST assume the facts are positive for you. That girl you’ve never talked to? She probably really likes you. That interview you just did? You’re probably going to get it. Go to the extreme: you need to think that literally anything is possible, you might become a billionaire tomorrow, the rules of the world do not apply to you, and God will love you and give you whatever you want. Of course, don’t make decisions based on irrational positivity, but use the irrational positivity to motivate you.
You may object and say “I can’t fix depression with being delusional.” First of all, yes you can. Studies have shown that feeding people delusional thoughts can make them happier – even when they know it’s fake! In fact, if somebody did something wrong to you, you can make yourself feel better by writing a fake letter from them to you apologizing and reading it to yourself every day for a week. Your rational brain may know you are lying to yourself, but your emotions don’t. The same way depression can irrationally trick your emotions into feeling bad, you can irrationally trick your emotions into feeling good. Second, you’re not really being delusional: you’re just making positive assumptions about facts you don’t know. It’s not technically wrong and this type of optimism is helpful. In fact, it is the basis for most religion. No human being knows whether or not God actually exists or whether he actually loves us or whatever, but people believe that and feel better. It works! Thinking negatively is usually bad for you unless you are working on fixing a specific thing that you are doing wrong.
Please also keep in mind that depression is causing you to irrationally think negatively, so you need to counterbalance that somehow. Some people think overly positively and are naïve. That’s bad as well, but depression is the opposite problem. If your view of reality is warped to be negative you need to balance it out.
To think positively you need a daily routine. This could be many things: reading inspirational stuff, listening to music, praying, chanting, meditation, affirmations, self-talk. Whatever. You should also engage in meta-cognition (thinking about your thoughts). Let’s say you have a negative belief: next time it pops into your head, analyze it logically. Is it backed up by facts or did your depression just convince you it was true? Are you afraid of getting fired? Why? Are you obsessing over some small fact?
Whenever something bad happens, figure out why it happened and how you can prevent it in the future. If it is something you can’t control, you need to figure out how to accept it. If you made a mistake, figure out what you did wrong and don’t do it again. Try to learn something from every failure. And then, move on and don’t let it make you feel shitty anymore. And don’t let that one negative thing infect the rest of your thinking and make you think your world is crashing down around you.
Give up on the life you wanted or thought you deserved
This is going to sound weird, so bear with me here.
It’s a huge oversimplification, but you can generally characterize depression or happiness with this formula: Happiness = Where you are – where you think you should be. If where you are is greater than where you think should be, then you will be happy. That is why gratitude is so important for happiness – people literally feel like they lucked out in life, so they feel good. If, however, where you are is LESS than where you think you should be, then you will feel depressed. In other words, you have a fake image of what you should have accomplished and you will feel like you “fucked up” because you aren’t there yet. This is the main thing I hear when I talk to depressed people.
Part of the reason so many people in our society are depressed is that pop culture and the media keep feeding us images of what we should have and be. Everybody feels like they should have a huge house, an awesome career, a beautiful family, a nice car, vacations in the tropics, etc... And when they don’t have these things they feel depressed.
The key to being happy is detaching yourself from all of those external things and just being happy with what you have. You are a piece of dust moving through the universe and the only thing you can do is the right thing at every moment. You can’t focus on the big picture all the time – just do what you know you need to do right now. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Not only is that the right thing to do – it is the ONLY thing you can do. Obsessing over all the things you want or are supposed to have will only bring misery. This is going to be very difficult for most people because we are ingrained with certain values and goals from an early age and it will take a huge shift in thinking to abandon those things. But you have to remember that humans are frail beings and nobody has figured out what a “happy” life is and they certainly haven’t figured out what YOUR happy life is. Everybody is born into a different situation and it takes a weird combination of hard work, luck, a head start, and a certain personality type to end up at any particular point. And anything you accomplish can disappear in a second because reality is a cruel motherfucker. We are all on a different journey and for some of us, our journey will not lead to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. That’s ok – life isn’t about impressing anybody or achieving some pre-set goal some asshole you never met made up for you. Just be happy.
Give up on where you think you should be and just enjoy your day to day life. Stop thinking about being a rock star or a billionaire and just focus on being a good person, doing a good job today, and enjoying lunch. The little things in life should make you happy. The big things are great, but you shouldn’t have an emotional attachment to them and you definitely shouldn’t feel bad because you are not there yet. Life is all about little steps: you have to put one foot ahead of the other, and you will eventually make it.
We live in a society that is obsessed with goals, but I think it is stupid and unhealthy to form an irrational emotional attachment to a goal that you may not be able to achieve or may not be right for you. I have been doing stand up comedy for 6 years now and I have run into a lot of people that should quit because they just are not good enough and never will be. These people are depressed and miserable because they have this image in their head of what their life should be, and fail to recognize that happiness is a day to day thing and even if you do “make it” you will find some other reason to be unhappy.
Don’t get me wrong: I think people should have goals and work hard: I am not saying give up on life or be lazy. The last thing you should do is smoke pot and watch TV all day. But your goals should be in the back of your mind and they shouldn’t emotionally dominate you or overwhelm you. At any given point, you should be thinking about what you are doing at moment rather than your far off goals.
Ever since I started thinking like this, I have been much more successful, because instead of having my head in the clouds, I got down to business and did the hard day to day work that nobody wants to do or even talk about.
Realize that depression is an irrational emotion and does not represent reality
Now that you know that depression is essentially a mix of chemicals that make you feel bad even though you don’t deserve it, you can slowly start rebooting those negative thoughts and feelings you have. The next time a voice in your head tells you something negative, realize that the voice is not “you” but rather a chemical that is lying to you to make you feel like shit. Let’s say you’ve always thought of yourself as bad with girls. Next time that thought or feeling pops into your head, analyze it rationally: are you really bad with girls? Or do you just think you are, and is that thought fucking you up? Maybe your failure with girls is based on some small thing you can easily fix? Or maybe you just think “I suck at girls” and have used that thought as an excuse to not get better. Meta cognition is extremely important and is one of the reasons you need to bring in outside people who can view you objectively to help you get better.
The cascade of negative thoughts that comes with depression can sometimes even convince you that reality has consciousness and favors other people instead of you. This is one of those beliefs you need to logically analyze and realize is bullshit. Reality, to the best anybody can tell, is just a series of logical rules that doesn’t give a flying fuck about anybody. The President can die of a heart attack tomorrow and a homeless guy can win the lottery and become richer than Donald Trump. You can either fear reality and be intimidated by it, or just see it as a tool that you can use to achieve happiness. If you absolutely want to believe that reality has consciousness, go ahead, but why not assume that it loves you and wants you to be the king of the world?
Be suspicious of all of your emotions
That insane cascade of negative thoughts and emotions can affect any one of your emotions, so beware. Let’s say you are having “oneitis” for a girl. Try some meta-cognition: do you really “love” that girl or is your depression convincing you that you need her? Let’s say you hate somebody and want to get revenge on them – think about logically: is it worth your time and mental energy to pursue a vindictive grudge against them or is your depression causing that? Let’s say there is somebody abusive in your life – do you actually need that person in your life or is your depression making you feel like you need them?
Step Three: Fix your day to day life
Positive thoughts are great, but at the end of the day you need to reverse the flow of shitty chemicals in your brain and the only way you can do that is through action. You need “wins” – things you succeed at. These wins will boost your dopamine in a healthy way and fight those shitty networks created by depression.
Tackle your problems head-on The only way you can solve your depression is if you tackle your problems head-on. There are a lot of ideologies that advocate “not caring” or “disconnecting” yourself from reality – they don’t work. You need to engage in reality and get some “wins.” You can’t just give up and accept defeat – that won’t make you feel better. There is nothing wrong with practicing stoicism or Buddhism to make yourself feel better, but at the end of the day you still need to figure out a way to solve your problems and you need “wins.” Only after you start consistently getting wins will you be happy.
Get help Get therapy if you need it. Find yourself positive friends that will help you get better. Ditch people that are negative influences, especially people who don’t understand depression or just tell you to “snap out of it.” Find yourself a role model that you want to be like so you can work towards being like them. Find yourself a mentor that will give you advice to achieve your goals. Find positive places on the internet that will help you improve. You need objective voices that aren’t buried under the same avalanche of negative thoughts and emotions you are and then YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO THEM. Your negative thoughts will try to ignore them but you need to be open minded and listen to them even if they sound crazy. And of course, stay away from other depressed or negative or shitty people. Don’t be ashamed to get help!
Succeed in a practice A practice is an activity that you actually get better at and can produce tangible results. Painting, cooking, Crossfit, bodybuilding, stand up comedy, and getting good at your job are all practices. Watching movies, being a “foodie,” and playing video games are not practices. There is nothing wrong with those things, but they won’t pull you out of depression. Practices have objective standards that you need to meet to be successful and once you meet those standards you will feel good because you conquered something. I believe that engaging in a practice is the best way to happiness because it gives you those “wins” you need to feel happy.
Adopt small goals Maybe you can’t decide on a practice to pursue or feel intimidated by the difficulty of the practice that you engage in. Your depression may say to you “there is no way you’ll ever be successful at this so don’t even try.” Start off with giving yourself incredibly tiny goals that you definitely know you can achieve – then when you achieve those goals you get a small “win.” When I was in the depth of my depression, my goal was to just brush my teeth every day. Everything after that in the day was a bonus. I know that sounds absurd, but it gave my life meaning and purpose and made me feel better. After that became a routine, I then moved to slightly bigger goals. Even today, when I am feeling overwhelmed with work, I will set a tiny goal for myself – all I need to do today is X and then I can go home. Right now, you can instantly boost your self-esteem by focusing on one small thing in your life. You can promise to yourself “my hair will look awesome every day” or “I will stop making X mistake at work.” Even those little things will make you feel better.
**Do the regular things you know stop depression** You’ve seen them a million times other places, but I will just list them again: go to the gym, eat better, get enough sleep, do things that help you relax, do something spiritual, stimulate yourself intellectually, eliminate shitty things from your life. Etc...
Beware of cheap happiness “Cheap happiness” is anything that makes you feel good but is ultimately not beneficial for you or even may be bad. This includes drugs, women, porn, speeding, wasting time on the internet, watching TV, playing video games, etc... While there is nothing normally wrong with a little bit of cheap happiness, depressed people are prone to become addicted because they are miserable and these things make them feel good, even if it is for a fleeting moment. A lot of depressed people try to “escape” their problems with cheap happiness, only to come back and realize that the problem has only gotten worse since they left reality. Just as depression creates negative neural pathways in your brain, feeding yourself cheap happiness when nothing else is making you happy will re-wire your brain to rely on these things for happiness
**Adopt a routine and a strict schedule** This is probably the most important thing on this list. You need a routine and a strict schedule. If you read famous people’s biographies you will notice that they all had strict schedules. This is because depression, laziness, and “cheap happiness” are evil monsters lurking in the back of your head constantly ready to get you, whether or not you have depression. If you don’t create absolutely strict boundaries for yourself, you can easily find yourself lost in a Wikipedia spiral or worse a drug or porn binge. The only way you can ward these monsters off is to set aside a chunk of time when you are absolutely committed to doing your work or engaging in your practice. Even if you are too depressed to actually do anything, you need to sit there and ride it out – just sticking to your schedule will give you a win. If you don’t have the willpower to do it yourself, find somebody who will force you to do your work.
To stop cheap happiness from ruining your life, budget some money and time in your schedule for your favorite types of cheap happiness, but absolutely cut yourself off when your budget runs out. For example, I limit myself to $50 worth of alcohol a week and I never stay out with a girl past 3 AM unless she has already fucked me. If you can’t stick to your budget, you need to cut that thing off for good. Can’t control your drinking? Stop drinking – find some other type of cheap happiness.
**Rationalize your life** When you are depressed, your emotions will be working against you – they will want you to be listless, lazy, or go on crazy binges of cheap happiness. You have to fight that by organizing your life rationally. You need a strict schedule, a strict budget for your money, and strict rules that you absolutely cannot break (for example, no staying up after 10 PM on a weekday). This may sound childish, but until you have built up these good habits, you need them to be imposed on you from the outside. I use the app Evernote for all the “rational” information for my life: my to do list, my grocery list, my calendar (with notifications), preferred businesses, books to read, and information about my bills, my car and home maintenance, etc...
Authors Note: A lot of the material in this post is based on the excellent book "Angst" by Jeffry Kahn. I really recommend that you read it. You can buy it here: