February 2023 – Swimming Upstream: Social Life During Depression

In this month’s article, I answer a reader’s question about how to build and maintain a social life during depression, and give an outline of the program elements that help. As ever, there’s no guarantee with depression, and it is work to come out of depression. There’s no way around that, but when you come to terms with that, you have a big advantage in the inevitable wrestling match that depression presents.

Wherever you are in the world, may your February be full of the right mix of challenge and support, work and grace.

A description of the challenge of a social life during depression.

One of the more painful ironies of depression is that at the very time we need more resources, depression makes obtaining those resources more difficult. So, in terms of the question of social connection while depressed, you need to start by level-setting your expectations.

Depression, by its design, creates a headwind against progress. Depression forces a withdrawal from connections and a retrenchment into oneself, triggered as a reaction to the loss of important resources (support, self-esteem, survival) in conditions that make it difficult to grieve that loss. This reaction is a behavioral and cognitive shutdown, including in the normal non-depressed belief that the world contains resources and supports (most important, social) that are available to us.

When we lose something important, that loss represents the zeroing out of the energy we used to get back from it (a relationship, an ideology, a self-image, etc.). Continuing to put energy out when it is not being returned is registered by our internal energy monitor as destructive (like running a car when the gas is empty). Given that, the monitor basically refuses our request for more energy, in terms of remaining attached to that thing (e.g., continuing to make efforts towards a job we cannot get). If we respect that monitor and feel through the miserableness of that loss (that is, we grieve), then depression isn’t necessary. But if we resist for whatever reason, depression acts as a kind of circuit breaker, and instead of only being refused energy for the now-futile pursuit, the monitor actively shuts off energy requests for more or less everything.

One of the key pursuits that gets shut down is the maintaining and seeking of social connections, especially when it is social connection that has been lost. Depression decides for us that reaching out is too risky and makes us believe that humans are not really worth the effort, are too overwhelming (energetically costly) for us to tolerate and therefore that it’s better to isolate.

This creates one of the many self-reinforcing loops of depression, where depression’s attempt to protect us undermines attaining the connections that would help pull us out of the depressed state. In depression’s trying to keep us from energetic depletion, it depletes us, and obstructs doing those things (like social connections) which actually could bring us energy.

So, given that this is the nature of depression, how do we keep up with those connections even so? Here are some suggestions, which I fully recognize are easier to enumerate than to execute. Nonetheless, they need to serve as a kind of North Star for our efforts, and as much as we may wander off, we need to tack our sails back to them over and over.

  1. First: recognize that depression lies about the value of connection, and see how you can’t trust that voice in your head.
  2. Second: don’t isolate yourself, as much as depression tells you that you must.
  3. Third: treat social connections like brushing teeth. We don’t brush our teeth because it is a particularly enjoyable or fun activity, but because it contributes to the larger goal of not rotting our teeth. You might find some enjoyment in it (if so, more power to you), but that’s not the point. While in a depressed state, do social connections in the same way you do teeth hygiene. Depression will claim there is no point to hygiene in either sense, of course, but it falls to you to the hard work of not listening.
  4. Fourth: be honest about yourself in regard to sociality. If the safe and known connections are most comforting (but not stagnant), then emphasize them. If you tend to get aliveness from exploring new connections, then emphasize those. The point, though, is to not overwhelm yourself while nonetheless still taking action.
  5. Fifth: schedule social “dates” in advance. Don’t leave big open periods where there’s no structured social activity. Those spaces in the calendar often turn into black holes in our minds.
  6. Sixth: commit to group involvement. Pick something you’re interested in that has regular meetings and go. You will both get the benefit of activity, of getting out of your house, and of being around people. Plus, you might find some new individual connections.
  7. Seventh: document the actual effects of social engagement. Because depression “cooks the books” on reality, you need an objective place where you reflect on what actually happens when you do something (the classic tool of a mood log is for this purpose). After the end of each day where you’ve reached out and engaged, review what you did. Write down what happened, what you were expecting, what actually happened, and whatever positive results obtained from it.

That might feel like a lot, but it really boils down to: remember that depression lies, then reach out and connect, think about what actually happened, then rinse and repeat.

Nothing is easy with depression because depression itself is a mechanism that for protective reasons makes everything difficult. So, I can’t stress enough that working through a depression is work, and there’s no way around that. But when you embrace that sufficiently, you resist the work less, and therefore your efforts are much more effective and efficient. This is nowhere as true as in the realm of maintaining your connectedness with your fellow humans.

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