Why is depression so seductive?
June 28, 2016 6:22 AM   Subscribe

When I feel depression creeping on, there's almost always this voice in my head that tries to convince me not to do the things that I know will make me feel good (like go out with friends or exercise). Except that the voice doesn't feel at all external - it feels like me all the way down. Except that it wants me to feel worse, even when I know there are things that will make me feel better. Why is this? Is there a name for this experience?

I'm not asking this correctly. I'm having trouble even googling it correctly. But I don't think this is a rare experience. I'm just having trouble processing why a part of me should want to behave in ways that are guaranteed to make me feel less happy. It's so counter-productive. Why is sadness such an appealing option in those moments? What is the utility (biologically, socially, chemically, otherwise) of this? How should I think about that voice/ that 'me'? Personal experiences are welcome.

(Also, my depression is mild and well-managed, so I'm more just looking for information to help me understand the process, recognize it when it's happening, and call it by name.)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Not depression-specific, but: "The Imp of the Perverse is a metaphor for the urge to do exactly the wrong thing in a given situation for the sole reason that it is possible for wrong to be done."
posted by ejs at 6:35 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I experience this too, and I simply think of it as the voice of the depression. Depression is a liar. It makes you believe things about yourself and your life that aren't true. It makes you want to spend the day in bed, eat crap food and let your friends slip away. It is so hard to resist it. What makes it difficult for me is that it seems to linger after the worst symptoms of the depression have been alleviated, like an echo.

Maybe there is another name for it, but I think it's part and parcel of what depression is. Good therapy has helped me recognize that kind of thinking and I am a little better at dealing with it. I definitely need meds to fight it seriously.

Be well.
posted by Biblio at 6:36 AM on June 28, 2016 [17 favorites]

Try Googling 'cognitive distortion' or 'thinking errors'.
posted by srednivashtar at 6:37 AM on June 28, 2016

Depression is very personal and unique, but I don't think this feeling is. I get it a lot. Like Biblio said, it's the voice of depression that fuels your false beliefs about yourself. It sounds like you know these thoughts are untrue, but it's resisting them that is difficult (which we all experience).

In my experience, the self-hate can be validating because it is what I am used to hearing -- that I am worthless. It is in many ways the identity I clung to, and it was comforting to at least have some sense of who I was. My depression also makes me feel blank and low, and feeling sad sometimes feels like an improvement, a bit romantic even, and so I would chase the feeling (it led to problems with alcohol and an eating disorder).

What led to a breakthrough for me was the realization that my depression is also driven by a lot of guilt and sadness about my lack of control over the bad things going on in the world and in my own family, and that I use self-flagellation and self-harm to express that. It also made me feel like I was in control. It took me a long time to understand (and I'm still really working on it) how pointless and self-indulgent that was, and how learning to be compassionate toward myself would be the only way for me to truly be there for others in this world. It would also be the only way to challenge my vision of myself as a worthless person -- which is so terrifying because I am afraid that I'll find out it's true.

You might have a lot of reasons for chasing that feeling, but you aren't alone in the feeling. It helps me to remind myself it's the depression talking -- it's not a part of my identity.
posted by mmmleaf at 6:51 AM on June 28, 2016 [12 favorites]

It can feel very empowering to challenge that voice -- no matter how ridiculous and stupid it feels, or if it makes you feel like a fool -- tell yourself that voice is oppressive and you are the person brave enough to fight back. I'm not saying that it is easy, because challenging depression is a very hard and brave thing to do. So have some compassion for yourself too. You are courageous. You have and continue to survive your depression -- and you can also defeat it.

If you don't already, therapy is important for challenging that voice. I also discounted medication for awhile and I regret the time wasted. I am still struggling to manage my depression, but finding a good medication helped me get back on my feet. Whether you take medication or not, it is a good idea to at least talk about it with a professional.
posted by mmmleaf at 7:07 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The examples you give (not exercising, not seeing friends) are what I consider inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

Many of the things that make us feel mentally well are things that you have to actively do, and doing nothing is always the easier choice. Exercise reliably improves my mood, but it takes work, and I still sometimes drag my feet on it even when I know my brain needs it. Calling a friend, cooking a real meal instead of eating a bag of chips, knocking a couple things off the to-do list, showering and changing clothes - these are all things that take some degree of effort. They're all harder than just staying put. Depression amplifies the difficulty, but the inertia is there even for people who don't have depression or whose depression is in remission.

When I put off self-maintenance, it gets harder for me to start, I lose my motivation, and the dread starts to eclipse my memory of the positive effects. It's the mental equivalent of ignoring the bills or letting the dirty dishes pile up: a small task snowballs into something much more onerous, and the effects of ignoring it start to get disastrous. It helps me to remind myself that the inertia's holding me down, and the best thing I can do is get moving, even a little bit.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:10 AM on June 28, 2016 [20 favorites]

Each person's experience is unique, so your mileage might vary.

Feeling bad feels "normal" and the "lying depression" chimes in with "this is what you deserve". Then I can get into a feedback loop of "I feel bad: I should do this to feel better: I didn't do that: I feel worse for not doing that".

It is tough, it is a real thing, and with therapy, prescriptions, exercise, and diet, I am doing better.
posted by Classic Diner at 7:16 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

What is the utility (biologically, socially, chemically, otherwise) of this?

Depression is a disease. There is no utility.
Just as there is no evolutionary advantage to getting the flu there is no benefit of the "stay in bed all day" voice.

To me that voice IS depression, that's what being depressed is. That voice is the primary symptom and root of the disorder. It's almost helpful because as long as I can just do the opposite of it's instruction I'll feel better.
posted by French Fry at 7:17 AM on June 28, 2016 [12 favorites]

I struggled with depression off and on for years, and can occasionally feel it trying to creep back in. I think I know the feeling you're talking about, and I wondered the same thing about it myself.

For me: I concluded that it felt "good" in a perverse way because it was 100% self-focused. It gave me an excuse, so to speak, to be 100% selfish, at least for a little while.
posted by The Deej at 7:19 AM on June 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

I think any strong set of emotions has a way of taking over your brain such that it becomes the thing you "want" to have. For me, that usually takes the form of OCD compulsions, where I'll start counting things, and that counting tends to feed upon itself and that becomes the thing I feel like I "want" to do, even though I know it's the thing that keeps me from being productive or alert a good deal of the time. I think that emotions flood the brain in a way that keeps it active, and that can feel like a type of normalcy.
posted by xingcat at 7:28 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have recently done a lot of thinking about this internal voice that occasionally comes around. It's very disconcerting because it is me and not me at the same time. It's a very scary thing sometimes and my urge has been to try to fight it off, make it disappear, but that does no good and can make me feel even worse. Lately I have been acknowledging it, asking it questions, having conversations (not out loud but why not?), and it's helped tremendously. Make a name for the voice. I also very actively acknowledge that the other voices in me, the happy, peaceful, rational ones are still there but the depressed one is being louder and more insistent. All the voices make up one person but for some reason they splinter sometimes, or that is how it feels. I just don't fight it and have felt better with that approach. I'm also in therapy! An excellent book is A Guide for Rational Living.
posted by waving at 7:44 AM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

The "no utility" line feels right instinctively if one has come through depressive episodes, but it does actually have some significant problems from a neurobiology / evolutionary perspective; there is a well attested genetic element to depressive tendencies, which isn't exclusive to humans living in modern social settings.

There's an element of broader scope to this side of things as well... you have to remember that the adaptive advantage part of evolution doesn't function towards the benefit of every individual.

If a gene is highly heritable and expresses itself 4 time out of 10 as a tendency to prudent risk aversion, 4/10 as a tendency to focused introspective analysis, and 2/10 as a tendency to depressive social isolation, then it's perfectly feasible for 4 of your siblings to draw adaptive benefit from the same genetic "cause" as your depression, and thus increase the chances of that gene perpetuating down the line.

On the specifics of the behaviour you describe, the wiki section here: Evolutionary approaches to depression # Behavioural shutdown model has some details of possible interest...
posted by protorp at 7:48 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

When you've struggled with depression for most of your life, it can almost feel like family. During times of stress, it can be very seductive to tuck into the familiar, the deep, cloudy comforts or nothingness. You know that you can't survive in this state, you know it is bad for you but, it's family, it's home, it's what you know.

When things are really bad, I will allow myself up to 3 days, because sometimes I need to tuck into the gray cloud. After the third day, I break out of it. That being said, I do have backup plans in case I can't get out after the third day. You have to find what works for you.
posted by myselfasme at 8:21 AM on June 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

Lack of energy and lack of interest in formerly pleasurable activities are part of the criteria for a diagnosis of depression. As others are saying, this feeling (which I also call "Depression lies") is part of the disorder; feelings of worthlessness (also a diagnostic criterion) can also make breaking free of it feel pointless. So someone with depression can end up in a self-perpetuating cycle, where they don't have energy to do / aren't interested in doing / don't feel worthwhile enough to do positive activities, and the lack of positive activities worsens the depression and lowers their energy/interest/self-worth, which worsens the depression, etc.
posted by lazuli at 8:22 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

The best explanation I've found for this is Eckhart Tolle's concept of the "pain body."
posted by onecircleaday at 8:33 AM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

There's a lot of badshit in depression and a lot of clinical/psychological discussion above, but I think maybe some of the inside-of-head justification around this is everyone's favorite excuse for doing nothing, the just-world fallacy. If you're at a depressive low and doing nothing, you assume there must be a reason. There are things you could do to get out of that rut, like exercising and seeing friends,but you aren't doing them? That seems irrational, and you're not an irrational person, so it must be that you don't actually want to do these things, and, moreover, don't deserve to be cheered up by them.

Depression feeds on itself and it's so easy to go from "I'm not doing this" to "I don't want to do this" to "I don't deserve to do this" to "I can't do this". Each step in the process makes it easier to explain away the original illogicality --- "why am I not doing something that could make me feel better?" --- which eases the contradiction at the same time as it makes actually doing something that much harder. Our logical mechanisms are sometimes very stupid and self-destructive.
posted by jackbishop at 8:47 AM on June 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

Nthing what everyone said above about this being part of depression. It's very familiar sounding and is the initial manifestations of the disease. It's the tickle in your throat before you have a full blown cold and the nauseous feeling before you have a stomach bug. It's the start of an episode, and, really, it's only productive purpose is to warn you. If you can recognize it for what it is and realize, oh snap, you are getting closer and closer to the hole, you can take steps to treat your illness.

As for its seductive powers, it's the disease. Resisting it is hard work and often means doing things because you should, not because you want to do them. You mention seeing friends. When this voice starts to kick in, sometimes the best thing to do is drag yourself out the door, while you still can. Faking it until you make it is not a replacement for treatment, but it can be a really powerful tool. Also, the "sicker" you are, the more people will recognize your illness.

There is a lot to lose in this way of thinking, but if you are too sick to do certain things, then you can just tag out and won't have to deal with those things. At the time, it feels like a free pass to check out, but you will have to check back in eventually. I also think that it has something to do with a lot of people not really understanding that depression is a chronic illness just like diabetes. The worse off you are, the more likely people will get that you're sick. Of course, this is not a good path to follow and just means succumbing to depression, but I think the idea of it being more concrete, not just to others, but also ourselves, is very alluring.

I feel like I'm repeating a lot of what was said above, but hopefully, this is helpful. It sounds like you are viewing these as two separate things, when they are, in fact, the same, just different stages.
posted by katemcd at 9:35 AM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

The human mind wants very much to find a "reason" for everything. We may be the only mammal whose brain functions in that way. Ultimately what meaning we assign to various events in our lives are very much whatever we chose to assign. Including not assigning any.
I don't think depression, or any disease, has any utility. What purpose does cancer, diabetes, polio, Parkinson's, and of course, depression, serve? Is mankind made better?
However, the hallmark of depression, unlike the other diseases name above, is one of a mental rumination. Of an overriding sense of worthlessness and self-loathing. I speak from years of experience.
I think any utility would involve the circular thinking becoming self-fulfilling. In other words "I am worthless so what difference does it make if I lie in bed all day?" And then you feel worthless because you lied in bed all day.
But with help, as you are getting, ( and I personally needed a ton) just once your mind will not think that way. You can step back and think holy crap look at where I was, look at that rut I was in. And slowly you develop skills and resilience that allow you to realize it wasn't your fault. You just had an illness.
I don't know what higher purpose any of that serves. I do know it is so very awesome when you reach that point.
Don't give up.
posted by jtexman1 at 11:15 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Depression is like a living organism. It will do anything to stay alive. It will lie to you, tell you there's no hope, that it's useless to do the things that make you happy, that drugs don't work, that you don't have time for therapy, and on and on.

If you are subject to periodic depression, as I am, try making a list of the hallmarks of oncoming depression. Things like having the thoughts I describe above, or being careless with money, or coming up with very "rational" reasons why it's more important to stay late at work than it is to eat a healthy meal or go to the gym, or finding yourself saying "I need a drink" at the end of a workday. I mean, whatever the signs are for you.

But if you think of it (as I do) as a living organism, think of it as a parasite, a leech. The parasite has no utility to its host and, in fact, will ultimately overtake its host if it isn't identified and treated.

So why is this voice attractive? Because it has to be attractive -- its "life" depends on you falling for the message.
posted by janey47 at 12:42 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

The author of Where the Roots Reach for Water posits some answers to this. I believe his thesis was that if your life is making you miserable, depression is functional in that it gets you to shut down and start separating from that life, so that you can then shift to a life that will make you happy.

My opinion? That might be one scenario, one person's depression, but as a general theory, it's giving depression far too much credit. To me, giving in to depression's siren song is like swimming further and further down into the underwater cave thinking that there's a way out at the bottom.
posted by salvia at 4:01 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I personally have referred to this voice as either my Inner Dread Pirate Roberts ("You did a good job today, plinth, but I'll likely kill you in the morning.") or On Board Terrorists.
Either way (or another), depression lies.
posted by plinth at 5:08 PM on June 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

I have this voice. I call it Sweet Oblivion. To me, it is like heroin. It feels good but it is not to be listened to. I tell it no. I get busy living. I get meds and therapy.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:45 PM on June 28, 2016

If you want a single word, you might call it a type of akrasia, which is at least as old as Plato, so you are at least in good(?) company.

Why do people drink when they will be hungover and regretful tomorrow? Same reason. Sadness has the benefit of predictability. If you're prone to anxiety at all, being sad at home is comforting because it's more predictable than being possibly happy outside. I think it can be a sort of short-termism: you assuage your short-term fears and doubts by throwing away the possibility of an upside. You're ignoring the possibility that, three weeks from now, you'll still be sad, because today (and the next, and the next) you didn't take care of yourself.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:01 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

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