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Depression and self-obsessiveness

Tim Ferriss is one of those voices who I’ve paid close attention to in recent years.

It’s well over a decade since his Four-Hour Work Week catapulted him into the minds of millennials everywhere who were intent on finding freedom before retirement age, but his thoughts and work related to the area of mental health, and major depression in particular, is something else entirely and one that may well reveal him to a much larger and much broader audience — at any rate a much more diverse audience — in time.

He has spoken at length about how depression brought him to the brink of suicide in the past, and last year revealed he was part-funding of potentially revolutionary research in treatments for depression, based on studies of the effects of microdosing of psilocybin, the mind-altering compound found in magic mushrooms.

Ferriss spoke with Ryan Holiday on his podcast last week, and after kicking off by talking about dogs, Ferriss riffed on the antidepressant benefits of owning a puppy because it forced him out of his tendency to ruminate.

Caring for a puppy, at least if you do it well, takes your attention outside of any type of self-indulgent reflection / obsessive-compulsive rumination. I’m someone who has had a history of depression, which is being stuck in the past and being highly self-referential.

Depression is, I think, as someone who has experienced it a lot in life, very self-obsessive. So when you have something in front of you that requires and demands care or it’s gonna pee on your carpet every two and a half hours, like Molly my dog, it’s incredibly antidepressive because it forces a complete refocus.

A key element of cognitive behavioral therapy is to address rumination: the seemingly endless and unbreakable cycle of typically negative and, yes, self-obsessive thoughts of the depressive.

These thoughts are generally, although not always, focused on the past. Things that didn’t work out as well as they could. Things that might have gone differently. Mistakes made that have brought you to this point in time, and the inability to reverse the clock and change them.

Anxiety and depression: two sides of one coin?

Anxiety feels a bit like the flip side of the depression coin. Many people who suffer from depression also suffer from anxiety, and vice versa; it’s unclear where causality or correlation lie, but it’s well established that depression might cause anxiety and that anxiety might cause depression, in an ever-spiralling negative cycle that needs to be broken if life can be lived at all.

Anxiety is obsessing negatively about the future, and depression is obsessing negatively about the past and the present, and both hugely affect the present, where one or both can be totally debilitating. It’s not for nothing that the World Health Organisation describes depression as a leading cause of disability globally.

The most debilitating thing about depression

The most debilitating thing, however, might just be the thought that depression (or anxiety) are just an unavoidable part of who we are, and therefore an empirical fact that cannot be challenged or changed.

The way I think of it in my case: I have struggled for years with many bouts of major depression. But depression is not a part of me. A susceptibility to depression is. And that’s a very different thing.

As always, the recovery starts first with awareness, and secondly action based on that awareness.

The awareness is mostly already there — as Guru Singh has said, “If you’re depressed you’re paying attention” — and it’s the beating down of that awareness, the refusal to believe the things of which we are deeply aware, that can make us depressed.

The action can be a different task entirely. For us depressives, taking any action can often be a step too far, but finding a way to take even one small step, and finding our footing there before trying another, can have massive positive long-term benefits.

The far-reaching benefits of one small step

Taking even one small step forward shows us that taking a step forward is possible. And if we can take one small step, and follow it sometime soon with another, perhaps we can keep taking small steps until our condition is under control, or at least not a constant threat of inflicting cataclysm on our lives.

Doing something that doesn’t just encourage us to take a few steps forward, but forces us to — something like owning a puppy — can set the ball rolling in a way that might have far-reaching benefits in months and years to come.

Doing something that forces action upon us can lift us up and out of the self-obsessiveness for long enough to take a couple of these small steps.