Hello lovely people!
I hope you’ve had a terrific week! Today I want to share with you a topic that is very close to me: Depression. As I have personally experienced depression for many years, and also studied and conducted research on it, I have quite a bit to say on the topic. For this reason I’ve broken this topic down into two parts. The first of which that I will share with you is my personal journey with depression. The second part, which I will post over the weekend, will discuss some of the scientific evidence relevant to depression.
When I started writing this piece I wasn’t sure exactly where to begin. I feel I have so much to say on this topic and so much knowledge to share, it’s tough to decide what to focus on. For the purposes of keeping this somewhat brief, I won’t go into a lot of detail. However, if there’s something you read that peaks your interest and you’d like to learn more about it, please leave a comment, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or contact me on the Genuinely Julie Facebook page, and I’ll be happy to chat more with you about it.
To give you some perspective on the prevalence of depression among cancer survivors and the general population, according to the literature both cancer patients and survivors tend to be at a greater risk for developing depression both during treatment and afterwards (Harrington et al., 2010; Raison & Miller, 2003; Spiegel & Giese-Davis, 2003). The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that among the general population, approximately 8% of adults will experience a major depressive episode at some time during their lives (CMHA, 2015). Depression is one of the most prevalent illnesses and the leading cause of disability worldwide (WHO, 2015), and has considerable economic, social, and personal implications.
The first time that I became depressed I was about 16, and its onset was triggered by a stressful family life event. I simultaneously developed an eating disorder, which I later realized was a maladaptive coping mechanism, that I struggled with for two years. When I turned 18, I was prescribed antidepressants for the first time. This did help some with my eating disorder, however I continued to experience low levels of depression, and struggled with a very negative self-image; I did not like myself and I hated my body.
Then came my stage IV laryngeal cancer diagnosis, which was a highly stressful and traumatic event, triggering another and more severe depressive episode, which would last for several years. The combination of the physiological along with the psychological and emotional trauma culminated in me becoming extremely depressed. At times I even recall contemplating suicide.
I also developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the trauma I experienced with my cancer, particularly the surgical aspect. Losing my voice, and having to adjust to a different way of breathing and speaking, along with the quite noticeable physical markers (ie. my scars and tracheotomy), was very difficult. As I had fairly severe body image issues prior to my cancer diagnosis and treatments, the new circumstances I faced only magnified my insecurities and self-loathing.
For those who have never been depressed, I realize that it can be difficult to comprehend the experience of it. However, I caution to withhold judgement as it’s difficult to truly appreciate how it feels to have no hope for your future, to feel as though no matter what you do you will not be able to overcome adversity, to feel completely alone, and to suffer tremendous emotional pain. But that is how severe depression often feels.
For many years I was angry to be alive, had little confidence in myself and minimal hope for the future. So what changed? In short: my attitude.
Aside from my longstanding fascination with behaviour and the mind, I expect a key reason I went into psychology was because I’d finally decided to try solving my own issues, because medication wasn’t doing the trick and I was sick of being depressed. In 2011 I began my studies in Psychology at Brescia University College. The experience and knowledge I gained in my three years there helped me to learn and grow tremendously, and slowly I began to overcome my depression as I gained confidence in myself and my abilities. I realized that just because I only had a tiny whisper voice, that didn’t mean I couldn’t achieve success. I excelled and graduated with honors one year ahead of schedule.
I then began my master’s degree where among my many research interests, I became fascinated with learning more about inflammation, the gut microbiome, and its role in depression. This led to my interest and passion in nutrition, for which I am now taking a program to be certified as a Holistic Nutritionist. I’ve continued to educate myself on the role that nutrition and diet play in depression, overall health, and wellness, and slowly I made positive changes to my diet and lifestyle.
Along side my educational experiences, I began seeking out different resources and approaches to help facilitate my healing. This led me to yoga, meditation, and learning to practice gratitude daily and embrace kindness, which have been tremendously helpful to me in overcoming depression. I also read many books. Two of which that I found to be most helpful were “Happiness” by Buddhist monk and scientist Matthieu Ricard, and “Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression” by Miriam Akhtar.
Here I am now, nearly 10 years after my cancer ordeal; I have overcome a lot of obstacles, one of the most daunting of which was depression. I have not only survived, but have learned how to flourish, cultivate happiness, and embrace life; and I know that regardless of your circumstances, YOU can do this too!
I now want to say to those struggling with depression: I know it may feel like you are alone and that there is no hope, that you can’t overcome it, and that your suffering will never end. But you can overcome depression, and you will. However, achieving recovery requires that you truly want to heal. This point is critical to understand:
Recovery and healing are a choice. You must both want it and be open to it.
For many years I wasn’t open to healing, and so my suffering continued for far longer than it needed to. I had a pessimistic attitude and my perspective was that life was cruel and unfair. I had victimized myself, and so my depression persisted.
It was not until I decided to take accountability for my circumstances and an active role in helping to heal myself that my life began to change positively. No one could make me do that, except for me. The same is true for each of us.
It is your choice to pursue recovery, healing, and to flourish.
No one can do this for us, we must do it for ourselves, recognizing that this is part of our own unique journey; a journey that will likely not be easy, but rather quite challenging. But the reward of gaining back and embracing your life, and of learning how to flourish and cultivate happiness are undoubtedly worthwhile!
I am content that after many years of taking antidepressant medication, I am now off of it and feeling better than ever! That being said, I want to be clear that I do not advocate nor advise for anyone to stop taking medication they are currently on; that is an important discussion to have with your doctor. What I do want to emphasize however, is that medication is not a cure but instead addresses certain symptoms temporarily. This is accomplished by altering specific neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain (Meyer & Quenzer, 2005). Moreover, the effectiveness of antidepressant treatment can vary greatly from one person to another, and depends on several factors such as genetics (Papiol et al., 2007), environment, and lifestyle choices. For some people a reduction in symptoms may be experienced, for others there may be no effect, and still for some symptoms may actually worsen.
Depression is a multidimensional illness involving physiological and psychological, including cognitive and emotional, components. This is why a holistic approach to treatment and recovery, which addresses both physiological (eg. nutrition, stress management, physical activity, herbal supplementation, etc.) and psychological (eg. emotional wellness, cognitive and behavioural treatments, stress management, etc.) aspects, is most likely to be successful (Greenlaw, n.d.; Hollen et al., 1992; Williams, 2001).
Ultimately though, one must first decide that they want to recover, and be willing to take action to facilitate this.
I am not so naive as to think that I will never again face depression. I know that I am more susceptible to it due to a variety of reasons. However, I have also developed confidence in my ability to overcome depression, along with an understanding of how to recognize what triggers may cause it to resurface. I have developed effective, healthy coping strategies and ways to counteract depression when I feel it trying to take hold again. The great news is that these are skills that you too can learn and develop!
Unsure of where to begin? A good first step is choosing to be open and honest, both with yourself and others, and realizing that it’s okay and natural to feel vulnerable and insecure. I’ve discussed both of these topics in more detail in previous posts which you can find here: insecurity and personal growth, and the value of vulnerability.
Remember: This is your journey. Embrace it. Discover what works for you. Learn and grow.
I will end here with a quote that I remind myself of daily: “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become” – C. Jung
This quote has become somewhat of my mantra as it reminds me that no matter what life throws in my path, whatever my circumstances may be, I always have the opportunity to decide how I choose to respond and the extent to which I allow circumstances to affect me, and so do you.