Part 1 in a series of posts on advice no one needs to hear and, in some cases, may do more harm than good.
Let’s get this out here at the jump – I’m well aware of the irony of posting about useless advice on a blog called “It’s Going to be Okay”…but that title comes from me constantly reminding myself that I’m going to survive, rather than the platitude that means “you’re fine.”
This series is going to be about “advice” or “solutions” that get thrown around by people when they encounter people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, loss, or other world-altering feelings. Each post will take a brief look at some of these statements and we’ll break it down and, hopefully, in the process see both perspectives.
Without further ado, our first piece of useless advice is [please make drum roll noises]:
Woof. Yes, this person missed a BIG something. We’re not here to bash them though – no bashing here, only understanding.
Here’s the thing – it feels like mental disorders are getting diagnosed a lot more than they used to…because they are. 🤯 As we talked about in “It’s All in Your Head,” the mental health field is relatively new – you can read more there if you’re interested in how that contribute to the stigma we are seeing in this post.
I can understand the feeling that this is some newfangled, touchy feely thing since their parents, grandparents, friends, colleagues, etc. were never diagnosed with anxiety or depression. However, like most things in life, you have to take a step back to see this properly – the idea that these conditions didn’t exist 50 years ago is completely illogical…just because we didn’t know about or understand the scope and impact of them then doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
People are far more open today about talking about mental health and it’s FINALLY becoming more understood that our mental wellness needs to be treated the same way as our physical wellness. Which leads us to the crux of this poster’s “advice” – the ever popular “snap out of it.”
Cool, I’d love to snap out of it. How exactly do I do that? I think I missed the Snapping Out of It chapter in the instruction manual that came with my brain – psst…that was sarcasm.
Remember though, no judgement only understanding. If I put myself in the shoes of someone who has never had to deal with depression or anxiety, either in themselves or their family, I kind of get why it might seem this simple. “You’re sad – just be happy!”
Here’s the thing though – when you have depression and/or anxiety your brain literally isn’t working properly. You probably intellectually KNOW you need to focus on the positive, but your unconscious cognitive processes keep reminding you about all the bad stuff that happened or all your “negative” traits. You probably intellectually KNOW you’re probably not going to die if you go to a social event, but your brain treats social interaction the same way it would treat you getting attacked by a bear – RUN, FIGHT, HIDE!
There’s an idea in cognitive science call “radical plasticity” which attempts to describe how the brain learns to be conscious. You can read all about it with a quick Google search, but the basic idea is that your conscious brain, whose job is to process outcomes during decision making, is a product of your unconscious brain’s attempts at predicting the consequences of your actions on the world.
If that’s true – and personally it makes sense to me – that means “snapping out of it” is impossible. No one has any control over these unconscious processes which inform how we think our actions are going to play out – and if you have anxiety and depression, your unconscious is going to be focused on the negative outcomes.
The great news is that you CAN retrain your brain through tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – but it’s work and, depending on your personal situation, might also require medical intervention to balance the neurotransmission chemicals in your brain. You can’t just turn off mental illness any more than you can just reset a broken leg and keep running.
To humans who offer “snap out of it” as advice: if we could, we would. I’ve never met a single person who would choose to suffer from anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness. It can be easy to dismiss these issues since they tend to be invisible – there’s no limp, no cast, no limbs sticking out at weird angles – or to think they are just an excuse for laziness or lack of drive. I’m not so naïve that I’m going to pretend there aren’t people who fake it, but I believe those people are the exception, not the norm. Besides, even if they are faking it, you have no way of knowing for sure – why take the risk of hurting them further?
Empathy has no script…It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’– Brené Brown
To those currently suffering – you’re not broken because you can’t just snap out of it. No one, not even the people closest to you, can tell you what you are experiencing…only YOU know. Your experience is unique and your journey to wellness will be unique as well. Let your first act of self-care be acknowledging the realness of your experience and stand up for your right to need help to be okay.
Asking for help isn’t weakness – it’s a feat of strength. It doesn’t mean that “life is going to run all over you” – it means that you’re not going to ALLOW life to run all over you.
You can do this – you can be okay.
If you need mental health resources and cannot afford them, free resources are available in the U.S. from the Department of Health and Human Services. Please visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline for more information. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis or thinking about suicide or self-harm, go immediately to your nearest emergency room.