Scott Stoll logo world traveler. A bicycle wheel and the globe symbolizes Scott's journey around the world on a bicycle.
Bahamas pink sand close up
A picture of the rare and famous pink sand beaches on Harbor Island in the Bahamas. Up close the sand looks like a whole different world. It reminds me of examining my own thoughts. It's easy to get fascinated by one broken piece.

Is depression a matter of mind over matter?

In a previous article, “Happiness is a choice, or is it?” I discussed some solutions to depression regarding thinking strategies, in particular, acceptance. But is thinking the only way out of depression? Is depression simply mind over matter? If you are a fan of social media, you might think so. Multiple times a day, I see memes with imperative instructions like, “Never forget! You have happiness inside of you; all you have to do is find it.” It pains me to even write that. And, there are a million more just like it. Do this. Don’t do that.

Can we think ourselves out of depression?

I avoid memes, but despite myself, they all have a grain of truth, and I do love the cartoon below.* This seems to be a maxim of life — we all create our own happiness. In other words, happiness is inside of us. In fact, this was a difficult lesson I learned on my bicycle ride around the world. Of course, they were words I had heard before, but there is a big difference between an intellectual understanding and life experience. I call this embodying knowledge, taking it out of your head and putting it into the body and living it.

A jar of happiness. One character asking, "Where did you find that? I've been searching for it everywhere." The other replies, "I created it myself."
One of life’s truisms — we create our own happiness. But, since when does it come in a mayonnaise jar? Credit: Unknown.

Anyway, what if you can’t do this? What if no matter how hard you think and intellectualize your depression, you are still depressed? What if you feel chronically and everlastingly sad? Have you failed at mind over matter? Are you weak?

You probably can guess where I am going with this. No, you are not broken. There is more to depression than just thinking positive thoughts. I actually tried thinking positively for years, and often it backfired: 1) I would focus on my depression even more. 2) It would grow in my mind. 3) I would get even more depressed. 4) And then I beat myself up for not being able to think positive, or at least those “positive” thoughts didn’t lead to feeling better. 5) Finally, I would blame/label myself as being a terrible person. It’s a vicious cycle.

Skipping ahead to a solution, I suggest that if you get into this pattern, instead of thinking, try doing something physical to break the cycle, like going for a walk.

Why depression is not your fault

Running low on important building blocks

So far, we’ve discussed how your mind — your thoughts and beliefs — can cause you to be depressed. Life is hard even under normal circumstances. Lately, we’ve all experienced the dread (chronic stress) of being locked in our houses for an undetermined period or fearing getting sick if we leave. For some, that dread, like a snowball, can start an avalanche of negative thoughts and bad feelings. But there is more to it. Not only do our minds have bodies, but our bodies have a mind of their own. Almost everything that keeps you alive happens behind the scenes of your consciousness. Think of your heart beating or stomach digesting. What I’m talking about is the biochemistry and neuroscience of how your body functions automatically. In simple terms regarding depression, if you are feeling sad, your mind and body are flooded with and/or burning up a lot of chemicals, and those chemicals don’t simply disappear or reappear by thinking positively.

One chemical is the hormone serotonin, and it affects your entire body. It is a vital mood stabilizer, and it functions as a neurotransmitter that helps cells communicate. Serotonin also regulates sleeping, eating, and digestion. If your serotonin levels get depleted, it can take days or weeks to replenish. And, it takes proper nutrition so that your body has the building blocks to make serotonin. Unfortunately, some people naturally run a little low. I like to think of medicines that help replace serotonin as a vitamin supplement.

A solution to depression

Create a healthy and nutritious environment

I’m not saying you are a victim of depression. What I am saying is that depression is a multi-faceted issue. It includes the mind (thoughts), the body (including the brain) and emotions (feelings). And, we can make progress towards feeling better by changing any one of these things. In this case, the body.

I recommend starting with your immediate environment as a type of preventative medicine. Create a living space that feels safe, warm and comforting. Fill your refrigerator with nutritious food so that your body has all the building blocks it needs. And, set aside some workout equipment, like shoes and jump rope, so that you can get a quick 10-minute workout. This will help burn off some adrenaline — another one of those chemicals that you can’t just think away with “positive” thoughts. Also, try to avoid sugar and alcohol. Cravings for these things may be a sign your body is low in dopamine, a “reward” neurotransmitter, and it is trying to replace it with a quick fix. As we all know, we often feel worse afterwards, and it leaves our bodies even further depleted of essential building blocks.

This was a quick introduction to how our bodies can trigger depression and that it is not always the fault of negative thinking or something we have done wrong. It just is what it is. I hope it helps point some people in the direction of getting more help. And, so, never forget — okay, I’m joking this isn’t a meme — but a good strategy to try is patience: Give your body time to rebalance itself, and you’ll find yourself thinking and feeling better.


NBC News: Your brain on cortisol: Why overstressed gray matter is leading us astray in lockdown.

* There are so many copies of this illustration floating around that I couldn’t find the source. If you know, please let me know where the original can be found, so I can attribute this. My apologies.

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