Depression: How You Label Determines How You Feel

This post was not planned.

But… I have lost two close friends from both high school and college to suicide, and Heath Ledger’s unexpected death, which shows all the signs of suicide, saddened me on a profound level. It just shouldn’t happen.

To paraphrase Dan Sullivan: the problem isn’t the problem. It’s how you think about the problem that’s the problem.

Here are three concepts that I and others have found useful for preventing the inevitable ups and downs from becoming self-destructive thinking and behavior:

1. Depression is just one phase of a natural biorhythm and thus both transient and needed…

Energy and interest are cyclical. Nothing can peak or sustain red-zone RPMs forever. Normal people exhibit alternating periods of high-output and low-output, the latter being recovery periods during which depleted neurotransmitters stores regenerate, fatigued neural networks recover, etc..

The symptoms of depression often just reflect a system undergoing routine maintenance.

Fixating on the symptoms as “depression” becomes self-fulfilling and can lead to a downward spiral. Don’t jump to conclusions. Having recurring down cycles is natural. Thinking about them as unnatural, and the poor — sometimes devastating — decisions that follow, is what does the damage.

2. How you label determines how you feel.

Don’t use the term “depression,” which is loaded with negative and clinical connotations, without considering other labels that might be more appropriate. “Loneliness” or “isolation” are two common substitutes which are not just more precise but more actionable (the term “depression” doesn’t suggest a solution).

In their fascinating study “Would you be happier if you were richer?”, published in Science, Princeton professors Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics, found that perhaps the best indicator of happiness was frequency of eating with friends and family.

If you have to chose one activity to produce an emotional upswing, start breaking bread more often with those who make you smile.

3. Gratitude training can be used pre- or mid-depressive symptoms to moderate the extremes and speed the transition.

It’s frighteningly easy to develop pessimistic blinders and lose sight of the incredible blessings and achievements in our lives. This is common when a single identity — for example, job title and function — leads you to measure self-worth using one or two metrics (like income or promotions, usually in comparison to others) dependent on some variables outside of your control.

Recalibrate your perspective, and prevent over-investment of ego in one area of life, with scheduled gratitude training that takes a holistic inventory of the positive people and achievements in your life.

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None of this is intended as medical advice. If you need help, there are people waiting for your call, both friends and professionals:

1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)

1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Hotlines in your state can be found on this page

Sorry for the somber topic, but lifestyle ain’t much without life.

Statistically, out of the millions of people who visit this blog, a fair number will consider or attempt suicide. I want to know that I at least made an effort to prevent such terrible loss.

Be safe and be optimistic. There is a lot to be grateful for… and just as much to look forward to.

Pura vida.

[P.S. This is a serious post for me. I can take a good verbal jab, but not on this one. Please no poor humor or nonsense in the comments, or I will permanently blacklist you from this blog with no exceptions.]

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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321 Replies to “Depression: How You Label Determines How You Feel”

  1. PLEASE be careful. I get that you are a helper and this post is aimed at being helpful. However, without context, it feels a bit like you are saying that ALL depression is a) just a mislabeled “emotion” and b) just a phase. These things aren’t helpful when someone is in the midst of a depressive episode in the context of a real mental illness.

    Sure – labels matter and training ourselves to think differently CAN really help. However, if someone isn’t already getting assistance with that, and reads this post put forth by someone as influential as yourself…that could take a really different turn in a really bad direction.

    What we as a society CALL depression varies from, as you say, a normal cycle of ups and downs, to massive shifts in brain chemistry making rational thought extremely challenging. To suggest that simply thinking differently and having a few meals with a friend is going to solve that problem can be damaging to those who have TRIED all of that, and could take your words to mean that if it didn’t work for them, they somehow failed…again.

    People need to know that if their personal experience of depressive symptoms feels insurmountable, they might need REAL help. That if these symptoms are chronic and affecting their lives, it is likely more than “just a phase”, and they need to talk to a professional who can help them in ways that a 3-step post won’t minimize and belittle.

  2. Tim thank you for all that you do and for being courageous enough to tackle these issues! I hope you know how much good you bring to this world and how great of an impact you have on all of us! Discovering your blog and your podcast has had a profound impact on my life, thanks brother!

  3. Neurotic depression is a feeling of sadness & regrets to real identity issues in a depressed individual. It is connected with an absence of certainty, confidence & with failure to express depressed feelings. Learn how to deal with neurotic depression?

  4. Thank you for this, it was needed. I am coming off of several weeks of very long days and intense creative productivity. This felt great, but now that I’m essentially recovering from it, I am feeling symptoms of depression developing again. It was a good reminder that there is a natural ebb and flow to all of our lives, and instead of feeling like a failure for being inconsistent or feeling down, that it’s just part of the cycle. I’m in isolation now, preparing for my next flow.

  5. Thank you for this post. I realize it’s from 2008, but as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression… it was really helpful.