I've had a rough month. It hasn't been terrible, but it was one of the most mental health challenging times of the last year. Through this time, and in talking with my therapist (which I found on crossover health, sponsored by Meta™) I discovered a technique to get me out of the depression spiral.

In my head, I repeat the phrase: "Just clean the office." It might sound simple, and confusing why that would get me out of the depression spiral but stick with me. A simple phrase, which you can fall back on, which is meaningful to you, can help push you back to where you want to be: Productive, happy, nice, etc... the upward spiral instead of the depression spiral.

This phrase has a few key components which help me get out of the sad spiral.

"Just"

Focus on only the next thing

The root of my anxiety is a feeling of lack of control. External stressors (including mental health issues, which I don't choose) can give me a sense of hopelessness... and a complete lack of control. To shake this feeling, I need to take control, and for me that means standing up, picking a simple task which takes less than 10 minutes to accomplish, and doing it. Do the next right thing.

"Clean"

Make progress on a predefined task with immediate and visible progress

Typically, amid my anxiety and depressed spiral, I'm in the same location: My office. It's right in front of my face, and usually one of the things that feels out of control is my immediate surroundings. Cleaning is a physical task which makes you move, and instead of being something which requires a lot of mental energy, it really only requires physical energy. For me, this is the perfect task... I can background process any thoughts, and try to figure out solutions without feeling unproductive. It's something I need to do constantly, and as soon as I do it, everything is clearly "better" in some sense of the word.

"The Office"

Do something which leads to exponential returns

When you think back to algebra 1, making y = mx + b graphs, the output (y) equals your input (x) times your slope (m) plus your Y intercept (b).

Since I'm sitting in my office the majority of my work day, and sometimes during my downtime, it's a huge component of my life. Cleaning the office when I'm not depressed has an extremely short-term return... it adjusts the y intercept of the graph.

When I'm depressed, cleaning the office can adjust the slope of my day... ie if I get out of my depression spiral, it can adjust my slope from -1 to +1, or even -.5 to +.1. Any change really is better... and this process does that.

But, what if I could adjust the graph so instead of being a straight line, it worked its way upward.

When I build systems to help me when I'm depressed, it has an exponential return on investment. Sometimes, when I'm depressed, it's not possible to build the systems, and that's ok. Just executing on a system which I've built helps my cumulative progress, and on a long enough graph you'll start to see meaningful progress. The office represents the system I've built, and not only is it the physical space, but also the emotional space I previously occupied when coming up with the system.

Pretend this is an exponential graph of happiness, and not covid cases since March 1, 2020.

Emotional Debt: Seeking dopamine, escaping, hiding from problems

An occasional food binge is fine, but my default for years was seeking dopamine via calories when I was depressed. Now, I'm in a place where I'm trying to lose 100 pounds this year. Drugs, risky sexual behavior, and other forms of escapism / dopamine seeking are avoiding problems, not facing them. They are ways of coping, and sometimes coping poorly is better than not coping at all.

But.

They all put you in debt... emotional debt. While I think most maybe don't think about this concept... emotional debt is just like financial debt: We borrow pleasure (dopamine) by finding short-term coping mechanisms, which accrues hopelessness over time, leading to long-term depression and lack of productivity.

Getting out of financial debt is a decently clear process.

  1. Go through every account and figure out what balances you owe.
  2. Develop a strategy for paying off each item
  3. consolidating credit cards, creating a budget, and paying off each card one at a time, for instance.
  4. Start saving money to accrue interest, which leads to the opposite of debt: Wealth.

Getting out of emotional debt is extremely similar.

  1. Face your past traumas, issues, and unearth who you really are. I went through this by seeking out a quality therapist.
  2. Get rid of coping mechanisms which have short-term gains but long-term side effects and replace them with new coping mechanisms which you see to be healthier and more beneficial for the long-term objectives.
  3. Build strategies to deal with your issues when they arise unexpectedly, and figure out how they help you connect with the opposite of depression: Joy. For me, this is medication (I take 3 different ones!) and strategies (Just clean the office) which help at various times.

I've been working on this for years. I'm turning 38 this year. I've only been working on my mental health seriously since I was ~31. Last year was the first time in my life I felt like my mental health was on track, and I was able to cope with most of the things happening in my life.

But even still.

Last month I was once again in the depths of depression (and frankly, suicidal ideation came back in a frightening way). Just clean the office has helped me turn it around. Going back to my prior routines is helping me sustain it.

It's not easy, but it's worth it. Keep moving forward.