About 300 million people around the world suffer from depression and is the leading cause of disability
— World Health Organization
While we as humans go through the ups and downs of emotions on a daily basis, feeling sad and empty for more than a couple weeks can be a good indication that one is depressed. In the UK, one out of four people is affected by depression and in the US, 16 million people are affected. According to a recent Time Magazine report, out of the 16 million, one third do not get better with treatment. Sadly, at its worst, depression can lead to suicide.
Depression doesn’t just affect adults. It affects minors also. New research findings that were just reported in the Washington Post showed that between 2010 and 2015, there was a 33% surge in teen depression and scarily, a 23% rise in teen suicide attempts.
My History with Depression
Between 2013-2015 I went in and out of depression. I remember many mornings where I just didn’t want to get out of bed. It wasn’t because I was tired. It was because I had no energy or motivation to do it. Despite all the activities and loving people around me, I felt empty. On many nights I had a hard time falling asleep. Self-talks (mostly negative), regrets (because I didn’t do something I wanted/should have done), the unknown future, and more danced around in my head which then triggered anxiety. I felt guilty for not doing something and then felt guilty cause I felt guilty. A huge non-stop loop of self-pity and blame. Deep inside my self-worth was very low and I was very sad, but, since sadness is only for the weak, or so I thought, I replaced it with anger. Nobody wants to mess with anger, right?
At that time I didn’t really know what exactly I was feeling. I just knew I was miserable. It’s been mostly the last 12 months that I have been able to truly look back, question, and reflect on the negative feelings and thoughts that I had. Since it’s been a few years, many things are fussy too. That’s the other side effect of depression, it clouds your mind and it can influence your memory. What I believe triggered the depression was the frequent feeling of never good enough and lack of meaning in my life. It didn’t matter if hubby made many attempts to tell me how well I did something, how the family appreciated the things I did or that me staying home was truly important to the family. I feel ashamed to admit this but I expected quite a bit from the girls, especially in terms of discipline. I didn’t get mad every day, or even every other day, but when I did, I was angry and the girls would be terrified. I wasn’t the most pleasant with my husband either. Even if he didn’t mean it as a criticism, I took it as so.
There were so many triggers, they felt so strong, and I didn’t know how to handle them.
Without realising it, I became the victim of my mind. A lot of anger, a lot of blame, a lot of defensiveness, and a lot of waiting for all the things outside of myself to be better so I could feel better.
I didn’t know though that I was depressed until 2016; I thought that depression was something that you either have or you don’t have. Due to lack of education, I thought depression was biological. I figured a thirty-something person wouldn’t just all of a sudden be affected by depression. The idea that I may have been depressed came about when my good friend and I were having a chit-chat. I don’t remember exactly how the topic entered our conversation but she said I was really anti-social the year before. Even if I were there physically, my mind was elsewhere. She said that even though I was feeling better, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if I saw somebody.
I agreed. Kind of.
The Therapist and I
I did make an appointment. I was terrified!
I wasn’t scared to see a therapist. I was terrified to hear what she had to say. I was scared to hear that I was damaged goods. Unloveable. Not good enough.
I did make myself go. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the feelings I had the year before.
So glad I went! It’s not how I envisioned it to be and I was assured that I was not who I thought I was. She told me that I am always worthy of love. That I am a good person. My behaviour could be better but the core of who I am is good and as long as I believed that I did my best, I am good enough. Since I was already feeling better, I didn’t spend a lot of time in therapy trying to feel better. After she got to know me a bit more, we went to work on getting to the point where I would be truly healed. She also wanted to make sure that I knew the signs so that I could work on triggering my positive brain chemicals before depression makes itself comfortable again in my mind.
In one of my sessions, my therapist told me stories of when she was working with minors in a juvenile detention. She shared more severe cases, because I asked, and what got me was this: Most of the kids in detention and adults in prison have one thing in common, they didn’t have a caregiver, a mother (she said this mostly for my benefit, not due to sexism), that was there for them. Not just to feed and clothes, but also emotionally and mentally. She showed me the importance of being a mother and that not everyone can be a good mother.
We spent time exploring my childhood and we put many pieces of my life story together. My therapist helped me quite a bit but a lot of reading (reliable blogs, research, reports, and self-help books) with many days of reflections added to the complete healing process.
My therapist was quite impressed that I got as far as I did. She asked how I did it and I swore she thought she heard wrong. What I told her was: “I started taking photos again last February and posted every day on Instagram. I felt encouraged by the engagement and nine months later I felt quite good.” She said that by accident I stumbled upon an unconventional way to get out of depression.
A little background story before I go on… Before moving to England I was not only working full-time in my career field, I was also teaching at a university on a part-time basis and paper crafting weekly. A few times a week I also blogged about our daily life and the crafty goods I made. I was busy, steadily moving up in my career, and I felt that I was not only contributing to my family but also the world. I felt like my life had meaning.
Even though it was my decision to stay home and I was busy with the family and travelling, I felt as if I lost a huge chunk of me. I often looked at myself in the mirror and asked, “Who are you? Who am I?” And the answer to “a stay-at-home-mom” was just really depressing. I felt meaningless.
The Negative Effect of Social Media
Initially, Facebook was a fantastic way to keep in touch with friends and family. Slowly but surely though, it became one of my biggest triggers. I was happy for each of my friends’ successes, they all worked hard for them. But each promotion, new degree, new job, next conference, etc made me more and more worthless. I felt like I was not good enough. Later I found that it’s not just me who felt this way. This study shows it.
Another recent research conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health produced some startling numbers. According to their data, 91% of people between 16-24 use the internet for social networking. And in the last 25 years, the rate of depression and anxiety have increased by 70%. This research also specifically mentioned Instagram as one of the worst social media for mental health.
I can see this!
The perfect breakfast, the dream beach holidays and body, the relationship goals, the crafts we wish we could create, the cute kids that we wish we had, the rooms and decore we wish we have in our own home, the money we wish we had to buy all the cute outfits, the well-behaved dog that is also too cute to be true, etc.
With Facebook, since these friends are my real life friends (and most rarely bother to edit their photos before posting), I still had a sense of reality. I knew, for example, that my friends argue with their spouses despite posting lovely photos of themselves and spouses — smiles and all. But if you’re not careful with Instagram, especially since most don’t know who these people are in person, life on Instagram can seem to be the reality of these people. It’s like a kid looking into Willy Wonka’s candy shop. Feed after feed after feed of gorgeous, dreamy, magical, and expensive stuff. If we’re not conscious, our minds will start creating this belief that there are so many out there with lives waaaay better than our own. How depressing!
Somehow, I think mostly due to ignorance and also not having the mood to really care much about things that didn’t mean much to me (my give a f*** level was really low then), I managed to just focus on following people whose photographs spoke to me. My goal was to make me love photography again and so I followed many photographers. I also wanted to get some fresh ideas on where to go in England and so I followed many English Instagrammers.
Before I get into the details of the next portion, let me share a bit of chemistry…
There are four main ingredients that our brain needs to produce in order for us to feel happy: Dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.
Oxytocin: The trust and love chemical. Our brain produces oxytocin via relationships. When we feel like we are receiving love, our brain produces oxytocin. While a lot of oxytocin are created when two people hold hands, hugs, kiss, or have sex, some oxytocin can also be created by connecting with a friend and using the word “love” a lot.
Serotonin: The mood chemical. You know what Prozac, the anti-depressent drug, does? It helps create serotonin. Naturally, serotonin can be created by being out under the sun and exercise.
Endorphins: The pain chemical. Endorpins is released after exercise. You don’t need to do high impact aerobics or bike five miles a day to get endorphins. Walking 20-30 minutes a day, 3-4 times a week, can help your brain produce endorphins.
Can you start to see where this is going?
I actually didn’t know about the psychology of social media when I started to actively use Instagram in February of 2016. To be fair, despite being a psychology major in uni, psychology was the last thing on my mind. Early last year, I was just struggling to find a way to feel better.
Before I fell deep into depression I was very creative. Paper crafting and photography were my two outlets. In 2015 though, I barely touched my camera and I only crafted because I had to — for the girls’ school or something. I decided that crafting was not a good choice to dive into. It’s messy and the mess would just overwhelm me. So I opted for photography. Even when I was feeling completely not in love with photography anymore, it was not messy and quick.
To make the project as simple as possible, I decided to mainly shoot with my iPhone. I never leave the house without and it’s so much smaller.
I failed this many times in the past, but I decided to do the 360 photo challenge again. The challenge has daily challenges and while I wanted to do my own thing (which I wasn’t sure what yet then), I figured it was a good plan B if I needed inspiration when I was in a rut. I also didn’t want to spam my real life friends on Facebook and this was why I opted out for Instagram. I’ve had this account since 2010 but it was mostly private and dormant. One photo a day on Instagram. Not bad, right?
I posted my first photo February 1st and I posted three photos that day. I was excited about this new activity. Dopamine!!
I used hashtags. Just whatever hashtag that sounded good. And amazingly, I started getting likes and comments from people I didn’t know! More dopamine!!
Here’s a funny part… Before February, I didn’t realise that there are gorgeous feeds on Instagram. I thought IG was just a twitter version of Facebook 😳🙈. Boy was I wrong! I was so amazed at how many beautiful feeds were out there and I spent a good few days just soaking in all the creativities. Despite having a family who loves me and always tries to make me laugh often, more oxytocin was sneaking in.
The dopamine effect started to kick in after a few weeks and was feeling quite positive about the project. I wasn’t thinking, or even aiming to become happier. I was just aiming to like photography again, do something creative, and to give me something to do outside the house. Despite the cold temperature, I was outside a lot and soon after, I realised that there are “special” hashtags to use. I studied Instagram a bit more and learned about niche hashtags and implemented what I learned. To keep me motivated, I aimed for 1000 followers by the end of December 2016. I figured a 100 new followers a month is doable. Dopamine and endorphins.
Mid-February family and I went to London for an overnight getaway. By this time I was somewhat decent with my hashtag choices and I uploaded a few photos from that trip. For a newbie with a few hundred followers, the feeling of getting over 200 likes that weekend on a photo was equivalent to getting 20k likes. The best part though was the engagement that I was having with other Instagramers — I felt like I was bringing meaning to others via my photography — and I loved every comment that I receive! My most favourite are those who told me that my photos brought back good memories. More dopamine and oxytocin!
By the end of March, I had a better idea on my niche. Initially, I wanted my IG to be a travel feed. But then I realised that it was unrealistic due to me being a mom of two school children and the wife of a husband with a demanding job and schedule. So I decided to share the beauty of my local wanderings with the occasional travels on and off the island.
The sun was starting to come out more, I was super enthused about creating and I spent many hours between school drop off and pick up taking photos of pretty facades, streets, flowers and whatever that were around me. Funny thing about Instagram is that once you become a regular, you start seeing things that you never noticed before. Lovely simple, or even magnificent, things that you pass by every day which you have taken for granted. Our brain is funny this way. Once it becomes used to things, those things gradually become the new normal. On the engagement front, I started actively commenting on others’ photos too. Lots of “love” were said on a daily basis and I had to search for what it was that I liked about the photo I was commenting on. Dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. BOOM!
Without knowing it, I was creating feel-good chemicals in my brain and I was slowly but surely rewiring my brain.
There is more!!
For survival reasons (way back many thousands of years ago), our brain was wired to look and remember the negatives. Our brain wanted to make sure that we survived and in order to do that, it wanted us to really remember which berry killed our cousin Manny from two caves down.
Now, think of a beautiful day when all was good except for one. Out of the blue, as you were strolling to grab a cup of coffee, a bird pooped on you. What would be the most likely thing that you’d feel strongly about? The handful of good things that happened that day or the poo? When it happened to me, it was all about the poo! And if you have ever been pooped on by a bird, let me tell you! Unless you wash your hair really good, the smell will linger! Fast forward… I don’t remember much of that day. I am almost sure it was a really good day. But I remember a lot of the poo and the smell after.
Wandering about with Instagram in mind forced me to find the beauty, the positive, the goodness, of everything that passed in front of my eyes. Being behind the camera, or in front of the iPhone, made me wonder about the story of the old man sitting alone and content with the day’s paper and coffee. That visual made me see loneliness in a different way. While I knew I was very lucky to be able to live in a safe and beautiful country, I never consciously said how grateful I was.
I started being more thankful for many things and around this time last year I started getting into the habit of finding three things to be grateful for that day. I wouldn’t just think about being grateful. I would say them to the family or friends and/or write about them on my Instagram posts. Here’s another interesting research… If for whatever reason there is nothing in your life that you can be grateful, the act of searching can release the feel-good chemistries. The conscious effort that was put into looking for the positive is what helps push the automatic/subconscious negative mind away.
Before Instagram, I would do my errands and then back home again. After Instagram, my errands took more time. A Cambridge run could last all day. A weekend at the beach with the girls required more walks than just sitting on the beach and a cafe stop. The three hours drive to Bath then became an all day drive since we had to stop at a bazillion different spots (according to Jovie).
I don’t doubt that social media, and Instagram in particular, can cause depression. I know the number game almost got me (will write more on this next time). But if used the right way: staying true to why you’re on the platform, surrounding yourself with inspiring people, and using Instagram in a conscious and methodical way, it can help those like me get out of a very sad and lonely place.
While Instagram did help me crawl out of the deep dark underground cave of depression, my family is the one that I have to thank and be grateful for most. I know it was tough at times and nobody, not even myself, knew who I was, but somehow, even after a lot of tears, we’re still together in this game of life.
I am proud to say that in the last 12 months I have not had out outburst. Before the depression, I was quite an even-keeled person. After the depression, not a whole lot triggers me. I am significantly more emotionally intelligent, I know who I am more, I can think properly and remember a lot of information again and to top it all, I want to go back to university and work on a PhD in psychology. I want to do research on a few things that I experienced and I want to help lessen the number of people with depression.
If you made it this far, thank you so so much for reading and I hope that some of the information here can help you with your healing. Take care and feel free to message me with any question!