Our minds need to cope with us worrying all the time. Imagine! On each occasion when something goes wrong and your automatic reaction is to ruminate and project dark scenarios, your mind has to prevent you from manifesting all those scenarios in real life.
Of course, this mechanism doesn’t always work well enough for all of us. That seems natural, too. In the world that is pulling us in opposite directions, where so many live in the presence of contradicting values, depression seems to be a valid response.
Recently a friend of mine said that when he looks at the world as it currently functions, he concludes that it is more normal these days to be depressed than not to be. I see his point. But I also see so many people conquering the adversities of life in spite of the greatest hardships, that I am convinced:
We must have some kind of a “mind programme” that helps us overcome even the most impossible of challenges.
I think of it as antivirus software or a firewall that prevents the most destructive experiences from embedding themselves into our minds.
Over the course of the evolution, humans developed something called negative cognitive bias — a tendency to pay more attention to failures and threats than pleasures. This helped us detect dangers and avoid them — as well as constantly strive to improve our condition.
But I think that if we only ever focused on the negative, our collective mental health would be much poorer than it is now. The human mind must also have something to protect itself from becoming too fatalistic. It’s the one fantastic quality that each of us has:
The typically human search for meaning.
We have the ability to make sense and learn from even the most horrible stories. The capacity to look for something constructive in the most destructive of experiences. This is what, I believe, can be a saving grace to many of us looking for a way out of their black hole.
I used to be a strong advocate of “dropping stories” that my mind creates and detaching myself from the interpretation of what happened to me. Because most of it is, of course, very subjective.
Believing my mental stories about others — e.g.: “she didn’t look at me on the bus because she doesn’t like me and prefers not to talk to me” — led me to places of judgment and misery.
So I thought that being in the moment, without ever trying to interpret my experience, was the best solution. Buddhist style, you could say. I tried to listen to my feelings as a way of interacting with the world in a more authentic manner. And I led myself to believe that mental interpretation is always a bad thing.
But I found that looking for meaning in the most horrible experiences can sometimes be a useful means of carrying yourself out of a big black hole. Sometimes it is better to believe a manufactured story, recognizing it for what it is — rather than not believing anything anymore.
This is what I learned in the past half a year, having gone through personal mayhem.
In early February, I went to a psychiatrist for the very first time in my life. Even though I always considered myself psychologically resilient, quite optimistic and getting ahead, the events of the past few months left me feeling overwhelmed.
Last summer, I went through a physical and mental burnout after another insanely tough season working in a hotel. The hard work had to stop rapidly when I ended up with bronchitis that kept me in bed for almost three weeks. After that, still not fully recovered, I went to my granddad’s funeral and then moved into my parents’ for a month, while I was preparing for my solo trip to India and Nepal. I planned to travel for 50 days, but came back after a week, haunted by panic attacks and some more health problems.
I felt weak after all of that and decided to stay at my parents’. I was more vulnerable than ever. I decided it was finally time to put my guard down and reach out for external help, to deal with all that was going on in my head.
The first visit to the psychiatrist was really cool. She gave me space to let all my recent struggles out. I vented and cried a little bit, while she remained the supportive rock. After an hour of talking, we decided that we will look into therapy options for me next time we see each other.
The next visit was scheduled over a month later and a lot happened during that time. When I saw her again in March, I said that, in the end, I don’t want to go to therapy and that I can deal with all of it on my own.
Does it mean that I resolved my issues and came to peace with all of the experiences I mentioned above? I don’t think so. What happened over that month was that I made sense of my story in a way that helped me look at it as a “lesson” rather than “trauma.”
I love the cheesy saying that “everything happens for a reason.” The magic of this statement is that it becomes true for anyone who chooses to believe it.
When I look back at my life, I certainly see that everything that happened to me so far played a role in making me the person I am now. As in, it seems that it was supposed to happen. It came my way for a reason, even though for some of the events I still don’t have a fully logical explanation.
Thinking long enough about the events of last summer and autumn, my mind couldn’t help but make sense of them. I found precious lessons that I, apparently, couldn’t have learned otherwise. Here are some of them:
Pushing through fear is not always the best available solution.
My body has real limits and I shouldn’t exploit it until it breaks.
Periods of integration and downtime are required after intense work and learning.
I could go on and on with drawing lessons from my experiences, but that’s not the point. The point is to show you that finding meaning is something that the human mind is primed to do. We always build stories around events — and interpret them so that we can make sense of the world. Usually, this process occurs unconsciously. But knowing that it exists, you can also use it to your advantage with conscious intention.
Anyone has the power to make sense of their experiences intentionally. And I think that this is the wonderful, firewall mechanism that our minds have developed to protect us from spiralling down too low.
You can pull yourself out of any black hole, no matter how deep — as long as you can find meaning in what happened to you. This may not be the end of dealing with that black hole. It may be just a temporary solution, until you are ready to face that dark side of yours and process the feelings stemming from there. But sometimes, a temporary solution like this is necessary to put yourself back together.
Stand back on your own feet. Know that what happened to you is a necessary part of your growth. See what you can learn from it. And only then — keep walking.