A quick note: this blog post started off as a short Instagram caption and has evolved into possibly one of the longest and most vulnerable posts that I've written in a long, long while. I write for you, dear reader, who is struggling with a head of clouded thoughts and discontent. I write to you, who wants to believe the fairytale that there is joy in your future.
So here we are: this week is a rest week. After the busiest month of self-employment that I've ever had, I have editing and organising to do, but it will be broken up with rest, writing, exercise, meal-planning, and reading lots of children’s stories about fawns and talking beavers and fearsome, good-natured lions.
But you know something? Around this time last year, I was battling depression. I was never officially diagnosed (although my GP suspected it), but I knew what it was. I knew that the deep sadness which burdened my bones and made me physically exhausted every day was not just a “bad mood.” In fact, I remember the day that the image above was taken: it was beautiful and sunny, I had just gotten a new linen jumpsuit, and C and I were on one of our usual weekend adventures. It was the recipe for everything which brought me joy, and yet this photo reminds me of the true bitterness and sorrow that poor C had to deal with as we explored these old woodlands.
I remember, on another day that summer, when I'd managed to drag myself out of the house to walk to the grocery store, and I felt so sad and so TIRED that I was genuinely ready to lay down and go to sleep on the pavement. The people around me felt transparent, like the whole world was floating by in a gauzy haze. I felt disconnected from truth, love, reality, and relationships. I was existing, but only that.
But I’m lucky enough to live in a time where people take mental health discussions seriously. And I’m lucky enough to have been raised in a home where I was safe to explore my state of mind. I’m lucky that God blessed me with a self-awareness and an ability to communicate what I was going through. I'm lucky that I had friends who would come visit me and talk to me and keep me grounded in reality. I'm lucky that I have a mind which logically knows that God's love is real (even if my heart doesn't feel it) and that my life is worth holding on to. And I’m especially lucky that it was only a season of depression and that I do not struggle with it as a clinically chronic illness (fibromyalgia feels like enough to deal with).
But in spite of all of that, the weariness I battled last year just didn’t dissolve. Being able to talk it through helped, but it didn’t solve the problem. I knew what was going on for months, and for months, I suffered. And I’m sharing this with you not because talking about mental health is trendy or because I want to win vulnerability points: I’m sharing it because I want you to know what I learned from that season.
None of this is new information. None of this is a secret. Everything I'm about to say has been talked about in abundance. Yet here I am, reaffirming what I have learned to be true: I learned that my mental health was directly connected to where I prioritised my thought life, where I went to to find my value, and how I placed worth on my day.
Last year, when my depression was at its lowest, I would wake up and go to bed on Instagram. I would count the numbers and engagement and study my grid in frustration. I would stare longingly at the beautiful things that others had that I myself could not afford. I was living on my phone, and I was placing my value in how my audience responded to me. I wasn’t aware that I was doing it, mind you. Because logically, I could’ve told you what a foolish thing that is to do. With my faith, I could have told you that the only wisdom lies in seeking value from your loving Creator, not from an app.
But the subtlety in which I fell into this foolishness lay primarily in the power of one thing: habit. I slowly developed behavioural habits and thought habits which revolved around Instagram because Instagram was, at the onset, a very POSITIVE and HAPPY part of my life. It was a creative outlet, a place that encouraged me to photograph beautiful things, and a place where I met great people (some of whom have become very dear, irl friends).
But a habit that is developed alongside a lack of balance can mean that even the most positive outlets can poison your mind.
For me, that is what Instagram became. And I'll walk you through the habitual thought patterns that Instagram sparked in me on a daily basis because I was spending so many unbalanced hours living on my screen:
My grid isn't beautiful in the way that I want it to be --> because I can't afford to go to the beautiful places or own the kinds of beautiful things that I want to show in my imagery --> because my skills aren't seen as valuable enough to earn me a better living --> which leaves me feeling frustrated and lonely --> and I wouldn't be lonely if only I could afford a car to drive out of my town more --> and maybe if I owned a car, I could work for more clients from a distance --> but I can't afford a car when even now, I am not attracting enough people who care about what I'm doing --> and that must be because my work isn't good enough -->> because my grid isn't beautiful in the way I want it to be.
Do you see what my brain would do? I would go full circle, and I used Instagram as a trigger (and a scapegoat) to start a thought pattern that was drenched in sorrow, frustration, self-pity, misplaced value, and, most strikingly, a lack of gratitude. Because I immediately started off these thought patterns with focusing on what I was not-- on what I did not have-- and then I linked that lack back to my intrinsic value as a human.
In short, I used Instagram as a way of telling myself lies. But here's the kicker: that habit grew so subtly that I didn't realise that I was doing it.
And I think that it's true with most of us. Whether it be comparison or envy or general self-loathing, I think we allow those habitual thought patterns to sit comfortably and quietly at the back of our mind, whispering to us in the dark moments. And it takes a strong and very self-aware person indeed to recognise those quiet thoughts and call them out of the darkness and into the light.
And I was self-aware enough to know that I was struggling with depression, but I wasn't self-aware enough to call out the behaviours that I was forging to perpetuate said depression.
So I'll tell you what ended up being my wake-up call: God used both scripture and academia to call me out of my thought loop.
Now before I explain this, I will, in good faith, acknowledge that my depression was slowly healed with this solution alone, but that's not to say that it is the sole solution for everyone. I am so extremely lucky to say that my depression was not clinically chronic. Some of my dearest friends have a different story to tell, and for them, re-forging their thought-habits is only PART of the healing process. The choices they make and the other healthy habits that they must forge are wide, difficult, and require deep intention. And if you want to hear more about that, then click here, because my friend Dusty approaches the topic of healing from depression with such realism, grace, and respect.
I will, therefore, only speak on what I know. And this is it:
Gratitude begets mental wellness. Whether you're a Christ-follower like myself or not, the scriptures teach this, and science backs it up (as I believe all scripture can be backed when we read it as it was meant to be read).
So to address the scriptures first. One day, while I was studying Romans 1, I was struck by a particular verse (verse 21) in which Paul is describing the minds of those who have actively chosen not to have a relationship with their loving Creator: "For though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened." Paul emphasises the act of giving honour to SOMEONE WORTHY of it, and GIVING THANKS for what we have. The focus here is on selflessness and gratitude. And without that selflessness and gratitude, our THINKING literally becomes FUTILE. Our MINDS become DARK. When we focus on only ourselves and dwell in our lack, our brains suffer for it.
And now, to address the science, for a study at UCLA (and several others from UC Davis and other research institutions) backs this up:
"The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA stated that gratitude does change the neural structures in the brain, and make us feel happier and more content. Feeling grateful and appreciating others when they do something good for us triggers the ‘good’ hormones and regulates effective functioning of the immune system. Scientists have suggested that by activating the reward center of the brain, gratitude exchange alters the way we see the world and ourselves." - Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury from positivepsychology.com
So I paused, and I considered what I was telling myself every time I opened Instagram. And mind you, Instagram itself was never the problem: the problem was the relationship I had developed with it. My dependency on it, my counting of numbers, and my use of it as an "escape" from my own life (thus reaffirming that my own life NEEDED to be escaped FROM) was the problem.
When I opened Instagram, I was telling myself that my grid was a reflection of how beautiful my life could be, and if I couldn't make it beautiful enough, then my life wasn't beautiful enough. I realised, then, that I was rolling over and accepting that my life could not be beautiful because I wasn't good enough to make it beautiful (see how quickly I linked external circumstances to internal worth?). So with that epiphany, I did two things:
1) I took notice of the beauty around me. I appreciated what I DID have (a camera, a good book, a nice lamp that we got with our £5 birthday voucher from IKEA, a beautiful view of the countryside five minutes down the street, a man who loves me). That, in it of itself, helped me to forget the Instagram squares, if only for a little while.
2) The things that I really hated, I took pains to change. I budgeted and saved for new curtains because I hated our old ones. I thrifted a new rug. I found a new couch in the clearance section because the old one was many years old, had cost me £25 from a charity shop, and was causing me incessant back pain that I had just accepted. I spent a year budgeting together secondhand furnishings that made my home feel more beautiful. I took more time to go for walks. I spent more evenings cuddling my man instead of sitting on my phone.
In short, I took agency. I re-established my ownership of my CHOICES. I made hard, slow, tiring choices to make changes, and, when changes couldn't be made, I chose GRATITUDE for the things I did have.
And this isn't to preach to you. This isn't to say that developing these new thought-habits was an easy task: it wasn't, and still isn't. But as I sit here reflecting on where I was at this time last year, something has struck me: Instagram is a fun part of my life again, but I control IT. It does NOT control me. If I don't post for a week, I don't panic. If I lose a few followers, I don't blame myself. Instead, I take GREAT joy and gratitude in the small audience of people who regularly engage with me and stick with me even when I go silent. Photography is now a gratitude practice and not a competition. I see it now as tool, not a measuring stick. I have faith that my business will grow at the sustainable pace that it's meant to, and in the meantime, I'll keep learning and growing and doing the best I can and letting REAL life be the focus of my priorities.
In taking agency and owning my choices, gratitude slowly started to restructure my brain. My thought patterns are literally different: Instagram returned to being a creative outlet, but it no longer dictated my value or the beauty of my life. By choosing gratitude and ENGAGING in what was around me, I began to peak my head above the murky waters of depression. I started seeing things without the fog of sadness clouding them. I started to value myself the way Jesus values me (valuable enough to die for, as the Good News so often reminds us).
So my hope for you is this: whoever you are, whatever your beliefs, please know that you have agency. For you it might not be Instagram that causes your struggle (although I am constantly hearing of new research that concludes that high social media usage is closely linked to depression and anxiety). For you, it might be discontent at work. Or at home. Or envy of a friend's house or job or partner or beauty. It might be thought patterns that feel like a circular cage. But here is my encouragement for you: you might not be able to control your circumstances (goodness knows that if I could, I would choose not to have a chronic, auto-immune disease), but you can always, always choose to see truth instead of lies. The lie tells you that you are not valuable. That you are a victim. That you are trapped. But that is not the truth. And you can choose to take the slow, tiring steps that beget wellness. Whether that's keeping a gratitude journal or going to the doctor, you can choose to be self-aware. Acknowledge what your brain is doing, and fight against the bondage of mental illness. You can choose to believe in the joy of freedom. Because in spite of the lies we tell ourselves, here is the real truth: freedom, my darling, is what we were made for.
If you connected with this monologue, please feel free to reach out. You can get in touch here to get Instagram coaching (where we cover stuff like mindset and mental health in our Instagram-usage), or you can subscribe to my mailing list here if you want monthly encouragement and tips about photography, writing, and creativity.