Here's A Way To Protect Yourself When You Feel The Depression Coming
For many people, depression can come in waves: You might be fine for a few hours, a few days, or maybe even a few weeks or months, and then something may suddenly come over you, triggered by a stressful event, or by a randomly distressing thought fluttering into your head at the wrong time, or perhaps by nothing at all. Sometimes you can even feel the depressive episode coming.
Dealing with depression involves testing and making use of a wide variety of strategies to help mitigate the effects, stabilize, and find a way through the fog—or at least not suffocate in it. And a new study recently published in the journal Brain and Behavior just identified an effective one to add to that arsenal: humor.
Wait, wait! Before you roll your eyes, understand that this study was not about proving that depression can be "laughed off" or that if you just "smile" and "think positive," your depression will simply go away. Any depressed person who's heard this kind of unhelpful advice knows how frustrating and invalidating it can be when people suggest a simple mindset shift will magically make your mental illness vanish.
Here's what the study did find. Researchers had 55 people with remitted major depression look through a series of negative photographs depicting things like war and sickness. After each photo, the participants reported how they felt emotionally. Then the researchers asked them to look through more sad photos, and this time the participants had to comment on the photos with some specific instructions—either a neutral description, a positive description, or a humorous one.
The researchers found using humor as a prism through which to view these distressing images led the participants to not feel as negative after viewing the photo—and they even felt more positive. In other words, using humor essentially softened the depressing effects of otherwise triggering, sad stimuli.
"In some vulnerable people, even a slightly lowered mood can escalate into clinical depression, and the main factor that underlies this process is impaired ability to regulate negative emotions," Braniecka said. "The use of adaptive emotion regulation strategies in people at risk of depression should boost their resilience against depressogenic experiences. … [The study findings show] that humor could broaden depressed individuals' repertoire of adaptive tools of dealing with potentially depressogenic experiences, and in the long run, enhance their resilience."
In other words, while "staying positive" won't heal your depression, finding ways to deal with your emotions effectively and offset the explosion of negative ones can stop you from going over the edge when you feel a deep depressive episode coming. When something upsetting is happening, Braniecka suggests "approaching them in a humorous and thus less threatening way, even if it may seem challenging at first."
What does that look like, practically speaking? It might mean taking a moment in the midst of an unfortunate happening or destructive train of thought to reconceptualize the experience in funnier terms. The internet is actually pretty great at poking fun at life's dark side—take a scroll through the So Sad Today feed, for example.
It might also simply mean, when you're headed for a particularly depressing emotional place, reaching out to that one friend or family member who always finds a way to make everything hilarious. Research shows happy energy can, in fact, be contagious, and being around friends in good spirits has been shown to help people recover from depressive symptoms.
Laughter won't cure depression, but it can certainly be a powerful salve.