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  • Cameron Burris

High Functioning Depression is on the Rise

There's a rise in high functioning depression, but you'd almost never know it...

When COVID first triggered worldwide shutdowns we saw the impact of our interconnectedness. We felt the power of community, and specifically the mantra "when one person hurts we all hurt". We vowed to slow down, do less, be more. We told ourselves this was the "new normal", this slowed down, reverent, community mindset.

This isn't to minimize the collective grief and loss we experienced. Together we lost millions of lives to COVID. Many of us were unable to be with loved ones in their final moments, compounding our grief. The loss, for a moment, ignited a collective desire to show up better, to be more engaged in the things that mattered most to us. Outside of just productivity, metrics, and performance measures. We had profound hopes for change.

And then we went right back to our hyper-independence and productivity. The rising inflation, an inflated housing market, and stagnant wages triggered a sense of urgency and scarcity. The impact? We feed into a cycle of urgency and scarcity, where we (try to) act immediately on what we feel is important to acquire things we feel are in limited supply. We fall into the trap of emotional reasoning, a cognitive distortion, that says because we feel a sense of urgency then we must act, do something.

Even though our bodies told us what we need--a reevaluation of what makes life worthwhile--our minds overpowered it. Less isn't more. More is more. And more is better.

Whenever our beliefs are out of alignment with our actions, we are experiencing cognitive dissonance. And for most of us instead of changing our poor behaviors to match our beliefs, we end up adjusting our beliefs to support our dysfunctional behavior. It requires less effort to accept our poor behavior than change it. But it comes at a cost. For some of us that cost looks like symptoms of high functioning depression.

High functioning depression, clinically known as persistent depressive disorder or dysthymia, currently affects 1.5% of adults. While stigma about getting treatment for mental health has lessened, this disorder is tricky because folks with dysthymia often don't present as "depressed". Why? Because oftentimes they can still fulfill major role obligations such as work or school. They may appear to be outgoing and happy, perhaps through engaging social media posts, even though their real life looks more isolated. Don't let these nuances fool you. Unlike major depressive disorder in which symptoms only need to be present for two weeks, high functioning depressive symptoms must persist for two years. Often by the time people realize they're struggling months or years have passed.

When we ignore the messages our bodies tell us, we use our minds against ourselves and this contributes to poor mental health. Our bodies are powerful centers of intuition and emotional processing. We do ourselves a disservice by bypassing the body's intuition in favor of productivity and feeding into pathological cycles of urgency and scarcity. What's most unfortunate is that many of us will internalize these cycles as further proof of our own "dysfunction", failing to realize urgency and scarcity techniques are proven sales and marketing tactics.

When it comes to many depressive and anxiety disorders, the collective solution requires adjustments to living, not just acceptance of the "new normal". Because the new normal is always changing, and not often in ways that enhance our well-being. So we have to be brave enough to not allow the world to make us feel miserable.

If you've ever experienced depression or anxiety, I hope you had some form of community to support your healing and recovery. And if not, I hope you know that therapy is a powerful, formal support that can help you challenge those cognitive distortions and cognitive dissonance.

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