- Jeannie Lawrence MD
What We Can Learn From Michelle Obama's Podcast About Depression In High Functioning People
Michelle Obama recently started a podcast on Spotify, and I could not be more excited!
I tuned in this week for episode two and was blown away by her candor as she discussed her experience with what she calls "low grade depression," brought on by the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing racial unrest and injustice, and the current administration.
As a psychiatrist, I was struck by the level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence Michelle Obama communicated as she spoke with her friend and award-winning journalist Michele Norris about how current events were impacting her mental health.
While "low grade depression" is not actually a clinical term and can mean many things diagnostically, I think most people can relate to and understand what she meant; many have been feeling the same way lately.
If you have been following along with the blog recently, you know I've been focusing a lot on depression in high functioning and high achieving people for the past few weeks. Depression in this population is often misunderstood and overlooked. Those who suffer from it often do so in silence. I hope to shed light on this important issue, and help those who are are successful externally, but are suffering internally, to start their journeys toward healing.
Let's look at some of the lessons we can learn from Michelle Obama about depression in high functioning people:
1. Depression can affect anyone, even high functioning folks. If someone who functions at the high level that Michelle Obama does can suffer from some form of depression, then we all can. None of us is immune. It's a common misconception that depression always includes a dramatic inability to function in everyday life, but as I have pointed out in previous posts, sometimes high functioning people with depression have compensatory strategies and intense external pressures that keep them working their jobs, and handling their responsibilities in the world, even while suffering inside. Just because they are functioning, doesn't mean they are suffering any less.
2. Depression is real, and is more than temporarily feeling sad. In her podcast interview, Michelle Obama spoke of "a weight, that I haven't felt in my life, in, a while", losing interest in activities she typically enjoys like exercise, waking in the middle of night with worries. She also alluded to the fact that these symptoms have been ongoing, and spoke in the present tense when describing her "low grade depression" indicating she was still working through it. Clinical depression is more than a transient low mood. There are associated symptoms, affecting sleep, energy, appetite, interest in things, thoughts, and more. For more on the symptoms of depression in high functioning people read my post, Signs You May Be Suffering From Depression Even Though You Are High Functioning.
3. Racism, politics and the COVID19 pandemic are having significant effects on the mental health of us all. The burden of racism and the pandemic have been especially heavy in the Black community as both of these issues have disproportionately affected African Americans. There are no easy answers, but discussions around mental health must be had. Stigma around seeking help needs to be addressed so people can get the help they need and deserve.
4. Developing self-awareness is key. This is where the episode gets really good, because we start to hear about ways we can work through depression and feel better. Before we can improve our mental health, it's imperative that we first recognize that we're not feeling well. Self awareness involves being consciously aware of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. This is really the first step toward being able to overcome depression. Most people live their lives on autopilot -- life happens, and you react. You may never really understand how you're feeling or why you're feeling or reacting in a certain way. This can be incredibly disempowering because it can feel like you have no control over your thoughts, feelings or reactions. And when things upset us, you are left without a clue as to how to get to feeling well again. Michelle Obama talks about how important it is to "know yourself". When she started feeling depressed, she knew what things have made her feel happier in the past, and actively incorporated them into her life in her effort to start feeling better.
5. Our mental health is connected to our physical health and everyday lives. Michelle Obama identified that some of the things that brought her joy include taking care of her physical health, and being around loved ones. Taking care of your body is crucial to achieving good health in mind and spirit. Take some time to reflect on what things bring you joy and help you feel healthy. Commit to making them a part of your daily life.
6. Keeping a routine is SO important! She talked a lot about the importance of routines and "small rituals" like maintaining a set dinner time with her family. Routine is so important especially in a pandemic when we don't have our normal schedules around work and extracurriculars. Making a routine and sticking to it gives our days predictability and stability, which we certainly need in these times when so much feels uncertain.
7. Be gentle with yourself and be okay with taking a break. This can be especially challenging for high functioning, high achieving people. Your instinct is to push through pain, get to the finish line, and meet expectations no matter what. But it is so important to listen to your body, mind and spirit and unapologetically take a break when needed. I love that even though Mrs. Obama had lots of good strategies to help her feel better, she also talked about just allowing herself to feel low for awhile. This is also apart of being gentle with yourself; you don't have to always be in a rush to "fix" your feelings right away. Sometimes it's best to just feel the low feelings that come along with being human. Then we're better able to achieve and appreciate the highs.
8. My favorite lesson: there's no magic to feeling better, but it does take EFFORT. Here's a little bit of tough love for us all. In my line of work, I frequently come across people who believe that they should feel happy -- all of the time. Or they are frustrated that their depression isn't getting better, even though they haven't done the hard work of actively changing their thoughts and beliefs, or adjusting their lifestyle habits to ones that will support their mental health instead of harm it. This is understandable! When you're feeling depressed, the last thing you want to do is more work. But at the end of day, achieving mental health takes more than passively letting time pass, or taking a pill, or even sitting in a therapy session. While medication and therapy can certainly be incredibly important for some people, we ALL can benefit from living a lifestyle that supports our mental health in order to feel our best.
To end, I will add that if you are not feeling like yourself, and you've done what you can to feel better on your own (or you're not sure what to do), please reach out for help from a mental health professional. High functioning people need help sometimes, and that's okay.
We've got this!