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Is Depression A Mental Illness?

Most consider anxiety and depression to be forms of mental illness–some might use the term disease. What we call something is very important. Words shape the way we think and feel. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” To me, mental illness is not almost the right word, it’s the wrong word! When I think of an illness or a disease, I think of something you catch, a sickness that infiltrates your body leaving you its victim. You catch a cold or the flu, if you step on a rusty nail, you contract tetanus. In my opinion, you don’t catch or contract anxiety or depression. You generate it!

Why is this important? Because with a cold, flu, or tetanus, you’re nothing more than a passive victim of some outside nefarious biological agent. And by definition, a victim is someone who is helpless–powerless. If you think of anxiety and depression as illnesses, than you can’t help but feel victimized!

So, let’s change the language. Rather than illnesses or diseases, I’m going to suggest the rather heretical notion that anxiety and depression be seen as habits. Habits that you generate. Let me stop here. Some of you may be wondering, “If depression and anxiety are habits, why does medication work?” The answer is that the underlying habits of insecurity (i.e., worry, rumination, avoidance, perfectionism, etc.) create psychological friction (a.k.a. stress) and chronic stress depletes us chemically as well as mentally, which is why medication works–it restores our chemical balance.

Another question I often hear is, “Doesn’t anxiety and depression run in families?” “How can it be a habit if, in fact, there are genetic roots?” I’m not saying that your genetic history is irrelevant; all I’m saying is that a genetic disposition is NOT a life sentence. It’s a tendency toward anxiety or a tendency toward depression. What you inherit is a lower threshold of susceptibility. Whether you’re predisposed to anxiety or depression is not the issue. Like any other habit, what matters is whether or not you feed or starve this tendency. That’s the issue! And how do you feed anxiety or depression? By mindlessly and chronically embracing doubts, fears and negatives.

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