Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald: How depression impacts motivation

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If you're searching for motivation you need look no further than making small, maintainable behavioural change. Image / NZ Herald
If you're searching for motivation you need look no further than making small, maintainable behavioural change. Image / NZ Herald

"In a previous column you listed a series of indicators of depression but you didn't talk about the way depression destroys motivation. Surely that is a key indicator?" Curious

Motivation may very well be one of the most written about self help topics. This might say nothing, or may tell us it is key to the human condition and something we all struggle with at times. And it certainly is a key indicator of depression.

It's common to think about motivation as a "thing": you either have it or you don't. If you don't, the answer is to find it. Where might one find it, and how to go about the search? Well for many, including those that are experiencing depression, finding motivation can become the Holy Grail.

Simply put, motivation is our inbuilt navigation system for life. Motivation is essentially a way to describe how emotions guide us towards desirable goals, and help us overcome life's obstacles.

It's in these emotions that both the problem and the solution lie.

Many years ago I played first XV rugby with a young man who liked to prepare for the game by punching, and at times head-butting, walls in the changing room. As ill-advised as this was, it was also highly effective at creating motivation. In this instance the pain caused him to feel anger and aggression. It was very motivating for him, albeit a little scary for the rest of us.

Before everyone emails in outrage that I'm condoning self harm, the point is this: We can wait for motivation to arise naturally, which is wonderful when it does, and is what many of us consider when we talk about "feeling motivated". Or we can create motivation through behaviour designed to bring about the desired state.

The problem with depression and motivation, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, is that depression - namely being inactive, having an inward focus, excessive and repetitive thinking - is a feedback loop that creates and maintains a demotivated state.

Ultimately, it's one of the very practical ways that medication helps. Anti-depressants don't "fix the brain" so much as they enable the behaviour that breaks that downward, de-motivating behaviour loop. The same goes for exercise. Activity is the behavioural opposite of depression's unrelenting lethargy.

If you're searching for motivation, there's no need to bang your head against the wall. You need look no further than making small, maintainable behavioural change. Any activity is better than none, any movement better than lethargy, any outward focus better than rumination.

So stop waiting for motivation, create it. While that might feel like hard work, I think the idea that we can ultimately treat ourselves with deliberate changes in behaviour is liberating.

Just don't wait until you feel like it.

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Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald is in private practice at the Robert Street Clinic in Auckland. For more: psychotherapy.org.nz or his Social Anxiety resource site: overcomingsocialanxiety.com.

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