Written by. Kevin Jiang
One of the greatest difficulties of living with depression is coping with the apathy and fatigue it introduces into our lives. When explaining how it feels to live with depression and talking about methods of surviving daily life with this illness, I like to do it through the lens of the often-reviled science of thermodynamics.
Entropy and Activation Energy
We’ll start with the concept of entropy. Entropy is the force that causes buildings to collapse and statues to erode; it is the thermodynamic law that states, in time, every complexity must be reduced to their lowest forms of energy – boulders crumble into sand, stars collapse in on themselves, and once-folded laundry disperse like dust and cookie crumbs over my bedroom floor.
Depression is like entropy; it reduces us to our lowest forms of energy and keeps us trapped in that energetic sinkhole where we’re weakest. In order to better live with this illness, we must learn to use whatever energy we can muster to bring structure into our lives again.
The problem is depression can often make the smallest tasks seem daunting and even impossible. It might seem futile to make the bed every morning, and the tedium of cleaning the house or filling out taxes can lead to feeling overwhelmed and despair.
A few years ago, my shrink said something that really resonated with me. He said there is an activation energy in everything we do. See, in order for a chemical synthesis reaction to occur, reactant molecules must collide with enough energy to overcome entropy. This energy barrier is known as the activation energy, and reactants must surpass it to form a product higher in both energy and complexity.
So how do molecules with lower energies overcome this barrier? They find ways to lower it.
Overcoming the Activation Energy Barrier
A catalyst is a substance that can lower activation energies of other reactions. It works by dividing one big reaction into several smaller reactions, coming up with a new mechanism of reaction, or a myriad of other techniques. By simply tackling the problem in a different manner, complex structures can be synthesized and life itself sustained.
Our daily lives can be tackled in much the same way. For example, going from not exercising to doing a 10-kilometer run every morning seems impossible, but so does eating an elephant. The trick lies in first carving the beast into bite-sized pieces and taking your time. Same goes for the elephant.
For example, instead of writing a 5,000-word essay in one sitting, consider breaking the task into digestible portions. Start by aspiring to write just 200 words of the introduction, figuring out the thesis statement, or even writing the very first sentence.
The benefits of doing this are threefold: first, by shrinking the task down, you lower its activation energy, making it easier to start. Second, in setting and achieving attainable goals for yourself, you’re building the confidence to set further, more ambitious goals for yourself. Third, by simply giving yourself an excuse to start, you’ll likely find it easier to continue working and potentially exceed your expectations.
Inertia is a fundamental law of thermodynamics which states that objects in motion find it easier to stay in motion. The same principle applies to washing dishes, jogging, and eating elephants. As long as we’re here, our brains say, we might as well write the rest of that introduction. We might as well run to the end of this block. When we arrive, we might just run to the end of the next.
However, inertia also states that objects at rest tend to stay at rest. That’s what makes starting new projects and getting out of bed every day so tough. The challenge is to keep in motion for as long as possible.
This can be accomplished by doing one productive thing a day, no matter how small. Remember that elephant you chopped up into tasty hors d’oeuvres? Take a bite or two every morning. Some days you don’t have much of an appetite, so maybe you take a few nibbles. Other days, you’re so hungry you eat the whole trunk. After the first week, you might find your appetite for elephant has increased, and maybe you even start craving that tasty meat. By the end of the first month, there will be no more elephant left to eat.
However, it’s also important to recognize our limits. Doing something every day, no matter how small, can be incredibly challenging, especially when dealing with depression. There will be days when we can barely get out of bed, much less go to the gym. And that’s okay. Depression might make you blame yourself for missed days, but don’t fall for it. Remind yourself that it can be healthy to fail sometimes and that everybody has bad days. As long as you get out of bed and keep moving tomorrow, you’re doing fine. If tomorrow is still bad, forgive yourself and keep looking forward.
Of course, that is all assuming you have an elephant to eat. But often, we find ourselves with too much free time and not enough activities to fill it with. Depression has a way of leeching away our joy and motivation to do the things we love. Maybe you’ve lost interest or simply don’t know what you enjoy doing anymore. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just means you have a bit more work to do.
Think about things you used to enjoy or find interesting, then start slowly incorporating that activity into your life. If that interest is painting, maybe try painting for 10 minutes every day. If you’re having trouble thinking of activities, try going for a short walk every morning or pick up a low intensity activity like meditation. The key is to take it slow and to keep doing it. Having a goal to work towards will likely be beneficial for your mental health, and over time, you might find enjoyment in the activity.
Living with depression for me is like that Rodney Atkins song If You’re Going Through Hell: “If you’re goin’ through hell, keep on going. Don’t slow down if you’re scared don’t show it. You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.”
So keep going. Keep moving forward, no matter how slow you’re going or how long it takes. We’ll all get there one day.
2 responses to “What Thermodynamics Taught Me About Coping with Depression”
Thanks. You’re right. But not sure I will do it. Cheers.
Very helpful information. It takes me all evening to muster the energy to clean my teeth. This is entropy – I need to put energy into the tasks I need to do – one step at a time – small steps. Thanks