Fake it Until You Feel it

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I used to think that ‘fake it until you feel it’ was really bad advice, but I got into neuroscience and now I’m not so sure. Especially in the case of a depression where your symptoms are not a product of underlying existential issues that need attending but are instead due to genetics, faking it until you feel it might be the best thing you can do for yourself.

What it comes down to is that we can’t always separate cause and effect. Some things are circular. When you are depressed you find yourself with less energy and you find yourself less interested in the things that used to interest you. As a result you are much less likely to do the very things that could help lift you out of your depression and a very dangerous downward spiral is born. You need to exercise and be active to make the neurotransmitters that combat depression fire but the last thing you feel like doing is exercising when you are depressed. You feel like laying in bed. The same paradox exists for all of the pastimes that have ceased to interest you. You stop doing them because they don’t interest you anymore, but maybe doing them is exactly what you need to become interested in life once again.

This is why when you are feeling depressed you have to force yourself to override your internal state and make your behavior mimic what it was before your depression set in. You have to fake it until you feel it. The reason this works from a neuroscientific point of view is that as far as your brain is concerned, the barrier between external reality and internal reality is basically nonexistent. For example, scans have shown that you can feel happy and therefore smile, or just contort your face into the shape of a smile whether you feel happy or not, and your brain will respond the same way, releasing the same chemicals. It looks like yogis and Buddhists had it right all along when they advised practitioners to sit in meditation with a half-smile upon their face.

In another fascinating experiment, two groups of people had muscle development in their index fingers measured over a period of weeks. One group actually did physical exercises, while the other group spent that same time imagining that they were doing them, picturing a coach yelling at them to keep going. Both groups experienced significant gains in the muscle mass of their index fingers.

If you have been feeling depressed and for that reason you’ve been avoiding social situations, activities, hobbies, and everything else that used to make you happy, you’ve got to get back on the horse whether you believe it will help or not, paste a half-smile upon your face, and give your powerful brain the chance to help you out of your jam. You might not feel it, but you still have the power to fake it until you do.