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Depression: this is the main symptom outsiders often struggle to grasp

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Lauren Geall and Anna Brech
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Woman with depression

As new figures from the Office For National Statistics suggest that one in five British adults have experienced depressive symptoms during the coronavirus pandemic, we look at one symptom of depression which outsiders often struggle to understand. 

Despite the fact that more than 300 million people around the world live with depression, there’s a persistent lack of understanding about what it’s actually like to live with the mental health condition.

As new figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that one in five British adults have experienced depressive symptoms during the coronavirus pandemic – compared to one in ten before – it’s more important than ever that we get to grips with the reality of this all-too-common experience.

In particular, there’s one symptom of depression which really causes outsiders to scratch their heads – the impossible task. 

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The term, coined in 2018 by Chicago-based author M. Molly Backes in a viral Twitter thread, refers to the feeling people with depression often experience when simple tasks – such as going to the bank or making your bed – become completely impossible. 

“Depression commercials always talk about sadness but they never mention that sneaky symptom that everyone with depression knows all too well: the Impossible Task,” Backes writes.

“The Impossible Task could be anything. Going to the bank, refilling a prescription, making your bed, checking your email, paying a bill. From the outside, its sudden impossibility makes ZERO sense.”

“The Impossible Task is rarely actually difficult. It’s something you’ve done a thousand times. For this reason, it’s hard for outsiders to have sympathy. ‘Why don’t you just do it & get it over with?’ ‘It would take you like 20 minutes & then it would be done.’ OH, WE KNOW.”

Backes then went on to describe how it feels to face the Impossible Task – and shared some advice for others who experience this symptom of depression.

“If you’re grappling with an Impossible Task, you already have these conversations happening in your brain,” she writes. “Plus, there’s probably an even more helpful voice in your brain reminding you of what a screw up you are for not being able to do this seemingly very simple thing.

“Another cool thing about the Impossible Task is that it changes on you. One time it might involve calling someone, but maybe you can work around it by emailing. Another time it’s an email issue. Then when you think you have it pinned down, you suddenly can’t do the dishes.”

Backes continues: “If you currently have one or more Impossible Tasks in your life, be gentle with yourself. You’re not a screw up; depression is just an asshole. Impossible Tasks are usually so dumb that it’s embarrassing to ask for help, but the people who love you should be glad to lend a hand.

“If you have a depressed person in your life, ask them what their Impossible Tasks are & figure out ways to help—without judgment. A friend once picked me up, drove me the two blocks to the pharmacy, and came in to help me refill a prescription. TWO BLOCKS. It was an amazing gift.

“The one good thing about struggling with Impossible Tasks is that they help you to be gentler & more empathetic with other people in your life, because you know what it’s like. You know. The trick is to turn that gentleness & empathy toward yourself.”

Backes’ simple, compassionate thread struck an immediate chord on Twitter, with thousands clamouring to join the discussion and share their own experiences of The Impossible Task. 

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The writer said she was “overwhelmed and deeply gratified” by the outpouring of support and stories she’d received, adding “it has been beautiful to see you lifting each other up.”

The symptom Backes describes is known in medical terms as Executive Dysfunction and it’s not always a side-effect of depression; it can be associated with many different conditions.

For those suffering from it, she recommends being gentle with yourself, breaking tasks down and seeking professional help such as CBT therapy

Coping with depression

If you’re struggling with depression right now, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone, and that there are places and people who are able to help. 

If you’re looking to read more articles about depression, here’s three to get you started:

And for more information on depression, including what it is, how to cope and when and where to seek help, you can check out NHS Every Mind Matters or visit the Mind website. 

For confidential support you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

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