I’ve been depressed my whole life. How long does it take to heal?

Oftentimes when we’ve experienced depression or anxiety our whole lives, we begin to see them as traits or immovable aspects of our personalities. We don’t even have a blueprint or memory of what experiencing life without low energy or obsessive thinking feels like. When we become fully identified with our emotional states, it prevents us from seeing another way of being and a sense of futility or hopelessness pervades every thought, every emotion, and every inaction.

Usually, it is a transformative experience or insight that must shake us out of this motionless daze. Sometimes transformative experiences can be pleasurable or nurturing, but often, it is incredible amounts of pain or hitting an emotional rock bottom that acts as the catalyst.

When people who have reached rock bottom are reaching out for help or ready to make a change, they are arriving not from a place of clarity and hope, but from a place of “my pain has become so unbearable, I am going to have to give myself up to something outside of me even though I have no cause or evidence to believe in its power.” This is a person who has run out of all other options and the ‘something’ outside of them, for the purposes of this piece, is a mental health therapist. In reality, it can be a multitude of somethings (AA groups, family, God, a coach, the Universe, their higher self).

In this particular case, the person arrives at the therapist’s office, doubtful and unsure, but somehow hoping the rumors are true and this outside expert has the skills to take away their pain. They don’t fully believe this is possible, but they have nothing else to hang their hat on so they allow their hidden hope to at least get them to the office, to show up and see.

When you finally come to the decision that you need a change and take the first step of reaching out to someone for help, it is natural to wonder but how long does it really take to recover from depression or anxiety? When can I expect to start feeling better? When will I gain the motivation to even want to feel better?

From this murky and dark place, recovery can seem like a mirage. All thoughts, emotions, and motivations are stained with and through the lens of depression. Careless quips of our families and friends such as “just think more positively” and “you have to love yourself” can feel offensive on a stomach-clenching, cellular level. In order for those maxims to mean anything to you, you have to be in a different state. That’s the thing about recovery that a lot of people don’t understand- a lot of what works is developmental and state-specific. What feels uplifting and true for certain states, feels positively threatening in other states.

Mental health needs to be approached from a developmental and stage-aware lens. Returning to or learning for the first time who we are authentically, who we are without chronic depression, anxiety, or other mental health limitations, requires a radical process of learning how to be in this world all over again. Just as a child gains new capacities and skills through each developmental phase and cannot be rushed through the process, so must we. If you extolled the benefits of Tolstoy to a five-year-old they would only get frustrated, not inspired.

The good news is the road to recovery can begin right away. It begins the moment that you make the choice that you would like something more in your life or the moment that you show up at that therapist's door. This is a huge step. The second biggest step is when you decide to keep showing up even in the moments when you can’t point to any groundbreaking or obvious change. It took me a whole year working with my therapist before I was able to notice or point to any change in myself. This wasn’t because change wasn’t happening, this was because in the initial stage change is subtle as the seeds are being planted and the soil is being tilled.

Oftentimes, it takes time for our minds to process and understand the impact of life-long beliefs and habits, let alone allow our nervous systems to calm so that we can begin to slowly open up and trust the process with a total stranger. Magic was being subtly distilled in every moment that she witnessed my pain without judgment and offered me words to explain and scaffold my internal experience. Yet, on the outside, I was still just surviving. I didn’t yet have access to the magic we were creating which would one day be mine.

A significant aspect of our recovery and how it feels depends upon where we are at developmentally in the process. Yet people get discouraged when they believe therapy to be an instant cure rather than a collaborative process. The alleviation of symptoms certainly come, but they are not instantaneous. Alleviation of symptoms are surprisingly not even the end goal, but instead a starting place and return to clarity so the real work can begin.

My gains in the first year of my healing were foundational and no small matter, but my ability to appreciate, feel, and live from a state of contentment were still infrequent. I had moments of relief, but largely my day to day still consisted of a lot of suffering. Now, ten years later I can say that this ratio has flipped where a large percentage of my days consist of living from a place of contentment, creativity, and calm and only a small portion of my time is spent in overwhelming negative emotion or feelings of emptiness. What I mean to say is that the gains increase exponentially as you continue to work through the developmental stages of recovery because the further along you are, the more capacities you are able to access and the more open, flexible, and creative your solutions become.

So did it take 10 years for me to be able to enjoy my life while living with depression or anxiety? Not at all. Genuine joy began to show up as early as the second year and with every moment I experienced it, I became more and more motivated to move forward. Every new skillset, capacity, and mental health gain felt exquisitely pleasurable and eons away from where I had started. The journey is not all hard work and pain because with every passing developmental stage we gain new awareness and abilities. If we can just hang in there and move past the first stage which is arguably the most difficult, we enter an intrinsically rewarding feedback loop which continues to give back as much as we put in. These capacities take time to develop, but they are more than worth the wait.

The irony is that once we become fully dedicated to our recovery, it is growth, not relief, which becomes our primary motivator. For example, sobriety can provide relief when we stop our external behaviors of drinking or using, however, recovery is a lifelong practice of inner healing, growth, and a return to ourselves. It is total. Whole. It doesn’t just provide relief, it provides a deeper purpose.

The developmental stages I’m speaking of probably still sound vague, which is why I plan to break them down into specifics in a future piece. My intention in sharing this with you is to give a real-life map of how developmental stages influence our capacities for change, growth, and deeper and deeper joy. It is an honest look at the answer to the question: how long before I start to feel better?

Just remember, there is no shame in where we start, only the gift of ending up in places we could have never imagined for ourselves.

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NOTE: This is the first article in a three part series. You can read the next article in the series here.

I’m a licensed mental health therapist who loves combining neuroscience, holistic health, somatic work, and spirituality to give people tools to heal trauma.

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