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Finding Color in the Grey

02/08/2013 12:51 BST | Updated 02/10/2013 10:12 BST
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It was a Friday night and he was at a plush Mayfair nightclub, feeling a lot older than his 28 years. He tipped his head back and shook the ice from his vodka into his mouth, glancing at the grinding couples in front of him, thinking about how something that had once seemed really fun now seemed incredibly fake. (Girls didn't really look like that. Guys didn't really act like that.)

Like everything else in his life at that point, it all just seemed a bit senseless. That night, when pretty girls he couldn't even be bothered flirting with asked him what he did, he told them he "worked in investment" - which was true. What he wanted to tell them was an even deeper truth: "I spend a lot of time babysitting my boss, crunching Excel spreadsheets and sitting through pointless meetings I don't want to be at."

He craved a change - this wasn't who he was, this was never who he planned to become. His suit was becoming a uniform into a universe that left him feeling even more hollow and metallic at the end of each day. He kept waiting for the feeling to pass but instead it seemed to sink even deeper as time rolled on.

Later that weekend, his younger sister asked him something he'd never really considered before.

Did he have depression? She was only 25 but sometimes acted like his mother. They were close enough for her to see that his despondent, disillusioned disposition hadn't shifted in months.

He didn't know. He didn't feel sad. He just felt numb. Was this depression? Self-loathing to the point of insurmountable boredom? Feeling lost and grey? He had lost interest in work long ago; now he was starting lose interest in everything outside of work too; even socializing had started to feel like a chore sometimes.

His sister told him to focus on what he could control: to stay away from caffeine and alcohol, to "work out and eat healthy and meditate." Specifically, she suggested that he spend Sunday morning following the advice that another friend had given her:

"Run faster than is comfortable until your lungs hurt. It's literally as if you're running away from the depressed feelings. It works. Your brain secretes endorphins and you'll feel good for the first time in ages (without needing drugs - illegal or prescribed!). Listen to uplifting music when you're running and if you're lucky (one time in ten maybe) you'll have one of those all-over-body tingles a bit like a religious revelation."

That Sunday, he went for a run through Hyde Park. He did feel better afterwards. So the following week, he tried to adhere to more of her advice and steered clear of alcohol and caffeine and chose a salad at Prêt and attempted to try meditating before bed.

It didn't work. Without alcohol, going out became a lot harder; with only a salad for lunch, he found himself starving and eating crisps from the vending machine at 4pm to make up for it; as hard as he tried to 'empty his mind' as his iPhone meditation app suggested, he found that his to-do list was burned on his brain.

His sister called him later that week and he dismissed the concern in her voice. He was fine! He had so much going for him - a supportive family, great friends, financial security, a roof over his head - he had no right to host these negative thoughts - it all seemed a little melodramatic.

"I don't think there is such thing as the 'right' to depression," his sister retorted icily, in her 'you moron' voice. "It's a chemical imbalance - a psychological virus that can be managed and overcome."

"Stop trying to fix me," he muttered.

"It's a self-created personal hell where you hold the exit key in your back pocket," she continued, ignoring his last comment.

Well, where was that key? He wondered silently. Would he feel better if he got back together with his ex-girlfriend? Was it a matter of switching jobs? Should he go on a big overseas trip and "find himself" in Goa?

"Maybe it's not about finding a solution," his sister barrelled on. "Maybe it's about changing your habits."

"I tried," he snapped. "Exercising, eating healthy - sure, it sort of works. But I still..."

They could both hear what he wasn't saying as he trailed off into silence.

"Well, feelings are irrational and you can't reason your way out of them," she explained. "I know you're used to 'thinking' your way out of problems at work, but you can't 'think' your way out of pain. The impotence of not being able to rationalise your way out is only going to make it worse."

"Okay, Oprah," he said. She gave up and instead emailed him the next day.

"While the negative voices will always be there, if you focus solely on challenging them, you get caught up in their world... eventually you might start to believe that the negative irrational thoughts are reality," she wrote. "Instead of getting caught up in trying to solve the problem, focus on shifting how you feel, looking for what Csikszentmihalyi called flow."

He knew that she had copied and pasted this next part.

"It's the psychology of optimal experience: a state of concentration or complete absorption with the task at hand, in which the involvement is so absolute that nothing else seems to matter. The flow state implies focused attention and is characterised by feeling engaged and fulfilled."

She ended the email with a question. "When was the last time you felt caught up in the moment, like you didn't notice time flying by?"

He replied, "Guitar. Boxing."

"Start playing guitar more," she wrote back. "And doing boxing, too. Experiment with new hobbies, events and people. Note when something resonates."

Over the next few weeks he made an effort to alternate between playing guitar and boxing after work every day. As this decompression from the day became a habit, it had the same effect on him that he guessed that meditating was supposed to.

As his mind started to feel clearer, he found himself more motivated to attend professional events, to meet new people, to absorb interesting articles. This gave him more patience at work because it reminded him that he did have a future beyond his current role: he wasn't trapped. He was simply choosing to remain in his current job while he researched what came next.

He also scoured sites like Escape the City and started reading books like Rework. He planned a series of weekend micro-adventures - some by himself, some with friends. He started playing guitar with some people he'd met at an event. Eventually they became friends, and the types of conversations they had were different from the ones he had with his old friends, although he still hung out with them too.

Nothing big changed. But eventually everything started to feel different.

Helpful resources:

• On 'doing something different' - Escape the City

• On building good habits - James Altucher

• On mindfulness - The Mindful Way Through Depression

• On self-belief - Self-Esteem by Matthew McKay

• On Cognitive Behavioural Therapy - London CBT

For more about Escape the City, click here.

For more articles and books by Adele Barlow, click here.