Updated: Oct 6
Many CEOs and senior professionals live with constant low moods and mild forms of depression.You might wonder what the term “High-Functioning Depression” means. Of course if you made it to this blog post you likely have some inclination that you or someone close to you is suffering. I remember when I first heard of the term. I was often doing great work around me. I was training at large multinational companies, coaching senior professionals, writing, and helping run and facilitate events for CEOs. My dating life was good, and things appeared really “smooth”. I think the concept really hit me when I was spending time in Guatemala with my family and friends that I hadn’t seen in years. It was beautiful, majestic, nostalgic, etc. In theory, it encompassed the entire range of positive human emotions. In reality, half the time, I felt like shit.
Is This You?
I wonder if this resonates with you. Maybe you're a CEO or business leader, entrepreneur or thought leader. Maybe you are a high-performing business professional like a lawyer or physician. On the outside, things look great. Your life has ticked all the boxes. However, there is this looming and persistent negative feeling that underlies your entire being. You move through your life without major problems or behavior changes but feel consistent feelings of sadness of hopelessness, low confidence and stress. Let’s see how you answer the following questions when it comes to High Function Depression.
Are you critical of yourself? Do you often focus on the things you do wrong?
Are you finding less joy in the people or activities that used to bring you joy?
Is there an emphasis in your thinking over past mistakes?
Is your view of yourself consistently negative?
Do you find it hard to concentrate?
Is making decisions stressful and arduous?
Does your future seem bleak and hopeless?
Is your outer persona still strong (you are a CEO, business owner, senior professional)?
Do you feel more irritable than normal?
Are you feeling more tired than normal?
Is feeling and expressing joy and happiness hard or inconsistent?
Are you noticing more of a reliance or use of drugs and alcohol?
Take the time to do a self audit. Although the above test is not a clinical diagnosis, it gives you some idea of your level of subjective happiness. There are other tests that can help you determine this as well. This includes one of my favorites called the Subjective Happiness Scale designed by renowned happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky. In addition, you can use the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire to give you some idea of where you are when it comes to your happiness level.
So, assuming you’re still reading, I might imagine that you recognize that you may be suffering from High Functioning Depression. Don’t worry, you’re not alone! In the course of my career training managers and coaching business professionals I’ve seen it ALOT. So, the emotional toll it has on the lives of those affected was carefully considered when designing some of my strategies as a well-being coach. I think it’s crucial for any wellness coach to have, at least to some extent, really felt the pain of mental and physical health issues and APPLIED what they prescribe to ensure that the work they are doing with clients is heart centred, empathetic and effective. I promise everyone reading this, I have had my moments. Through thick and thin, physical illness and anxiety and depression so crippling I was NOT able to function. Of course, don’t forget I also have been in the position where I was hustling, doing great things and appeared extremely productive but felt pretty rotten.
Consider the following things you can start doing NOW to help combat, and eliminate the symptoms of mild and persistent depression.
Make Happiness a Habit
This may seem a little ridiculous but executives, high performers, managers, etc. have all implemented and maintained habits; otherwise they would not be where they are! In fact, all of us have habits as it’s part of our heuristics. That being said, they are certainly NOT all good habits. Let’s examine some of the common habits that we should adopt in order to improve our level of subjective well being.
Monitor your thoughts. This is very crucial. There is a strong link between our cognition (thinking) and our neurobiology and neurochemistry. If we think pessimistically or negatively, we will feel the same way. So, thoughts are like fish in a stream. Often, they go by undetected and we get lost in the narrative they are creating. Two of the most effective tools I have learned to help people with this are meditation and thought audits.
Prioritize happiness in the morning. It’s easy to start your day by checking emails or anticipating what challenges remain unsolved or may need to be solved that day. If we begin our days by getting out of the present moment and into an anxious state of mind that not only affects our mood but also signals to our unconscious brain that “stress and negatively” is our default state NOT joy and contentment. So, be very mindful of your state of being in the morning and PRIORITIZE feeling good. This could include getting up earlier to practice gratitude, meditating, exercising, yoga, spending meaningful time with family, journaling or other habits.
Daily check-ins. I have found these to be super useful when it comes to improving my overall wellbeing, performance and productivity. By setting up specific times and locations to evaluate how I am feeling, I get a chance to assess my thought patterns and emotions proactively do something about it. This could include breathing exercises, meditation breaks, walks, gratitude, exercise or affirmations. There is plenty of evidence to support the power of gratitude, breathing and meditation!
Setting an intention for the day. Lots of high performers also tend to be hyper-analytical. This has it’s pros and cons and can certainly lead to stress and anxiety. This is especially true when the day is just left to “unfold” with no clear plan or goals to head towards. Having intentions for the day can help anchor us and makes thought auditing and Daily check-ins easier. We can ask ourselves simple questions to put us back on track. Things like “Is this helping me to accomplish my goals?” Or “What feeling must I create to ensure I have the energy and optimism required to complete my goals?” This of course, is not an exhaustive list of questions but it’s important for CEOs, professionals and leaders to have that clarity and grounding to more easily self-monitor. As discussed before, having a sense of purpose really helps with our overall well-being and performance.
Exercise. Lots of senior executives and professionals could be in much better shape. This does not have to be super intense either. Research shows that even mild exercise (150 minutes/week) can have noticeable improvements in perceived stress.
Relationships. This has been shown in a lot of instances to be the fountain of youth for people. So, take time to nourish the relationships you have. CEOs often report feeling ‘lonely’ in their positions so make the conscious effort to invest in the relationships you have and grow your network. This can be done by joining other networks of CEOs or professionals or just having people you can reliably share your struggles with.
Luckily, high-functioning depression is very treatable. In a lot of ways it just takes will power and a change of habits to start to feel noticeably better. This, in my opinion, is excellent news because CEOs, professionals and high-performers are already good at taking responsibility for things so this is not too arduous of a task. The first step is building awareness about the problem, then creating more alignment in your life and of course, alos, continued action.