The Wisdom of Depression - What Your Heart May Be Telling You
Depression seems at record highs in recent years – and there is evidence to support that. Some point to social isolation with increasing divorce rates and social media. Some point to the increased anxiety in our culture and lifestyle over the past ten-to-fifteen years. But there is also evidence that depression has always been a part of human existence, in every culture around the world.
Now, let me make a distinction between severe, clinical depression and what I call “healthy depression.” There is a healthy amount of mental and emotional reset that takes place when dealing with difficult problems or situations. It could be called melancholy, the blues, feeling down, or “a damp, drizzly November in my soul” (as Herman Melville phrased it). This sort of depression is, I believe, a natural and healthy response to circumstances, and gives us valuable information and motivation, when properly understood.
I realize that a line like “depression might be good” is somewhat taboo today. Talking about negative feelings at all is something we’re discouraged from doing, except in the context of letting them go. But I believe, along with renowned hypnotherapist Cal Banyan, that all our feelings are good – when they are based on accurate perceptions and properly understood. Even this. Depression has something important to tell us, and is our mind’s, heart’s and body’s way of helping us, rather than hurting us.
Depression may be our natural response to frustration, that feeling that comes with a seeming inability to change our situation. But hold on – I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a couple steps.
In his book, The Secret Language of Feelings, Cal Banyan describes a feeling-distraction cycle. Because we haven’t been taught to listen to our “bad” feelings (to the contrary, we’ve often been taught to ignore them or dismiss them, or worse be ashamed of them), we look for distractions from feeling bad. It could be smoking or eating or shopping or sex or whatever “too much” behavior. It is “too much” because we do it primarily not for the joy of doing it, but for the distraction it provides from our uncomfortable feelings. We feel bad, and act to distract ourselves, but when the distraction is over we still feel bad, so we distract again. You get the idea. Over and over, and we have a “too much” behavior.
At some point, and always on some level, we realize we aren’t solving the real problem, and our too-much behavior itself is becoming a problem. We’ve been trying to change how we feel, but haven’t been able to no matter how many distractions we put up, and that’s frustrating.
Frustration is a natural and healthy response to doing the same thing over and over and not getting different results. But it isn’t a pleasant feeling. And what do we do with unpleasant feelings? Instead of listening to our frustration (which is really telling us to try something different, it is a call to creativity), we avoid thinking about or feeling frustrated – and we’re back to a distraction of one sort or another.
We have our original unpleasant feeling (anger, sadness, loneliness, and so on) and we distract ourselves temporarily from it without solving the problem. We do that over and over, and eventually we get frustrated with the situation. So we distract some more. (It’s silly when we spell it out like this, isn’t it?) That makes us more frustrated, so we distract some more.
At some point, and always on some level, we realize that we are stuck in this frustration-distract cycle and that even then we aren’t able to “fix” ourselves. And that is depressing.
Depression here is the natural and healthy response to ongoing frustration. Frustration was itself a call to try something different to meet the original need or solve the original problem. But because we distracted ourselves, our frustration only grew. To the point where our body, heart and mind just “gives up.” We get tired, sleep more, are uninterested in even the distracting too-much behaviors. We just want to curl up and quit. And that is exactly what we should do.
Depression is our body’s way of telling us that what we have been doing is really, really not working. And it is time to take a break. Clearly, what we’ve been trying to do hasn’t worked. So let’s not-try for a while, and see what comes up. Like when you’ve looked all over the house for your lost keys, looked everywhere, getting more frustrated, more anxious, and finally on the edge of tears you give up. And then a moment later, “pop!” you know exactly where they are.
Taking a break and “giving up” is a really good strategy for creative problem solving, because it allows our subconscious mind an opportunity to join in the effort.
Researchers are discovering that this is exactly what happens in the brains of people experiencing depression. A recent article at Big Think reads:
“…the brain operates differently in those suffering from depression. An area of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) shows remarkable activity in the depressed. This area is known to engage analytical thinking. The depressed often ruminate over their problems. When this occurs, the neurons in this region fire on a continuous basis.”
We typically think of depression-fueled “rumination” as precisely part of the problem of depression. And it is when we get stuck there. But that feature of depression actually clues us in to the wisdom and adaptive advantage of depression: it breaks us out of the distraction cycle that wasn’t meeting our needs and had become a self-destructive behavior. Depression is, in a way, our body knocking us upside the head saying “Hey! Stop it! You’re being an ass, and we both deserve better than this!”
Our problem with depression comes when we see depression as the problem instead of as a motivation and insight into solving the root issue. So we medicate the depression, or blame the depression, or focus on the depression as the “cause” of our troubles. (Does this pattern sound familiar? These are all distractors.)
If we want to know what our depression is telling us, we have to listen to it. It most often follows frustration (and our distraction) – so, what have we been frustrated about?
Frustration is itself a call for creative thinking, a feeling that tells us what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. So, what have we been doing that hasn’t solved the problem or met the need? How could we approach the challenge differently?
In order to answer frustration well, we need to trace it back to the original feeling (sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, boredom, whatever). What were we feeling right before we started to distract ourselves? Not the feeling as we distracted ourselves, rather, the feeling we were running away from or trying to ignore or dismiss. That’s where the gold is.
If we can identify and name the original feeling, we’re half-way to solving the problem, because oftentimes the solution will become obvious. If we are lonely, reach out for companionship. If we are bored, we need to be challenged. If we are angry, we are responding to the sense that something is not fair. If we are sad, we feel like we’ve lost something. If we are scared, we are responding to similar experiences from our past. (In any of these cases, the real root cause may be deeper than the circumstance, and could benefit from a few sessions with a skilled hypnotherapist.)Satisfying the needs these feelings are expressing will actually stop the unpleasant feeling, instead of just distracting us from it.
When we reach the point of depression – big or small – our body is telling us something important: stop, take a break, recharge. What you’ve been doing hasn’t been working and you need a reset.
It turns out that our “bad feelings” may actually be working for our good. If we could just listen to them.