We know what the experience of depression is. When we are depressed our system shuts down. Our energy, our aliveness, our feelings, our motivation and creativity, and our will to truly live become muted and dampened. We mostly shut down gradually and imperceptibly. There is a stuck feeling to being depressed. Our feelings and thoughts come slowly and painfully. Depression is numbing, deadening, aching agony.
Grief is different. Grief can very much feel like depression but it usually eases over time. The gut-wrenching sadness and anger come in waves that get smaller and smaller as we allow ourselves to express the pain. Depression is thicker and constrained and tends to come with a deeper sense of powerlessness and self-criticism. Sometimes when we find it difficult to process our grief it can turn into depression.
The question of a chemical imbalance. Doctors focus on this aspect of the cause of depression. The truth is no-one really knows. That probably surprises many of you but this is just a theory.
The truth is that there is no test that one takes to verify that you have a chemical imbalance and exercise or sleep deprivation is just as likely to create a change in your brain’s chemistry. We are all made up of chemicals and lots of things affect the presence or depletion of chemicals in our body. Food, exercise, touch, smell, laughter, stress, trauma, alcohol and drugs and yes, medications. No-one has identified a cause to depression because emotional struggles are dependent on so many factors. The brain/body systems and connectivity are complicated in ways we are only beginning to understand. This isn’t to say that medication doesn’t have an effect and if you have major depression it can be helpful.
Depression is a response. This idea makes more sense to me as a way of understanding depression. A response to the world that hurts and discriminates and weighs us down. Oppressive forces of inequality and lack of opportunity leave a person feeling inadequate, and longing for what they can not have. A slow painful resignation can take over. A response to the responsibilities of living our own life when we have lost touch with what that means. A response to the inability to regulate our emotions. A response to the general pressures and disappointments of life. These responses can continue to eat away at a person unless they find a way to develop resilience and joy within the life they have rather than wanting somebody else’s life.
In this fast past, results-oriented culture we are often left with little time for exercise, healthy eating and cultivating meaningful relationships. When we get on this treadmill we can begin to feel controlled by our circumstances rather than making considered decisions about how we want to live. Powerlessness is a consistent feeling for people who are depressed.
The reason a person is depressed is as varied as the complexities of each person’s life and how they respond to it. How they are equipped or not by their histories and the traumas they have faced. What losses and disappointments they have faced. What their lifestyle is like and whether they are living a healthy life all round. The kinds of stress they face or pressures to support others’ desires.
So what does cause depression?
Here’s what we know so far based on experience and some soft and hard science here and there. We know that our brain/body is built to respond to the world and our experiences shape our brain. This is particularly crucial early in our life but also throughout our life and can change with practice and integration of new experience. If we are responding to an unsafe, insecure and threatening world then our brain and body learn to respond in certain ways and not others. Trauma whether a single incident or ongoing experiences that dismiss, belittle and dis-empower us can cause us to shut down. This dampening process is part of our nervous system’s response to being unable to fight back or leave a stressful and threatening situation. When we shut down our energy it helps us to not be overwhelmed by this stress but also means we have less available to cope with life. For the majority of people who are depressed, this is the cycle of depression. No energy – can’t take action or deal with things – feel a failure and powerless – leads to less energy.
This depletion in the system overall has consequences to the brains chemistry and psychological systems such as motivation, attachment, consciousness, concentration. Throwing some man-made chemicals at the system is going to have a limited effect because the person has to recover and heal the depleted areas. For example; if a person feels powerless and stuck then it is going to be more effective to find ways that they can experience their empowerment which has an effect over time on creating new pathways in the brain that affect motivation, connection, and meaning.
Being Depressed doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you.
It means that you are searching and struggling with hard questions about your life. That you are poised on the brink of collapse, feeling the pull of giving up. This is a hard struggle and one that you have every possibility of coming through stronger. We often learn early on to keep our feelings and experience to ourselves or need to because we are overwhelmed. We may be used to performing and pretending to be ok that one day it occurs to us that we don’t know our truth or what our desires are. Did we ever know what was real? Were we ever taught how to be real? Many of us are constricted and oppressed into a powerless state that would defy anyone NOT to end up depressed.
One of the advantages of seeing depression as a chemical imbalance is that you have something to blame other than yourself. We all know how easy it is for depressed people to blame themselves for everything. I often think that this tendency to turn things inwards is a result of the powerlessness we feel. When we are immobilized and unable to act it is easy to feel that there is something wrong with us.
This is not true. The more you can see it as a call to make changes in your life, to change your lifestyle, environment or work through the trauma’s you have experienced, the more you can start to come alive. The many people I have known that have struggled through the effects of depression often have a depth to their life.
Depression in many ways forces us to stop and ask hard questions. What is the meaning of my life? What is the point to the things that I do? How can I live with disappointment and betrayal? Am I ok as I am? These questions can open up a much-needed reflection and find our way towards a life full of meaning and energy.