The Depression Myth

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Depression is not a disease, it is an active process that depends on our participation. When a client says she feels depressed or describes symptoms that indicate that she is, I know that she has actively participated in creating and maintaining her depression. Even though she is responsible for her depression, I also know that her participation has been without conscious intention or volition.

Depression is our unconscious reaction to some unbearable internal experience. We can become depressed in response to repressed emotions, unresolved internal conflicts and/or unpleasant situations that give us feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness. Depression is our attempt to preserve ourselves when we are facing seemingly unbearable problems that seem to be unsolvable. These problems are like leaking pipes that we don’t know how to repair. Without stopping the flow of water, the leaks will create serious damage. Not knowing how to fix the leaks, or even how to get help, our only solution is to go outside to the main water valve and shut off the water for the entire house. We’ve fixed the problem of the leaking pipes, but we now have to function without water. Now substitute energy for water in this situation. Depression is our attempt to bury unbearable emotions or internal conflicts by energetically shutting down our system. It works temporarily. However, when we shut down, we are left with the unanticipated problem of having to function without energy. Thus most symptoms of depression are the product of feeling low in energy. Depressed people often feel tired and want to sleep a lot. They also have trouble motivating themselves to do things that are good for them, and even when they start, they find it hard to generate the energy needed to finish. Using the process of depressing our system as the solution to escape unpleasant emotions and problems creates the much bigger problem of having to function in life without the energy it takes to succeed.

The most common approach to depression thinks of it as a disease with physiological origins. Consequently, the standard treatment for depression has become prescribing antidepressant drugs designed to alter our chemistry. But this is a shotgun approach with many undesired side-effects. Our healthier approach considers depression to be an active process in which we are unwittingly and unconsciously depressing ourselves. This approach begs the question, “What are we depressing?” You can find your answer by directing your attention to your actual physiological experience of depression, the feeling of heaviness or tiredness that you feel in your body. Then, by keeping your attention on these feelings and quieting your mind a bit, you can use these physical feelings as a pathway to recovering conscious awareness of the underlying emotions and thoughts that triggered your depression. This process requires some focusing, but soon you will have a subtle thought about what you have been feeling or what internal conflicts you have been experiencing. Your depression will begin to lift immediately, even before you attempt to change anything.

I remember a client who came into my office and reported that he had been feeling depressed all week. I asked him if he knew what he was depressed about and he replied that he didn’t know, he just felt tired and depressed. I then helped him identify that he experienced the depression as a heavy feeling in his shoulders, a pressure behind his eyes and a tight feeling in his belly. After directing him to focus his attention on these feelings and guiding him to quiet his mind, I asked him to share with me the first thought that came to mind. He told me that he had been feeling bad all week about not having put any money aside for his sons’ college educations. When I asked him how he felt about this he replied, “Disappointed.” I pointed out that his boys were only in 9th and 10th grade and he still had time to do something. He left the session feeling moderately frustrated about it. The next week he arrived for his session with a big grin on his face and told me that he had opened bank accounts for each of his sons and put $50 in each account. He said that he had felt great all week.

Drugs will often make you feel good. But feeling good is not a long-lasting solution to depression, because when our goal is feeling good we ignore the root causes of our depression. For real healing to take place we must treat tour depressed feelings as symptoms, messengers that tell us that we are depressing something. Thus, taking drugs to make us feel better is similar to taking medication to ease the pain of a serious cancer without treating the cancer that is causing the pain. If we think feeling no pain is the solution, then enough pain medication will solve the problem. But treating the pain without identifying its cause keeps us from discovering and treating the cancer that is causing the pain. In contrast, when we refuse to stop at feeling good and search out the causes behind depression, we discover that underneath most depression is some combination of unresolved internal conflicts, repressed emotions and disempowering beliefs. Paradoxically, once we significantly resolve our internal conflicts, process any repressed emotions and evolve our limiting beliefs, we get to experience the lasting side-effect of feeling good.

I have been using this approach for many years in my practice. For example, not long ago a physician referred a businessman to me for help with his depression. After taking a brief history, discovering what he consciously knew about the timing and circumstances of his becoming depressed, I asked him to direct his attention to his body and notice where he felt these feelings of depression. After some initial resistance — saying that he didn’t know where he felt it, he just felt bad — he was able to identify that he felt a heavy feeling in his neck and shoulders, an aching feeling in his arms, tightness in his chest and a burning sensation behind his eyes. Guiding him to use these feelings as a doorway to further understanding, he remembered that he had been feeling worried about losing his job because of a reorganization at work. Because he “couldn’t do anything about that anyway,” he had pushed these feelings away. He then told me that for years he had felt bored with his work, actually entertaining the idea of starting his own business. Because of the responsibility he felt for supporting his family, however, he decided against it. Probing further, he reluctantly admitted to feeling some resentment toward his wife and two children, but had dismissed these feelings because “it’s not rational to resent them for something that wasn’t their fault.” At this point in our discussion, I asked him how he felt now. He said mostly confused, somewhat worried and a little silly. Saving the “silly” remark for future conversations about his self-worth, I asked if he still felt depressed. He replied that he didn’t feel good, but he didn’t feel depressed either. By using the physical experience of his depression as a guide, I not only helped him identify some emotions he had been repressing, but also uncovered an internal conflict between wanting to pursue a new career and his sense of responsibility to his family. We had replaced his undifferentiated depressed feelings with a number of specific, potentially resolvable problems. We continued to work together in therapy for several months, and he never experienced a recurrence of his depression.

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