November 25, 2002
Depression - Part 2
Mainstream science, medicine, and psychology are confused by depression because these fields are still more interested in treating symptoms rather than the causes.
A symptom is a sign, and like a sign, it is not the thing it points to. A sign that says "Guelph" is the not the city of Guelph. Similarly, a symptom of illness is not the root cause of the illness itself. If poor posture caused your neck muscles to contract, and this, in turn, constricted blood vessels in your head, the resulting headache would be a symptom and the poor posture would be the cause. If the headache symptom is treated with painkillers, it will not help the poor posture that caused it. If the root cause is not addressed, the symptoms will keep reoccurring, and more serious health problems can develop.
Treatment that solely focuses on symptoms is inefficient - and negligent. Depression is the number one worldwide cause of death and disability, and it is essential for us to get to the bottom of this problem. Unfortunately, modern "symptom treatment" is more like "symptom cover-up." The truth is, symptoms are the messengers of a deeper problem - they are not the enemy. To get to the bottom of the mystery, we have to pay attention to the symptoms and follow them instead of covering them up.
In depression, as with all illnesses, the symptoms are a variety of feelings and sensations. Sometimes people have a lack of feeling - but that numbness is still a thread that will lead to the cause. The primal way is to allow an opportunity to explore and express the troublesome feelings. Depression, like any emotional illness, has its origins in repressed feelings.
Although depression is an experience unique to each individual, there are certain common characteristics. One of the most common is a feeling of hopelessness or despair. It is the sense that nothing will help, that no amount of effort will make a difference. Sometimes it's a feeling of being stuck without an exit, a belief that there is no point in trying, or that there is nothing worth trying for. It is as if you could knock on a door forever, but no one will hear, and the door won't open - so why bother?
When I listen to depressed people talk about their lives, I often find the sources of their present feelings in childhood. They were stuck in an unhappy situation and were powerless as children to fix it or help themselves. Some typical descriptions are -
"My parents were always busy. I tried to be good at the things I did, but they never spent much time with me anyway."
"No matter how hard I tried, nothing was ever good enough."
"My Dad used to hit us anytime, anywhere - without us knowing why."
"Mom and Dad divorced and we moved away with Mom. I had to leave our home and my friends, and no one ever asked me what I wanted."
"Everything I did was too much. I couldn't get angry, get sad - even laugh too loud. I learned to shut everything down."
"Some of the teachers used to tell me I was a loser, and that I would never amount to anything. My Dad used to say the same thing."
"When I was a teenager, my mother criticized the way I looked and the things that I wore. I would try to please her, but I could never figure her out."
"I was molested regularly by my grandfather who told me that if I ever told anyone, bad things would happen. I couldn't say no, and I couldn't do anything about it. I learned how to 'go away' and be numb to it all."
"My father has always been proud of the fact that he never picked us up when we cried. He said that I cried a lot at first, but after a while I was quiet as can be."
"My mother told me that I was stuck in the birth canal for 20 hours, and that they had to give her anesthetic. When I was born, she said I was lifeless."
There are stories like this by the millions, but there is one common theme - powerlessness.
Some say that powerlessness is the natural state of infants and children. I disagree. If a child is born to a healthy, happy, and emotionally available couple, her every need is heard and responded to. She is considered important, and her natural organic sense of confidence and power is maintained. Her feelings matter and are considered in the decisions of the family. When she is a little older, she can exert her influence by taking action to get what she likes and what she needs. She may not always get her way, but if she is not abused, neglected, and made to feel worthless, she will feel like she can take action and make a difference in her life.
This is not how depressed people feel. They do not feel they have the power to act, or that taking action will make a difference. They often exhibit low energy, when usually their internal energy level is high, stuck without an exit, spinning around with nowhere to go. They are not outwardly vibrant, but are often inwardly agitated.
Since depression is a lack of vibrancy, a lack of feeling, and a lack of action, I find that the opposite of this flatness - strong emotional expression - will often start the healing process. Every depressed person has a great deal to be sad and angry about. If I can assist depressed people to express themselves regularly with deep crying or strong anger, their depression usually starts to lift. You can't be vibrant and depressed at the same time. If the expression is directed (in session) at the origins of their hurts, the traumas that made them feel powerless in life begin to "burn off." They start to find the energy to act and make changes in their lives.
These changes are also neurochemical. When a person starts a session feeling flat and distant, and then goes into deep grief or rage, the chemistry of the brain is changing. And when she leaves session feeling alive and vibrant, she has adjusted her chemistry safely, naturally, and without having to resort to drugs full of mysterious "side effects." Responsible psychotherapy isn't a "head game," it's a full body-brain endeavour.
Depression is a serious problem. The first step in the solution is to respect those who are depressed. They don't need to be told to "pull it together" and "get over it." We need to listen to them, and let them have their feelings. We need to support them to take the time to let healing take place without being pushed or ridiculed. Clients of mine often say, "I cry all the time. Why should crying in session help?" When I ask them if they are lovingly supported or held when they cry, they always pause and say, "No." Like most people in this society, they cry alone, or with people who wish they would stop. Crying has a profound effect when you have respectful support and an opportunity to let the crying go deep into childhood feelings. And contrary to what most people think, the crying does not go on forever.
To put it simply, depression is a feeling of powerlessness. If symptoms are not "heard," and are medicated into hiding instead, the sense of powerlessness continues. Let's give the power back by letting the "symptoms" have their voice.
Power to the Feeling.