Hallo! Welcome to my first blog series on Against The Stream. It is called Feeling Good and focuses on depression and the stages of moving through a very low or difficult time in life. Unless you are feeling well and able to function it is really hard to start living well and as God intends, so let’s start with the basics.
The next step after the basic diagnosis and beginning to assess yourself is to take that even further and ask, “Why do I feel this way?“.
Now, I’m assuming that along with asking yourself questions and trying to process things by yourself, anyone with any form of depression (and especially someone who is experiencing the kinds of things I talked about in Part 1 here) is also under the care of a medical professional. As I can attest, trying to go it alone is not the best idea, especially when it comes to mental health problems. The process of asking questions and trying to understand yourself better is no replacement for a caring doctor, some antidepressants, or a good therapist. In fact, I reached a lot of the conclusions I’m sharing while using all three, so be safe and help yourself. You can view my advice, questions and sharing of experiences as something to do while you wait for appointments and for drug effects to work.
OK, now that that is clear, let’s move on to the ‘why’ question. A lot of people, when they are hit by a depressive episode start wondering “Why me? Why now? What did I do to deserve this?”. I’m all for some self-examination, but those kinds of ‘why’ questions won’t help long-term. Rather, a better question would be the one above: ‘Why do I feel this way?’
Asking yourself this might give some indication as to why depression has struck. One thing to note is that if you are very responsible, highly aware of people and situations, morally strong, diligent, sensitive, helpful, have a hard time with criticism or people not liking you, or some combination of these, you may be more easily disposed to getting depressed, as are people in high stress jobs, stay at home mothers included, and traumatic situations, including dysfunctional families, rape, war etc. If you are a child abuse survivor, for instance, and you never told anyone and are now twenty eight and have three kids it makes sense that you might experience a bumpy patch as your brain tells you something is wrong. Or if your dad left your family when you were six, your mom’s boyfriend had anger issues and now you have finally left home and getting a boyfriend, it is quite likely that the end of a survival situation leads to feeling down and not being able to trust men. I’m getting beyond myself here, but really what it all boils down to is that people aren’t machines and brains aren’t computers. The things that happen in life affect us, often more than we know, and if we don’t deal with them, they stick around. Sometimes they pull us down into depression too.
Anyway, these types of people from the last paragraph are often taken for granted. They are used for their good qualities, but, before they realise they need to quit and make changes, depression sets in because they won’t willingly give up. Another way to look at it is like this: in stressful, highly emotional situations (high-pressure jobs, traumatic circumstances etc.) there tends to be one person (or type) who serves as a kind of ‘lightning rod’ for all the stuff going on, and usually it is the most reflective, conscience-stricken, responsible person.As a consequence, it is often people of this kind, or who have these kinds of qualities, that struggle the most. Unfortunately, they are also the kind of people who struggle to get better the most.
That was me for most of my life. I’m sad to say from experience that lightning rods eventually need replacing – they take one too many strikes and everything fizzles out – and you end up with depression. If you keep overloading your brain and its capacities for compassion, helpfulness and responsibility you will, as I did, short something out and crash. Years of ignoring legitimate emotional needs in favour of others and their happiness, be it parents, siblings, friends, spouses, significant others, etc., does not lead, as I used to think, to sainthood and a great life, but to self-loathing, mental pain and eventually depression. So, my answer to the ‘why’ question is a difficult childhood where I took on a lot of emotional roles, a personality type that is over-responsible, self-critical and not compassionate towards myself, and many years of putting myself and my emotional needs last. This is quite a brief summary of twenty years, and I am going to talk more about myself in Part 3, but it will hopefully give you an idea of how to start unraveling the ‘why’.
Furthermore, and I’m going to get scientific here, one thing to keep in mind is that depression isn’t just an emotional response to trauma, but a physical one too. The limbic system controls hormones in the body and a deficiency or malfunction in that system, through imbalances of hormones, results in depression. The hormones control things like the sleeping-waking cycle, mood, emotions and need-drives (hunger, safety, sex etc.), all of which contribute to being a well-regulated, happy human being. When the chemicals which join the synapses (which make connections for the electrical signals which carry messages through the brain) malfunction because they are affected by stress, trauma, viral illness or any of a number of things, it deeply affects the limbic system’s ability to regulate the person’s mood or emotional well-being.
If that was too science-y look at it this way: if your limbic system and the synapses and their chemical transmitters are a circuit system and its connections that allow an electrical current to complete a circle and light up a light-bulb, a broken or frayed connection upsets the whole circuit system just as a wrecked synapse and transmitter system sends you into the wild throes of a depressive episode. Thus, depression is as much a physical problem as it is an emotional or mental one because the brain chemistry is involved too. This also means that you have to take care of it like the rest of your body and that, really, a full answer to the ‘why’ question, and thus your response to depression, has to take into account the physical side of things too if it is going to help you get better.
Asking a real ‘why’ question might also be able to lead you to what needs to be done to get out of depression. Unfortunately, it is also very difficult to do, especially for the type of person I talked about earlier. It may mean you have to draw some boundaries with friends. It might mean you finally cut your mother’s apron strings. Or maybe you need to make big changes to your job and lifestyle. Whatever it is, asking ‘why do I feel this way?’ can lead towards what needs to be done to get out of a deep dark hole. Oh yeah, and the other thing is that, unless you make big changes and really watch yourself, you will likely get depressed again. Makes sense though – i.e. work self into ground to satisfy others or sense of self-worth – get depressed. Work on self so that can say no sometimes and have healthy relationships – self-regulate and avoid depression – at least, a bit of sense…
Anyway, what I mean to say is this: asking ‘why’ questions of yourself is a good way to start identifying areas you struggle with and maybe even start getting better. A further thing to note is that it is fine to need help to do all this work on yourself as you move through depression. I did it with a counselor, someone else might need a pastor or priest, another person might do better with a psychologist or psychiatrist. In reality, depression is likely to be a long, dark tunnel no matter what path you take through it. It’s just that working through it properly and thoughtfully might help you avoid it afterwards or get through it faster and relatively unscathed.