The healthiness of depression
Depression is an expression of our need to solve a problem or a puzzle of our life that is before us.
The word itself conveys a familiar picture: a set of symptoms and behaviours very familiar to us all: lack of interest in pleasurable activities such as sex or socializing, changes in appetite, sleeping too much or struggling with insomnia, intense sadness or grief, not caring about things like work, hygiene, or simply not having the energy to do tasks, and intense, often negative thoughts. The mind goes on a loop, churning over a problem or a situation or an aspect of self, almost relentlessly.
The main approach to someone’s experience of depression today is to try to help that person to feel better: to give them strategies to lessen the symptoms or to make them go away. In counselling the accepted practice is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, where we try to get ourselves to deliberately interrupt our thoughts and replace them with something more ‘realistic’. We also respond to depression by seeking medication, stress release and mindfulness exercises, or just plain exercise. While all these can be essential in our coping with and surviving the depressive state, turning away from the depression itself removes the opportunity to tune into the question: why is being depressed important for me right now? It is possible that this ruminating mind and the drop in energy levels are aspects of depression we have come to misunderstand. In fact, we could be misunderstanding the condition itself and neglecting its potential usefulness to our growth.
In his classic work The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck talks about depression as a sign that we are in a process of growing; spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. The depressed state is a reaction to this change and growth; it is a sign that there is a part of ourselves that we must give up so that we may grow towards a more authentic and meaningful existence. This makes depression a healthy and normal reaction to the uncertain and frightening prospect of change. Think of the times we are most likely to experience depression: after a loss of a relationship through break up or divorce, or a death of a loved one, losing a job and with it our status or security, succeeding in a long worked-for project, our children growing and leaving home, struggling in relationships and feeling like we do not belong, or feeling like we are not living a life we want or have imagined for ourselves.
We often talk about crises being opportunities in disguise, but with some events in life the crisis is too great, too overwhelming, and it will take all our strength and will to live through it, move through it, and grow beyond it. It is unsurprising that depression follows and precedes major life events. A state of depression is one of going inward, withdrawing, being silent; the listlessness and apathy associated with depression and increased sleeping allow the body to conserve energy, insomnia and contemplation allow the mind to attack a problem. The mind works to analyse a puzzle, all the while trying to solve something that is deeply confusing or upsetting to us. The earlier examples of crises show a problem of meaningful existence; a question of ‘who am I now?’ and ‘what does this mean for me and my life?’ We may need to fall into a state that allows us to keep to ourselves, not engage, and not be distracted while we reflect on our life and what we want. This reflection allows us to spend some time with our true desires and ourselves, while the body rests in preparation of what is to come: change from what was to what is true for us now.
This is a formidable challenge: to sit in the states and feelings associated with depression – to trust that they have a value. It is a challenge to ask of ourselves not to remove the depressive symptoms immediately, but to stay with the experience for a while. As painful and difficult as this is, it gives us a greater chance of living in accord with our values and wishes as we navigate the life event that has thrown down the gauntlet of change before us.