Whence Depression

When one uses the word depression, it usually connotes a negative image of sadness, a “blue mood,” or feeling “down.”  Yet this word can mean many things – some meanings better than what you might think, and some far worse.

As mentioned in other blog pieces, nearly every “condition” in mental health can be traced back to a state of being that is not at all necessarily negative but rather reflects a particular temperament, or style that in certain situations is actually adaptive or advantageous.

In order to understand depression, it’s necessary to understand what is really happening in this state.  We see it clearly in those with very severe depression – what we all “clinical depression.”  These individuals aren’t sad.  In fact, they are completely numb.  They feel nothing – not good nor bad.  In their eyes, the entire world is grey.  There is no color, no light, no energy, no motivation; in short, there is no life force whatsoever.

Scholars in the field of what is called anthropological psychology have likened depression to a state of hibernation.  This is an apt analogy if not a very real alternative form of depression.  You could also think of this state as the winter season.  Everything is covered with snow.  On the surface, there appears to be no growth, no life.  Everything is silent and still.

But it would be an error to assume that nothing is happening.  in fact, without that winter season, nothing would grow in the spring and summer.  Similarly, think of sleep as another form of hibernation or winter.  Sleep is a necessary cycle through which we must pass in order to awaken anew.  If we did not sleep, we would die.

Thus these quiet, “depressed” states are a natural and clearly exigent phase in the cycle of life.  Their function is more subtle but we know with certainty that they correspond to a time when we are conserving our energy for a later time when we will awaken and use that stored up energy to be active and to grow.

You can therefore think of depression as a state when we are conserving our energy.  Our ability to conserve – or not expend – our energy is a critically important part of life.  For example, over the course of millenniums, it was necessary to store up our energy in the winter when food was scarce and when it was too difficult to confront the elements.  This was particularly true during times of famine.  Today in modern times we don’t think much about such hardship because we have been fortunate in the last century or so.   However for thousands of years, the need to conserve energy was a matter of life or death.  Those conservation adaptations do not disappear overnight.

If it is too difficult to imagine what life was like so long ago, consider all the situations that present themselves today wherein it is to your advantage to not expend energy, but to conserve it.  In fact, from the moment we awaken to the time we go to sleep, our energy is constantly being drained.  From family discord, to work-related pressures and even to those hours you spend on the phone with technical support trying to get your computer or television functioning properly, to the irritation you experience reading something in the news that irks you – all of these are energy drains.  Stress, annoyance, irritation, frustration, anger, indignation – these all sap your energy.

If we did not have some mechanism to conserve and protect our inner energy from the multitude of sources trying to deplete us, we would be left with no strength.  Our life force would be too weak to function.

Therefore the abilities to shut down, turn off and tune out, pull into ourselves, numb ourselves –  they are not only helpful but they are necessary for our survival.  As a result, individuals who naturally have more of these “depressive” tendencies will actually do much better in environments where energy is continually being “stolen” or where we cannot in the moment replenish and revitalize ourselves.

So then when does the ability to manifest this energy conserving mechanism become problematic and become detrimental to the point of being an illness?  First and foremost, depression becomes an “illness” when we rely solely on energy conservation and not invest, or cannot invest enough into energy generation.  Next, when this energy conserving mode goes on for too long for reasons that frequently are no fault of our own.  Finally, there is a strong genetic loading for depression.  Some individuals have a natural predisposition that once entering that conservation mode, they sink deeper and deeper into it and then find themselves unable to emerge from it.

Every illness or disease starts with a natural process that exists to promote life.  Under the appropriate circumstances, that process is to our benefit.  It becomes pathological when that process takes on a life of its own and rather than serving us, it impairs us.

In subsequent blog pieces, we will examine the varied faces of depression  – and there are many.  However it is always important to be aware of how problems in our lives come about.  In the case of depression as an illness, there is an underlying mechanism that exists for our benefit in certain situations.  Unfortunately for those who suffer from depression, that mechanism took on a life of its own and instead of serving us, it causes much unnecessary suffering.