How recently have you heard someone mention depression? Likely not that long ago. Perhaps you’ve seen a Facebook post or read about it in an article. It is hard to go a week without mention of it. Decades ago, people would have experienced bouts of low mood during certain moments of their lives, and perhaps it continued for a lifetime. Back then, it just wasn’t talked about as much.
With the genesis of public notices seemingly committed to ending stigmatism against mental health such as Bell’s ‘Let’s Talk’ and messages posted on billboards encouraging all to seek help, you might even find yourself wondering, “Am I depressed?”. After all, awareness brings curiosity.
What is happiness anyway?
I can’t imagine how difficult this has been for your primary physician, whose routine visits went from writing a prescription for an antibiotic to responding to patients’ stories of lacking a sense of purpose, dealing with divorce, losing a job, and a loved one’s addiction to heroin. So instead of prescribing medicine for physical pain, it has become routine for doctors to prescribe an SSRI. The general population seems to have gone from a vitamin deficiency to a Prozac deficiency.
Here’s the thing though…
Depressed moods are normal. Even prolonged depressed moods are normal. Think of yourself walking in to see your doctor after the death of a family member. You complain of difficulty getting out of bed, lack of motivation to do anything, and crying throughout the day. According to a questionnaire you found online or completed right there in your doctor’s office, you are diagnosed as depressed. You discuss the options with your doctor. You might mention that depression runs in the family and therefore, all the more reason to start taking pharmaceuticals. Right? Seems to make perfect sense. After being advised of possible side effects, you leave with a prescription, and make a follow-up appointment. I can’t imagine how this might make you feel. If it were me, I think I would leave thinking ‘I have a broken brain, and this will fix it’. Maybe I leave with hope.
“Your genetics might show that you have the potential to express depression more than your neighbour, but that doesn’t mean you cannot change your environment to ensure these genes are not expressed and instead, suppressed.“
I am not against pharmaceuticals, but they come with a price and are meant for temporary relief. Many have side effects that are less than pleasant. Others may be difficult to wean off once initiated. Knowing this, it doesn’t make sense for this to be your first approach at fighting depression. Your brain in not broken and there is no such thing as inheriting depression. Your genetics might show that you have the potential to express depression more than your neighbour, but that doesn’t mean you cannot change your environment to ensure these genes are not expressed and instead, suppressed.
But isn’t it normal to feel depressed when you lose a loved one, your job, are experiencing marital strife, long term connections are severed, and perhaps feel isolated (you know that one all too well amidst Covid). So why do you feel you must detach from the feeling then? It is normal to feel this; it is without pathology. Sometimes you just need to sit with that feeling, and realize that the hurt won’t be there forever, it is temporary, and it will be okay. But yes, it can hurt so so much.
In the last couple of decades, the studies on brain neuroplasticity have given us real promise. Our brains have the ability to change and grow so that we can feel and think differently. Think of what your muscles would look like if you never exercised. They would be weak and spindly. Once you begin to work specific muscles, they will express accordingly. Your brain works similarly. If you make an effort to turn on or express neuronal pathways associated with a happy mood, which is generally possible by both psychological and social connections, that mood will be expressed more often and become more resilient to outside triggers.
It is well documented throughout the literature that a common theme in all or most types of depression is absence of connection. From the examples I listed above, you can see how that is true. When one loses a job their sense of purpose quite often exits simultaneously. Or you might be someone that just shows up at work and goes through the motions. Or you are a student studying what your parents think you should study. How about never REALLY connecting with your spouse? I mean deeply connecting – with meaningful conversations. The same is true with parental connections. An individual whose only form of connection is through online video games with numerous ‘chat’ windows up is craving the feeling of being part of a community, tribe or group. Also, during Covid – it is not only the obvious physical disconnection from our loved ones that lowers our moods, it is the uncertainty of the future. It is hard to feel secure when you might be lacking hope. Whenever you feel ‘out of control’ in your life, whether you are a teenager experiencing parental control or you feel a substance/addiction has control over you, you will become depressed. Craving a sense of control is innate to us as humans; all animals crave this. Caged animals in zoos have no desire to procreate because they have no connection to their own tribes/herd. Children feel and crave this connection too; both physical and emotional connection. You provide them with control by teaching them to communicate and then being there to listen to their story. Feel the feeling with them, don’t downplay it.
What to do when connecting to another individual is not an option? Being in nature is a natural form of connection. We are part of the animal kingdom. Yes you have a mammalian brain more evolved and intricate than our primates, but we all exist together and share the land. You are part of Mother Earth in all of its glory and amazement. For others who are spiritual, you get deep connection knowing you are a child of the Universe. There is a higher power taking care of you. You cannot help to feel this way when you are amidst the landscapes that we are so fortunate to see, smell and touch. Contributing to a group, signing up for with volunteer work, or visiting the elderly are also great antidotes against depression.
Still no clue where you can begin?
Go back to doing what you normally did in order to feel happy. Connecting to an emotional health professional, skilled in mood and thought in the specific area you are struggling with is a great way to start. This is someone you can tell your story to and have listen and connect to YOU. A face to face – human to human connection. I feel connection can cure nearly all form of disease.
I don’t view depression as a disease. Society may call it a disease because individuals experiencing and displaying signs of submissiveness, fall into a state of helplessness and victimization. This behavior and mindset keeps one paralyzed and stuck because it brings a sense of ‘forgiveness’ to our self with messages of ‘this happened to me and therefore there is little I can do’. But as you can see…
There is a lot you can do.
Start by looking for ways of connecting to yourself, those around you and your community. Begin with your tribal connections, and if that is not working, build new connections in the community. Join a sports team or coach a sports team. Talk to a neighbour, say good morning to the coffee barista and mean it. Ask the cashier how their day is going and mean it. Ask open-ended questions to your spouse and kids and actually listen to their answers. Put your phone away more often when around family. Smile more often. Your brain will recognize this as a sign you are happy and it will automatically send out signals supporting serotonin uptake, your natural happy hormone. Eat healthfully. Priorities ring clear in terms of where you spend most of your time, which often shows what you feel is most important. Action always speaks louder than words.
Note: Prolonged episodes of depression are serious, and I want you to take some action. Please start with some of the suggestions I made in this post, knowing that small steps is the only way to climb out of it. You will get there.