Understanding Depression

By Helene Lewis


In order to understand the phenomenon called clinical depression, it is first necessary to know what is NOT depression.


Depression is not the same thing as having bad feelings, feeling lonely or feeling sad. Depression is not the same as feeling grief, agony, pain, fear or anxiety.


All of these and many more negative feelings are a natural and necessary part of being human. All of these and many more bad feelings go by the name DYSPHORIA. Dysphoria is not depression. Without bad feelings -- without dysphoria -- we would not be human. To live without dysphoria is to not be human.


Thus, to understand depression, keep in mind that dysphoria is not depression, and too much effort to escape and avoid dysphoria can cause depression.


What IS depression?

Depression is a FAILED STRUGGLE.


The depressed person strives for three main outcomes when his or her struggle fails:


1. to change/improve an unwanted situation;

2. to be rid of feelings of dysphoria;

3. to keep up the appearance of feeling good when in a ‘bad’ situation, or when feeling dysphoria.

Actually, the depressed person can struggle with any or all of these. Stated more simply, depression is a failed struggle to feel better.


So why does a depressed person keep on failing in these struggles, despite working so very hard to feel better?


The depressed person ADAMANTLY REFUSES to accept dysphoria and/or a disagreeable, unwanted situation. Depression is a REFUSAL to accept bad feelings or a bad situation, or both. Another way to understand this is to say that a depressed person is depressed because she or he is unwilling to adopt a disposition of RESIGNATION.


Questionable Assumption: Isn’t it good for our mental health to be proactive, to work hard and to not be resigned to bad things?


Before concluding that this is foolishness, let’s look closely and carefully at this resignation to which it refers. When we refuse to resign ourselves to an unwelcome situation or to bad feelings of some sort, it could be for many reasons. Some of these reasons may be wise and not lead to depression.


But not the reason motivating depressed persons: they are INTENSELY DEDICATED TO RIDDING THEMSELVES OF THEIR BAD SITUATION OR FEELING(S). Basically, they can’t adopt the disposition of resignation, even a little, because they TRY MUCH TOO HARD TO FIX THEIR SITUATION OR FEELING(S).


There are four kinds of behaviours presenting in depressed persons that reveal how much they refuse to adopt an attitude of resignation. When we are depressed, we:


1. often behave tactlessly in interpersonal situations, especially if we have a complaint, and we tend to be highly confrontational;

2. act ineffectively when seeking help from others -- and end up antagonizing others rather than getting their help;

3. withdraw into wishful thinking;

4. escape and avoid our problem situations.

Being combative and confrontational in interpersonal exchanges is, in fact, a CENTRAL FEATURE of the depressed state of mind. This confrontational mode has a lot to do with why depressed persons have trouble getting the help they so badly want and need, why their personal relationships are unsatisfying, and why they feel so lonely. If they were to be less combative and confrontational -- trying LESS HARD to ‘fix things’ and be ‘problem-free’ -- depressed persons would actually achieve much more towards feeling better and improving their lives.


Questionable Assumption: Wouldn’t a success experience -- such as success in getting support from others or avoiding a bad situation -- help a lot to alleviate depression?


Surprisingly, the answer is NO. Depressed persons are so desperate for success that they end up being REACTIVE to success. They tend to implicitly believe that their successes must be FLAWLESS.


As a result, they often are extremely unsettled by even the tiniest ‘flaw’ or inconsistency in a ‘successful’ encounter/experience. The depressed person has a built-in immunity to any encouragement from success.


Questionable Assumption: Wow! Depressed persons must be very anxious people!


Indeed, they are. Depressed persons are highly anxious. Not all anxious persons are depressed, however. Research has found that depressed persons can be more anxious than persons with the label ‘anxiety disorder’.


So, how do we help depressed persons?


By firstly getting them to accept bad feelings or situations while helping them NOT to give up. To do this, we help them adopt an attitude of acceptance and resignation, and thus make it possible to think and act with less urgency and confrontational insistence. Expectations for eventual success are likely to emerge, and this makes one feel better about future possibilities and act with prudence and foresight.


A parting pair of slogans to remind us of all this: Go slow to go faster; do less to accomplish more.


(Notes on depression by Jim Duffy on the Research & Theory of J.C. Coyne)

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