Would you, for a moment, entertain with me the possibility that depression is not “an illness”, so much as a perfectly natural response – or group of responses – to certain experiences or changes, or even to ‘good manners’? What if depression were a kind of ‘bad habit’ – a response to habitual behaviours?
Can we explore the idea that depression can be a kind of inside-out-repression symptom, a powerlessness where one needs power, a lack of control where one needs a sense of control? Or how about – a symptom of too much self-control, repressed anger? There is a wide variety of theories about depression – including the medical model of biological roots. It’s worth playing around with some of these ideas I think.
It must have been more than 30 years ago that I first heard the idea of depression as “anger turned inward”. I remember having a cynical reaction; I couldn’t see how this idea translated into the possibility of ending my own chronic depression. There was no handy “how to” that came with the theory. I couldn’t see how being polite, never showing sadness or anger – being controlled, being ‘nice’ — might all be contributing to depression.
While ‘doing all the right things’ enabled smooth sliding through life on the surface, it eliminated being spontaneous and open and real, expressing the many sides of myself in a crazy world that often deserved an angry or sad reaction rather than a smile. Yet I was ‘a smiler’.
Being homesick or anxious could be perfectly natural, totally understandable – not at all pathology – for a student who has just moved from a different environment or culture – or just far from home. Being angry at injustice is totally appropriate, but if you’ve been conditioned to believe such feelings show a lack of self-control or maturity, you may well suppress them — habitually. And not even be conscious of it. Suppressing them long-term can be paralyzing, robbing us of energy and creativity.
I think of this as a kind of low-grade depression. We’re barely conscious of it. And we are seldom conscious of the underlying repressed emotions. What we’re left with is what I call ‘the practice of depression’. If we are practicing depression, does it not stand to reason that we may be able to replace it with something more beneficial – for example – elation, or contentment. Imagine that!
From the memory of my ‘great leap forward’ – through a variety of modern, humanistic psychology therapies, I learned how to break down the physical attributes of both depression and elation: the feeling in my chest, in breathing, tension in my shoulders, set of my jaw, and so on. This made it possible to slip into the physical characteristics of elation and through practice, remain in that state. I also learned how to let anger fuel creativity – provide energy in self-expression.
All of this is not really new. It’s just surprising it’s not more acknowledged and used. I guess it sounds too simplistic. But (and this is my own opinion) it is not essential to understand the roots of our depression, in order to change it. (Nice if you can, but not necessary). We need to remind ourselves to “choose” the feeling we want, then slip into the physical characteristics of that mood. In a sense we are remembering, and bringing that memory into the here and now. And then, we can memorize: When we do it often enough, it gets easier to access, and can become predominant – instead of depression.
Long ago, Dale Carnegie taught this: “Act enthusiastic and you’ll feel enthusiastic”. And now, Amy Cuddy* has done a “TED Talk” about her research on how our body language impacts how we feel and behave. There’s a variety of relatively simple “tricks” out there, that can help us change how we feel, and how we interact with the world. We just need to bring them together and recognize them for what they are: a useful, non-medicated way of dealing with the self-defeat of depression.
It might be a little inconvenient for the pharmaceutical industry, which has dominated the public portrayal of mental health issues: but I haven’t needed anti-depressants for years. It is my life. And mostly, I love my life.