A heavy reluctance to get up in the morning. A weight presses down all day, makes it hard to move, squeezes the joy out of everything. Voices inside say, “Worthless. Shameful. Failure.” Tears, sadness, grief, despair. Emptiness. Hopelessness.
A common narrative says that depression is caused by a malfunction of the body and brain, leading to symptoms of ongoing sadness, lack of enjoyment, disturbed sleep, disturbed eating habits, and possibly suicidal thoughts and actions. That narrative fits some people’s depression that comes and goes independent of external circumstances and is kept at bay with medications.
Symptoms of loss
Depression can also be a natural response to past or present circumstances, not a malfunction at all. Psychologists acknowledge that symptoms of depression largely overlap with symptoms of grief and bereavement. When we experience a big loss or life change, we need time to mourn and adapt. The body’s response says, “This loss matters. This was part of me.”
Young children fall into depression when they are separated from their parents or other attachment figures for too long. Adults and children alike need to know that we are important to people around us and we can depend on them. We need people who delight in us when things are going well and comfort us when we are in pain.
Pushing something down
Depression can also come from using a lot of our energy to push down (depress) something. Depression could be anger turned inward because it is unsafe to express it toward an external target. Depression could be about dead-end jobs and fear of the future as it keeps getting harder to afford housing and food and healthcare for large numbers of people.
Trauma increases all these reasons for depression. It involves loss of safety, and usually other losses. It leads to isolation. And it causes overwhelming emotion that has to be pushed down to allow day to day functioning.
Isolation and trauma
Isolation is both a cause and consequence of trauma. During and after a traumatic event, our nervous system returns to balance more quickly if there are other supportive nervous systems around. In times of stress, our bodies especially like to be close to the people we are attached to, but any kind presence helps.
If we go through traumatic events alone and unsupported, we are stuck with the overwhelming feelings left behind. This is especially hard for babies and young children. Their undeveloped nervous systems need calming adult nervous systems nearby to help them manage big emotions and overwhelming events.
Past trauma can also lead to isolation. When our nervous system is already dysregulated, it is harder to establish and maintain friendships. PTSD symptoms such as anxiety and flashbacks get in the way of light conversation. People might not want to hear about the realities of trauma, either because they have been lucky enough to avoid it, or because they find it triggering.
Need for belonging
Belonging is a basic need. Isolation can bring up painful feelings of shame and not being “normal” enough. We work very hard at healing in order to acquire enough skills to belong, and then ironically find that our skills make it hard to fit in. We try to solve the problem of belonging individually by fixing ourselves, but it is a cultural, societal problem.
Depression is a natural consequence of isolation. Bereft of support and positive connection, we fold in on ourselves and start to wonder why we work so hard to function in this world.
Thoughts of self-harm and suicide are often part of depression. An inner voice says, seemingly at random, “I want to die,” or “I should kill myself.” Visions of falls, car crashes, or other catastrophes float up unbidden. Secret envy arises when someone dies suddenly.
If you have a plan to kill yourself, please read Thinking About Suicide? Read This First. Reach out for help! Call a suicide hotline such as 1-800-SUICIDE, or your local emergency services at 911. You deserve help, and you deserve to live.
Suicidal feelings can be ongoing without a plan to act on them. When an inner voice wants to die, it has a reason. There might be overwhelming physical and emotional pain, intense shame, current or past helplessness, or flashbacks to freeze during trauma.
The despondent inner voice might be responding to messages from an underground Inner Critic who sows shame in a misguided attempt to be safer from attacks from the outside world. Barbara McGavin writes about “checking the undergrowth” when she notices feelings of shame and despair. She recommends turning toward both the collapsing part and attacking part with kind attention. “They need to be heard, sensed, allowed to say just how bad it is, and just exactly how it is that bad for them.”
Inner parts that want to die might be caught in flashbacks to earlier times when it looked like dying was the only way out from abusive situations. Even if life is still hard now, it is important to take note of our increased resources and options as adults.
The inertia of depression can make it hard to take advantage of our increased options. When energy is limited and everything looks hopeless, it is hard to know what changes might make things better. Look for opportunities in small glimmerings of hope, a slight lift of interest in trying something new, or a slight increase in energy.
When you can, make small changes. Look for patterns in when you feel better and worse. Pay attention to the things you have “always known” you need. Gradually, you will find strategies that help consistently.
Look at physical reasons for depression: vitamin deficiencies and food intolerances can drastically affect energy and mood. Try spending more time outside, or find indoor movement you like, such as yoga. In the depths of winter, consider using a light box.
When you can afford the risk of rejection, reach out for support. To counter ongoing isolation, notice and treasure even brief connections. To connect with yourself, try meditation, a chance to simply pay attention to what is true for you right now.
Determination to live
Being alive is supposed to feel good. Basic bodily functions like movement, eating, breathing, sleeping, and connection with other beings are meant to be intrinsically rewarding. When trauma disconnects us from our body, we disconnect from that spark of joy.
Sense inside for your tenacious determination to live, the force that keeps you reaching out for help and reading internet articles and continuing to trudge forward even when you feel terrible.
You are not broken
I prefer a narrative with hope about depression. You are not broken. Your responses make sense. As you find ways to sit with inner terror and misery and loneliness for as long as they are there, they will gradually shift and make room for new feelings.
- My thanks to Alice for a thought-provoking email exchange about why depression is not generally acknowledged as an effect of trauma.
- An excerpt from Johann Hari’s new book about depression, “Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.”
- In “Feeling Sad,” Robyn Posin affirms that “depression, grief, despair and feeling blue are natural and expectable parts of being alive and growing.”
- Barbara McGavin shares how she lives with feeling suicidal in “The ‘Victim’, the ‘Critic’ and the Inner Relationship: Focusing with the Part that Wants to Die.”
- A poem by Kaitlyn Boulding, “Questions to Ask Yourself Before Giving Up.”