Too often, depression is dismissed as sadness. When this happens, people who are depressed receive trite and unhelpful comments:
- “You’re just feeling sad”
- “You just need to get out”
- “Just look on the bright side”
- “Just go exercise”
Depression is different than sadness
Sadness is a common, everyday emotion. We feel sadness when we’re aware of having lost something important to us, from an object to a relationship.
Depression is different than sadness. Depression is usually experienced as an overwhelming cloud of bleakness, where the person has no energy, feels little pleasure, feels hopeless about the future, and also can have feelings of shame and anger about feeling this way.
Why am I depressed?
People are depressed for 2 primary reasons: your genetic set-point and your life circumstances.
Endogenous depression is your genetic set-point. This accounts for 50% of the variability in your depression. Because of the way some people process the neurotransmitter serotonin, they are more prone to feel down, isolated, and lower energy.
Exogenous depression is depression that’s related to contextual issues. Rather than endogenous depression that comes from within the person, exogenous depression comes from someone’s lived experience. Some examples are a recent divorce, losing a loved one, or a recent cross country move.
Exogenous depression also has to do with past experiences that can impact a person. Some examples are a neglectful or punishing parent, or repeated trauma like bullying.
Depression is a tug-o-war
Depression is like a tug-o-war. Depression has to do with two parts of us – two internal voices – that can get stuck in conflict. These two parts are sadness and shame.
The “sadness” part of depression usually starts the tug-o-war. Sadness is usually triggered by loss or loneliness. It’s a natural response that makes us want to curl up, cry, slow down. As all emotions are relationship signals, sadness is meant to help others see our loss and respond with compassion. When we feel sad, we’re signaling to others: “I’m not okay, please slow down and comfort me”.
The “shame” part of depression is a voice inside us that feels frustrated, even disgusted, by our being sad. It might say things like, “cut it out” or “stop being weak.” It’s sometimes embarrassed by the sadness, like it somehow knows that being sad doesn’t end well.
These two voices pull hard against the tug-o-war rope, and have difficulty actually regulating – or resolving – the emotion. If the normal course of sadness is like a rollercoaster that goes up, plateaus, then resolves, then the normal course of depression is a sadness that isn’t able to be resolved because of the harsh shame response.
So what do I do?
My first suggestion is to follow along in the video and try the exercise. My hope is that this exercise gives you more understanding and clarity about your own experience of depression.
Too often we’re given easy answers for depression. We’re told to just get up, to watch some motivational puppy video, to just go on a run, or to change our diet. If we listen hard, we can see how these superficial suggestions can sound suspiciously like the internal shame voice we hear too often.
Real change involves understanding ourselves in new ways. Maybe this was new for you to slow down long enough to listen and hear those 2 different voices inside you. If that is the case, give yourself a deep full breath of gratitude.
That awareness is the seed of true change in life. It’s the compassionate response you’ve needed when you’ve had moments of true loss in your life. It’s in these moments of compassionate awareness that we’re able to move a bit out of our depressive experience and into hopefulness again.
Therapy from Home
This is part of our ongoing series during this difficult time, to help you grow in self-awareness and self-care even as you find yourself stuck indoors. So as you go into your day, your evening, whether it’s in the chaos of essential work or in the chaos of home quarantine, know that there’s space for you to grow and to thrive.
Each of our therapists offer video therapy in the state of California, and are here to help.