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What is depression?

Depression is one of the most common reasons people consider psychotherapy. Depression is very common, and according to some measures most people will experience depression at some point in their lives. But what is depression?

First, let’s define what depression is NOT:

  1. Depression is NOT “feeling sad”. Everyone feels sad now and then. Sadness is a perfectly normal emotion, particularly when there is a reason for the sadness.
  2. Depression is NOT grieving a loss. Grieving is a natural process. Often people expect themselves or others to “get over” a loss quite quickly. The reality is that major losses often take months to grieve, and even after the primary grieving process is over one can have occasional grief-related feelings for years.
  3. Depression is NOT a pessimistic attitude. Pessimistic people may be more prone to depression, but being pessimistic doesn’t mean someone is depressed.
  4. Depression is NOT always a result of chemical imbalance or physiological problems, although some people disagree about this. Depression can be caused by disease or a medical condition, which is why a therapist will often start treatment by having a depressed client go to a doctor for a checkup. Often, however, depression does NOT have a diagnosable physical cause.

So what is depression? First, I have to say that this is one of those things that science doesn’t completely understand or agree about. The following is my view, based on experience and observation as well as on the literature.

The experience of depression

Generally, I do NOT think of depression as an emotion, like sadness. In fact, it is not uncommon for people who are depressed to feel emotionally numb.

Normal emotions tend to come and go relatively quickly. For example, when someone is mourning a loss their primary emotional experience may be sadness, but other emotions will arise as well. They may laugh, cry, experience gratitude or anger, and even feel hopeful – sometimes all within a short period of time. In contrast, the experience of depression tends to be more flat and persistent. People experiencing depression sometimes feel they are in the grip of something that won’t let go of them.

People who are truly depressed tend to feel apathetic, lifeless, sluggish. They can’t connect with passion. There is little color in their world; everything appears gray and dull. Things that happen to them or around them produce a muted emotional response, and the emotional response that they do have is almost all negative: hopelessness, guilt, helplessness.

Depression can be accompanied by a variety of emotional and physical symptoms. It can last for short periods or years. It can come and go over a long period of time, or happen once and be done.

The source of depression

Psychologically-based depression is often generated or worsened by an unconscious way of thinking that leads to seeing things as hopeless and oneself as powerless. These ways of thinking are probably always present, and during episodes of depression that way of thinking has taken over to some extent.

It is sometimes said that depression is “anger turned inward”. Anger is a potent energetic feeling, and when a person’s unconscious beliefs tell him that expressing or even feeling anger toward others is wrong then he may instead cut it off or even focus it on himself.

Depression has a lot to do with one’s unconscious beliefs, especially beliefs about oneself. When a person is depressed, she is usually telling herself things like “I am worthless”, “I can’t make things better”, “No one cares about me”, etc. Often she attacks her own feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and a vicious spiral results. For example, she says to herself, “I should stop feeling helpless.” Now she feels helpless, and also feels helpless because she can’t stop feeling helpless. This cycle can go around and around, making the person feel more and more depressed.

People who are prone to depression have a tendency to focus their attention on things that “prove” their negative views of themselves. For example, take the case of Mr. I. M. Bad. Mr. Bad says to himself, “I am a failure. Look how terrible I am with money”, completely ignoring the fact that no one ever taught him how to manage money well. Since you can’t do something well if you never learned how to do it, Mr. Bad is beating himself up for something that isn’t his fault. He is also using his lack of skill in money management to label himself a failure overall. This is common in people who are in depression.

This also demonstrates problem solving in people who are depressed. Some don’t know how to solve problems, which reinforce their view of themselves as powerless. Others have problem-solving skills, but their unconscious beliefs again get in the way. Mr. Bad hears about a free money management class, but he immediately starts thinking of why it won’t work for him. “This is a public-funded class, so they’ll probably cancel if for lack of funds” he thinks, “and, even if they have it, free classes are always worthless.”

People with depression are often quite intelligent, and they are usually very good at coming up with a thousand ways to “prove” that the situation is hopeless. In the unconscious belief system of the typical person with depression, it is better to prove that the situation is hopeless than it is to take action and risk proving that he really is worthless – or incompetent, or stupid, or whatever bad thing he believes about himself.

So depression can be a way of unconsciously avoiding something that is feared to feel even worse than the depression itself. In this way, the thinking pattern of people with depression usually makes sense if you understand it from their (unconscious) point of view. If you trace it back far enough it is often based on a very deeply held unconscious belief, such as “No one likes me.” These beliefs are often based in actual experiences, sometimes ones that the person doesn’t even remember having.

Generally the experiences or feelings that a person with depression is trying to avoid are painful and/or frightening. It makes sense that the thought of having those experiences or feelings would cause a person to feel anxious. So it isn’t surprising that depression and anxiety often go together. Sometimes people feel depressed and anxious at the same time; often people will go back and forth between feeling depressed and feeling anxious.

As I discussed in this post, unconscious beliefs like this can’t be changed directly by changing conscious beliefs. In fact, your conscious beliefs might be completely different than the unconscious beliefs that are the source of the depression. It takes experiences with a strong emotional charge to change such beliefs. A qualified professional counselor can help people create such experiences.

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