Contrary to common belief, depression is not primarily a biological illness, inherited through our genes. Nor is it the setbacks, crises or tragedies in our lives that cause depression. It is our response to adverse events that determines whether we get depressed or not. Research shows that people most likely to suffer from depression are those who react to adversity by taking it personally, seeing all areas of their lives as blighted by it, and the misery going on forever. Depression is always a second and unnecessary problem that makes problematic circumstances worse. This is good to know because it means that, instead of feeling helpless or hopeless; people can learn to take back control over their lives. They may not be able to change certain circumstances but they always have options about how they react to them.
The symptoms of depression include low mood, loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities, loss of appetite and energy, sleep disturbance, feeling lethargic or agitated, worthless or guilty, difficultly in thinking straight and having repeated thoughts about suicide. Antidepressant drugs may help some people because they lift the levels of a ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain: unfortunately they do little to change the underlying circumstances or thinking patterns that led to the depression. Depression is always related to unmet essential emotional needs and is why the human givens approach, which focuses on helping people in distress find health ways to meet their emotional needs, is so successful.
Depressed people may seem deflated and flat but, in actual fact, they have raised levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, which means they are in a state of constant high emotional arousal. When our emotions are aroused we can’t think rationally, so this is why people deep in the grip of depression can’t’ concentrate well or even make simple decisions. Learning simple relaxation techniques to calm themselves down will start reducing those cortical levels.
The main reason that depressed people are so emotionally aroused is that they spend a vast amount of time worrying about the future or beating themselves up about past events. Perhaps they still feel guilty about something that happened recently – or years ago: perhaps they are frightening themselves with dire ‘what if’ scenarios [likely or unlikely], in which loved ones encounter dangers or they themselves lose their jobs or their homes; perhaps they feel beaten down by chronic pain or anger [“Why did this have to happen to me?” “How could her have been so cruel?”]; or maybe they experience a combination. They also have a huge tendency towards negative thinking – I’ll never be good enough; “I’ll never cope”; “nothing ever goes right”; “the pain will only get worse”. All this kind of negative imagining and thinking saps an enormous amount of energy – and makes people utterly miserable.
Role of dreaming
Research shows that depressed people dream much more than non-depressed people, distorting the balance between recuperative slow-wave sleep and energy burning dream sleep. Clearly, because they spend so much time worrying and imagining they have far higher amounts of unexpressed arousal to discharge. With so much energy spent on all the excessive dreaming they have to do, they wake up exhausted and lacking in motivation.