Parting the Clouds of Depression
Depression is like the clouds. Clouds come and go. They are constantly moving and changing. One big wind can whisk them all away and we see the blue sky again. But sometimes the clouds descend for days, like here in the Pacific Northwest, and we almost forget there are blue skies up above us. Similarly, depression can seem to descend over us for days, or even longer, and we feel heavy and sodden like a bank of grey clouds is pressing down on us.
But we are like the sky. We are constant. Sometimes when I am in a plane and ascend above Seattle, I say, oh yes, the blue sky was here all along. I just couldn't see it. My whole outlook changes then, looking down on the cloud cover. In depression, when we are in the throes of it, it is like we are trapped on the ground. We can't seem to get ourselves up above the clouds. Sometimes we get stuck.
Actually, I believe that depression has a purpose. The purpose of depression is to reflect on our life and see where we are stuck.
All depression isn't necessarily bad. . . I contend that everyone gets at least mildly depressed. If we are in the normal ebb and flow of life, all of us get down now and then.
Depression, as I see it, is a signal that something isn't right in our lives. Something needs attention. Perhaps something in our life is over, outdated; something has served its purpose and it's time to move on. But we feel stuck, like we want to hang on to the way it was. The "stuckness" is what causes the pain. Perhaps we replay something over and over in our heads, wishing we'd done differently. Ruminating (brooding, dwelling, or playing self-critical thoughts over and over again) can deepen the cycles of depression and cause them to come back with even more force.
This is not to say depression isn't a serious matter. Sometimes we need the help of a behavioral health professional to find out what is dragging us down, keeping us from moving forward. When you're unable to function due to disabling depression, it's time to reach out for help. Your physician can refer you to a behavioral health provider. When does depression need serious attention? When it's clinical depression, also called major depression. Those who are suffering from major depression may need medication as well as therapy to get back to full-functioning again.
But for most of us, for those of us with everyday depression, or for those of us who want to prevent depression in the first place, help is at hand. One day I was in the book store looking through the books on mindfulness, a current passion of mine, and saw The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. Who doesn't want to be more happy? So I picked it up and started reading. All of a sudden, I started to feel lighter and happy, just reading the first few pages. Of course, I had to buy it. It came with a CD too, one with practices you can do at home. In the book, a team of three authors, renowned experts on the treatment of depression, offer suggestions for treating mild depression. They believe that the "unhappiness" we feel in the moment often triggers past feelings which then begin to overwhelm us. They state that "depression forges a connection in the brain between sad mood and negative thoughts, so that even normal sadness can reawaken major negative thoughts." They also believe that "rumination," (brooding or dwelling on problems, going over and over self-critical thoughts) is what feeds the vicious cycles of depression. The authors Williams, Teasdale, and Segal offer a way out. As we train our bodies and minds to respond with self-compassion and awareness, rather than with criticism and self-loathing, we can break out of the sometimes vicious cycles of depression. But it takes practice. Just like anything that is important to us, we have to set aside time and energy for a new way of shifting old patterns and habits. By parting the clouds of depression, we can get a glimpse of the blue sky and be reminded that it has always been there all along.
A behavioral health provider diagnoses major depression when a person has certain characteristic symptoms of depression. A person must have these two symptoms:
1) feeling depressed or sad most of the day
2) loss of interest or the ability to derive pleasure from previously enjoyed activities.
In addition, a person must experience at least four or more of these other symptoms of depression, continuously over at least a two-week period and in a way that departs from normal functioning.
1) significant weight loss or weight gain, or a decrease/increase in appetite nearly every day
2) difficulty sleeping through the night or need for more sleep during the day
3) agitated or slowed down throughout the day
4) fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
5) feelings of worthlessness or extreme or inappropriate guilt
6) difficulties concentrating, which can be seen by others as indecisiveness
7) recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts or a suicidal attempt.
By Jan Fite, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, Seattle, WA
Copyright 2011 Northwest Parkinson's Foundation Wellness Center