The world loves to divide feelings and thoughts into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. But feelings and emotions really aren’t good or bad in the moral sense. When we call them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we tend to mean pleasant or unpleasant, comfortable or uncomfortable. Most importantly, feelings and emotions are useful information; information designed to tell us something about how we are relating to the world and ourselves, and how others are affecting us.
Depression as ‘pressing down’ your emotions
In depression, emotions tend to be ‘saved up’ over a long period of time, particularly ones we have labelled ‘bad’. By ‘saved up’ I mean left verbally unexpressed or unused for the valuable information and energy that they are. We develop habits around what we do with these feelings. Anger, jealousy, envy, resentment, hatred, dread: these feelings tend to be unpleasant or uncomfortable when we become aware of them. They also tend to be rejected, censored and judged quite harshly by ourselves and others in our ‘let’s all be positive and happy’ society. And so we often keep them to ourselves.
But ‘saving up’ or ‘pushing down’ difficult feelings can get us into trouble if it becomes a habit. This process of de-pressing feelings often manifests as tension in the body, pain, digestive problems, insomnia, loss of appetite, changes in behaviour and, most obviously, personal misery and suffering. The longer we do this to ourselves the worse we feel; the more hopeless we feel; the more angry, lost, numb, or dead we feel, until life no longer feels like it has any life left in it.
To make matters worse, the anger, shame or resentment we have stored up can act as a force we use to reject help, reject people around us, dismiss solutions, numb ourselves against their pain, defeat our efforts. ‘Oh, what’s the point!’. Stored up in our bodies, these feelings can be the energy that keeps us focussing on how bad we feel, how rotten the world is, and how drained we feel at the prospect of doing anything to change it. It becomes a viscious circle that seems impossible to break. It also takes a huge amount of energy to keep feelings pushed down, which is why we can typically feel very anxious as the feelings push back. Also typical of depression is feeling utterly drained, ‘tired but wired’, with reversed sleep patterns, insomnia, hypersomnia or early waking and each of these, in turn, impact negatively upon our mood, motivation, tolerance, pain level and general functioning, making depression even more debilitating the longer it continues.
Using substances and alcohol
If you have begun to manage this emotional state of affairs by, for example, using alcohol, medications or illegal substances to alleviate the pain of your accumulated emotions and anxiety, then it’s possible that you have added an additional layer of complexity and difficulty to your original problems. Alcohol has a relaxing effect on the body but a depressive effect on our mood – it is not a solution and will make your depression worse. Substance misuse is another temporary short-cut to alleviating suffering for a little while. Unfortunately, like alcohol, it only makes matters worse in the long-term, creating even more problems and making the causes of depression much harder to address. By combining alcohol and substances (like cocaine, for example) you create highly toxic compounds in your body that can seriously damage your health and mental state. Instead of only depression, you create additional layers of complexity to deal with: depression and addiction, plus the financial, relationship, physical and secondary mental health problems that tend to come with this vicious circle and downward spiral. Some individuals respond to the combined effects of drugs, alcohol and depression by developing paranoic and psychotic symptoms, adding further layers of complexity that can make finding help very difficult. Using addictive substances tends to make the original depressive and anxiety cycle much worse than it has to be, and so if you are depressed it is best to seek help prior to your temptation to mask your feelings chemically.
For some people in this depressive-addictive cycle, dishonesty and self-deception becomes other features, as one’s moral codes of right and wrong become replaced by a greater urgency for comfort and aversion to discomfort. ‘What is comfortable’ now replaces ‘what is right’ or true; what is uncomfortable becomes what is bad, wrong and to be avoided. The impact upon people around you can be distressing as they watch the person they care about decline and compromise themselves to the point where no-one is able to help. Your relationships, circumstances, physical health and mental state are then left at the mercy of your own choices.
If you want to address and overcome your depression it is important to make a genuine committment to addressing any addiction you have created as a first priority. Using substances defeats any therapeutic help you might seek for depression because therapy involves facing difficult feelings, and substance misuse involves attempts to avoid facing them. It is for this reason that most public health psychology department do not accept patients with active addictions. Get help with any addictions first and when you are managing to stay clean then psychotherapy for the depression becomes a viable option as you allow yourself to face what you have been trying to run away from.
In coming to psychotherapy you will learn to re-connect with ‘bad’ feelings in a way that is ultimately helpful and no longer as uncomfortable as it used to be; to begin to feel and express such feelings in an accepting relationship with your therapist, and later with others whom you trust and through activities that help you rather than hurt you. And to untangle the ball of tensions, thoughts, ‘stuckness’ and hopelessness that tends to create the depression experience. There isn’t a magic pill or a clever technique that will ‘cure’ you of depression. It’s a case of making a conscious choice to either keep doing what you’re doing, or to change direction and do things differently as part of a lifestyle change. Typically such a change of direction involves making a commitment to being brave enough to face the discomfort or unfamiliarity, and deciding to say, for example, ‘ok, I’ve had enough of being in this state of depression and I don’t want to spend another day going deeper into it. I’m going to have courage, face whatever needs to be faced and work my way through this to get to a healthy place again.’
If you’re depressed, however mildly or severely, this is your turning point; your fork in the road: choosing to go deeper into it by denying or masking emotions, or choosing to walk a different path that involves facing yourself squarely. By meeting regularly with an experienced, caring therapist who knows the landscape of depression and is willing to be both accepting and very honest with you, you can evolve through depression into a space that has meaning, hope and joy again. It’s a matter of making a simple – but not necessarily ‘easy’ – choice: to have a little courage, commitment and to do some regular work with someone who is willing to help. Only you can make that choice. And that is your power…