TRIGGER WARNING: Some of my examples could trigger you
Why am I depressed? This is the million dollar question. The answer could lie in the past, present, or the future... or within a combination of these time frames. To figure this out we must first assess your symptoms of depression. Everyone presents differently. You could know 10 people with depression and they could all experience it differently so it’s important to understand your symptoms and how you experience them. You should have pen and paper while reading through this so you can take notes of what applies to you. Here are the symptoms of depression. Write down which symptoms you experience.
Poor sleep- either sleep too much or too little or a combination of both A loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy. The key here is a loss of interest... not whether you’re still engaging in them or not. Feeling bad about yourself or guilty A lack of energy Loss of concentration A poor appetite- eating too much or too little or a combination of both Feeling like you’re just going through the motions of the day, like your on autopilot and not too engaged in or emotionally present. I equate this to sometimes when I’m driving I’m on autopilot and I automatically start driving to work when I’m supposed to be going in the opposite direction or even worse when you space out while driving and then when you become present again you wonder where the hell you’ve been for the last few minutes. Scary but it happens. And the last symptom is feeling like you would be better of dead. This could be in the form of actively thinking about hurting or killing yourself or wishing it would just happen naturally or by some other means. If you have some of these symptoms you could have depression. I say "could" because there’s quite a lot more that goes into diagnosing depression. But our purpose here is not to diagnose depression because that must be done by a mental health professional. Our purpose right now is to identify whether you are experiencing any symptoms that could possibly contribute to depression. If you are experiencing five or more of these symptoms then you may have a level of depression that should be treated by a mental health professional. Please seek that treatment if this applies to you... at least be evaluated and take it from there. To loosely assess the severity of your symptoms ask yourself how often do these symptoms interfere with your day to day activities? If they interfere 1 to 2 days a week then you’re looking out a mild severity. 3 to 5 days a week would be a moderate level and 6 to 7 days a week would be severe. Make a note of your possible severity level. This helps us really see how these symptoms are impairing and affecting your day-to-day life. Think about if these symptoms weren’t present how much better your life could be and what you could be doing instead. Sometimes we don’t even realize the impact things make on our life and how many sacrifices we make because of it so it’s important to really assess this with objective accurate eyes so that you can see it in black-and-white-how the symptoms are truly affecting you and those around you. Now think about when the symptoms first started... not just recently but the very first time you started experiencing the symptoms. How long ago was it? Did you feel this way as a child, your teenage years, or did it start later? Write down the approximate time in your life when these symptoms started. Now think about what was going on at that time. If the symptoms started in childhood or teens it may have been from problems at home or school. If the symptoms started a little later think about any changes in your life, either good or bad, that went on around that same time period. Remember that even good things can cause us symptoms of depression or anxiety like moving, buying a home, getting married, having a baby, getting a new job. It all has an emotional impact on us for one reason or another. Once you figure that out go ahead and make a note of it. As we move through this discussion and you’re not able to identify any sort of triggering events that could be causing your symptoms then you may have a more chronic type of depression that could be more bio chemical in nature... meaning that for whatever reason your brain is not firing enough of the happy pleasurable neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that allow us to be happy. If that’s the case then the best treatment is really psychiatric medication. Now I’m sure this is debatable but this is my opinion. Of course you can work on behavioral changes like putting yourself on a schedule, setting daily and long term goals, and using coping skills that help you feel better like working out, hanging out with friends or family, things like this but again if your symptoms are so bad where it prevents you from doing these things then it’s really not a good solution. This is stuff you can try after you start taking the medication and start feeling a little better. Because if there’s nothing triggering your symptoms there’s nothing to work through. If you are able to identify an initial trigger to the symptoms I want you to think if the symptoms have been present fairly consistent throughout the rest of your life... did they start out mild and gradually worsened over time... or have they been off and on throughout your life? Go ahead and make a note of this. Figuring out the course of your symptoms can tell you a lot about yourself because it can give you an indicator of how you react and manage stressors in your life, how you cope, and how you problem solve. I am going to go through these different styles of problem solving and how they can relate to different behavioral characteristics. As I go through these it would be helpful to make a note of what applies to you. If the symptoms have remained pretty consistent from the time they started and don’t seem to come and go then it may be that you have just accepted, in a sense, that the symptoms are part of life and a part of your life. Loosely similar to how people refer to a “functioning alcoholic” well then you might be a “functioning depressive” which is a term I just made up. You may have just incorporated the symptoms as part of your life and you deal with life stressors with a minimal approach. You get by emotionally with the minimum requirements. You may even allow other people to manage problems even when the outcome will directly affect you. You may allow others to make important decisions for you and interact only when it’s necessary or you’re pressed on the issue. You may go through the motions of emotions but you never allow yourself to truly feel. You never feel fully depressed but you also never feel fully happy either. You’re kind of just blah. If your symptoms started and have gradually worsened over time then you may be the type of person who avoids addressing problems, avoids confrontation, you may not speak up for yourself, stick up for yourself, shuts down, internalizes things, doesn’t talk about your problems. This usually comes from an initial stressful triggering event that happens and you shut down. You try to ignore the problem and move on with your life but in actuality what you did is you added a piece of clothing in your baggage of life. Then another stressful event happens, you ignore it, move on and add another piece of clothing to your life baggage. But there’s only so much room in that suitcase. We all only have so much tolerance, patience, compassion, kindness, all that good stuff and when were filled to the top with baggage from the past we were unable to deal with current or future stressors that come our way and we can easily snap or hit and emotional wall where we have nothing more to give emotionally speaking. So as each life stressor happens that we ignore and pack in our luggage all that patience, tolerance, compassion is being reduced within us making it that much harder to deal with the next wrecking ball that comes our way. If your symptoms have been on and off throughout your life this tells us that you don’t deal well in the moment of stress or crisis. You may not work so well under pressure or when something bad happens. Or you may have a low tolerance for stress, or not enough good or appropriate coping skills to help you through the stress. But once the dust settles you’re able to move with your life... of course until the next life event comes crashing your way and it breaks you once again. This could also be the person who doesn’t address problems as they happen and allow them to build up until they one day explode or break down. Regardless of the course of your symptoms, I’d like you all to draw a timeline starting with the initial trigger. Then go through the years of your life in chronological order and identify the events that followed that could have triggered your depression, worsened it over time, or caused you to shut down making your symptoms worse. Once you’re able to identify these triggering events think about how they affected you. Make some notes about each event. How you felt emotionally when this happened, how this may have changed your view of yourself, others, and maybe even the world. Now these views were probably not on a conscious level especially in the moment but I want you to put yourself back there in your mind’s eye and think consciously now about how these events affected you. I’ll go through one example of this with you and then I’ll give you some time to apply it to yourself. Say for example you experienced childhood abuse or bullying by peers then this could’ve made you feel sad, angry, worthless, less then. You could’ve made you feel Bad about yourself and feel like you were not as worthy of kindness and love and other people, it may have lowered your confidence and self-esteem. It may have made you feel that no one else cares about you and that you have to protect yourself Because no one else is going to. You could start believing that the world is a scary place and that people are mean and will hurt you, that people‘s intentions are bad and you can’t trust them. Go through this step on your own. Again think about how these events affected your belief system about yourself, others, and the world. Hopefully you’re starting to see how certain events or situations cause you to feel or think a certain way. Thoughts direct our behavior. Try to recognize how these events have shaped your life and helped create your current behavior. Being aware of this negative pattern between your thoughts and your behavior can give you more power to change it. Gaining the awareness of where our behavior is coming from often, in itself, can help us feel better. A lot of times we just feel like we’re losing it or going crazy when in reality there is a logical process to what we’re experiencing. At this point we know that we need to work through our initial triggering event. It’s important that you dig down to the core root of the depression and not work on symptoms or reactions to the depression. Accurately configuring this timeline and the course of your symptoms tells us a lot. It Tells us the core problem that needs to be worked through. The rest of your triggering events usually have some connection to the initial event, kind of like the game Jenga just before it’s about to collapse. The entire game rest on the stability of the bottom wooden pieces... just like your initial triggering event does. As an example, let’s take someone who was sexually molested as a child. Well now that person is an adult and has children of their own. They become overly protective and strict with them. They don’t let them go anywhere without them, they can’t play over other kids houses or have sleepovers. Now is this because the parent doesn’t trust their kids or because they don’t trust other people and want to protect their kids from also being abused? Their overly protective nature has absolutely nothing to do with their kids and everything to do with the abuse they experienced as a child. In order for them to strike a balance between protecting and smothering their kids they first need to work through their own childhood trauma. The parent working on letting their kids go places without them would be futile. It wouldn’t last or it wouldn’t work at all and their symptoms could get even worse... because they would be working on the symptom to a deeper problem. You work through these triggering events by journaling about it, talking to someone you trust, or talking to a therapist. You have to get it out somehow either through written or verbal form. You can’t just think about it in your head because 1 thought leads to 10... then 20 and now your overwhelmed with worst case scenarios. You’ve started 20 thoughts and haven’t finished one of them. Now you’re more stressed then when you started. Writing or talking through your emotions forced you to complete those thoughts and release them from being trapped inside of you. Because right now all that pain is just trapped inside of you. By not talking about it you’re just protecting it and keeping it with you along with all of the other baggage you’ve collected since then. After you process your emotions you can begin the process of letting go or even forgiving. For more on this topic you can listen to my other talk titled letting go versus forgiveness. Now that you’ve identified your problem-solving style you can also work on improving that so you can begin to address and process problems as triggering events happen and not repack all your life luggage.
In order to make changes in our life we must first identify what we’re trying to change. For the people who have maintained a certain level of depression throughout their life without any major ups and downs... they should work on becoming more connected to their emotions and allowing themselves to feel and experience it... whether it’s positive or negative emotions. You may often answer questions with responses like “I don’t know” “I don’t care” “it’s up to you” “what do you think” this means you should work on finding your voice and use it!... Appropriately of course. Don’t accept that your opinion doesn’t matter. If it didn’t matter people wouldn’t ask and most people don’t enjoy being around someone who just doesn’t care or seem to care. Not everyone is going to necessarily like your opinion but at least your getting on the merry-go-round of life and not just watching from the bench without a ticket. If you’ve been numb to your emotions for many years then you may need a therapist To help you deal with what you’re feeling but the result is well worth it. We are human beings and filled with emotion. Without sadness we won’t have joy... without anger we won’t have excitement. Living is about feeling. Using this type of problem solving is merely surviving. How can we learn to address problems when we don’t even know how we feel about it? How can you go through the grieving process from the death of a loved one when you’re not allowing yourself to feel the loss? How can you process and heal from a divorce when you don’t even know what you’re healing from-is it anger, is it guilt, is it sadness, regret? You’ve got to know what you’re feeling in order to process and heal from it... because you have to know what you’re even trying to heal from.
You can start this process by asking yourself in your head, “What do I think about this situation? How does this make me feel? You may need to journal or talk to someone to actually sort out what you feel and then try to address the problem at hand. For the ones who avoid addressing problems as your symptoms continually worsen then you know that you have to learn to address problems as they happen as opposed to trying to ignore it and push forward. Of course we always have to pick our battles. But If we are truly able to ignore and move on then, by all means, ignore and move on. But if you find that what you’re trying to ignore keeps nagging at you then that’s a warning sign that The problem may need to be addressed. People with this type of problem solving need to stop putting other people’s needs ahead of their own. You make sure everyone else is okay while you continue to struggle in silence. This is not okay. Your needs and wants are just as important as everyone else's. Addressing problems doesn’t have to mean arguing or fighting, which could be what you witnessed as a child... which MAY be why you’re scared or nervous to address problems... you don’t want a confrontation or people to not like you or be mad at you. Addressing problems appropriately means you have to work through your own emotions first. Then think about the problem and all the ways you can deal with the problem. The next step is to weigh the pros and cons of each option and choose the best option for you, which is usually going to be the option that provides the desired outcome with the least amount of conflict.
If your symptoms tend be on and off and spike during triggering events then you may have to practice staying in the moment, staying present when something stressful happens. Process your emotions as they happen so that you can problem solve problem appropriately. Of course when stressful things happen it’s normal for all of us to be more emotional than normal and have symptoms exacerbate but it shouldn’t be so severe that we’re unable to function or figure out a way to deal with the problem… or make a rash, impulsive decisions in the moment of heightened emotions that you end up later regretting. When something stressful happens don’t shut down. Work through your emotions by journaling or talking to someone. We shouldn’t make decisions when we’re highly emotional because our emotions are irrational, which means our decisions will most likely be irrational. We need to work through our emotions and calm down so that we can think more clearly and deal with the problem more appropriately. Your current symptoms include sleeping too much, emotionally eating, low energy, sadness, feeling bad about yourself, and feeling like you’re just going through the motions of the day. You realize that these symptoms have caused you to not want to be around people, withdraw from friends and family, spend more time isolated, and feel lonely. You’re frequently calling into work sick and you don’t have many friends left. You discover that the initial triggering event is the death of your grandma at age 22. Subsequent triggering events include moving into the first place of your own at age 23; getting a promotion at work at age 25; experiencing the loss of your dad at age 30; starting to use alcohol excessively and breaking up with your significant other at age 31. You’re now seeking therapy because you’re depressed and you have no idea where your life took a turn for the worst. This timeline illustrates that this person never grieved properly for the death of their grandma at age 22. Even though they were moving on with their life and good things were happening they were unable to feel happy because their grandmother wasn’t there to share the good news with. These happy moments only ended up making them more sad. Their depression gradually worsened. The experience of another death of a loved one was a turning point for them. They could no longer Be that “functioning depressive” like I talked about earlier and their symptoms became debilitating. They started to self-medicate by abusing alcohol, which then led to their significant other breaking up with them. All of a sudden they are at the lowest point in their life.
So let’s start with their triggering event and see how it may have affected them throughout their life that they probably aren’t even aware of…
How this changed the way they view themselves could be… that they can only count on themselves and feel the need to protect themselves from being “left” … people sometimes see death as abandonment and not as a natural process, as if their loved one chose to leave them… but this of course is their irrational state of emotions that they’re not yet aware of.
How this changed the way the view others may be… that people will leave you- either voluntarily or involuntarily- but either way they will leave you and you can’t count on them.
How this changed the way they view the world is… they will have to go this life alone. They were born alone and must die alone. The world is a lonely place.
Depressing right? With this belief system how could they not be depressed? They need to start by processing their emotions about their grandma’s death, see where that leaves them, and process the events that followed their grandma’s death only of necessary. Once you’re able to process and heal from the initial triggering event you usually won’t have to do much emotional work to heal from the rest of the events but every person and triggering event is different. What I can tell you is that the rest of the events will be easier to process once the first one is done. It’s kind of like a domino effect- just as our life can slowly crumble once one bad thing happens… but once we change that projection… it can also slowly get better.
Now to avoid following the same trap and starting a new timeline of stressors… they need to improve their coping strategy and problem solving skills. The timeline suggests that the person’s symptoms gradually worsened over time which means they avoid talking about their problems, addressing problems, they shut down, and they think they can just ignore their emotions. They need to stop ignoring their emotions! You can know see that this doesn’t work anyway. Talk to someone, journal, whatever works best for you… but you have to get those emotions out in order to truly move on.
If any of these sections were difficult for you to apply to yourself then you can have a mental health professional guide and support you through this process. Hopefully this is helpful. Please keep in mind that I’m speaking very generally. This is not going to apply to everyone. But I hope it can help some of you.
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