Most of us have a limited ability to recognize depression in ourselves and others. We tend to associate depression with being observably sad, lethargic, and as feeling stuck or hopeless. While most of us experience these symptoms at some point in our lives, there are far more subtle symptoms that are easy to misinterpret and/or impossible to observe.
Among the most notable of which is what a counselor would refer to as Atypical Depression. In this presentation, folks don’t seem sad at all. They seem angry and easily irritated. Too many of us learned that showing vulnerability leads us to getting hurt. There’s no vulnerability in anger. We use it to cover up. Anger pushes people away. When we need folks the most, we tend to isolate and cover up. The key to understanding ourselves and others is to look below the surface and to know that anger never travels alone. If we can identify what lies beneath it, we can make healthier choices and get our needs met.
The second type of depression is the most common: Dysthymic Disorder. People who live with dysthymia (people like me) usually show no observable signs of depression at all. Indeed, we tend to be extremely outgoing people. We flood our lives with the needs of others as a means of avoiding ourselves. We find it impossible to relax because it makes us more aware of ourselves and the sadness we’ve been running from. The key to overcoming dysthymia is a willingness to be mindful, to identify our needs, and to learn to receive at least half as well as we give. (You can’t pour from an empty cup).
The third form of depression is more in keeping with how we envision depression. It’s devastating and easily observed. The key to understanding these experiences is in what counselors call a baseline. While we have good days and bad, most of us tend to live within a fairly fixed range. When depression reduces our ability to maintain responsibilities of work/school, hygiene, managing our homes, attending to other important matters and close relationships we are experiencing what a counselor would call, Functional Impairment.
This type of depression is episodic. We leave our normal baseline (range of living) and there is an observable decline in our functioning (mild, moderate, or severe). We tend to remain in that state for a few days or a few weeks and gradually return to our baseline. Paying close attention to our patterns and making progressively bigger investments in the basics (nutrition, exercise, utilizing natural and professional supports) can help reduce the intensity, duration, and frequency of these episodes.
There are three main reasons people experience depression:
- Situational (experiencing loss, major disappointments, living with abuse, surviving traumatic events),
- Leading unfulfilling and unhealthy lives (poor self-care, lack of goal oriented behavior, fearful of realizing our potential), and/or
- Living with a neuro-chemical imbalance (our brains don’t deal with serotonin and dopamine as they should).
For many of us, it’s all three. While medication is often helpful (or indeed necessary), making healthy investments in ourselves and others are the keys to our success. To go through times of depression alone is to suffer greatly. To connect with those who have lived experience is to attain meaningful support and deeper friendships.