Hi Team. Sorry to disappoint but you will be stuck with me this blog post, no guest author to liven things up. This will be a short post to compliment one I wrote earlier (and not just because I have to rush off and beat my brothers at computer games). That post, if you haven’t read it, was a bit about the nature of depression.
The goal of that post was to raise awareness of the somatic (physical) manifestations of depression. This was never intended to dismiss the idea of depression as a psychosomatic (mind and body) illness, but was trying to highlight the physical nature as a pushback against the wider ignorance and stigma against depression.
I cannot count the number of times that I have heard stories of, or have experienced, people discriminating against others who have mental health problems because they misunderstand the physical nature of depression. Our culture is one that unquestioningly values positivity and happiness (having said this, a self-deprecating pessimism has a special place in British hearts, particularly in regards to one’s sports team– national pride is seemingly paradoxical here). People believe that we should be entitled to a good life, that we are owed a chance to live a happy life. Anyone not searching for their happiness is foolish. These beliefs, paired with a misunderstanding of depression, are a great way to ruin a depressed person’s day and make them hate life.
Some of the stories I have I don’t want to share because they include people who I love hurting me, and I don’t want to embarrass them. But it is often the case that someone with depression, who may not be able to physically produce the biochemical molecules required for happiness, is ridiculed for not being happy. Sometimes we can’t be happy when people are getting married, we can’t be happy when people are pregnant, and we can’t be happy at our own birthday party. This is not a moody teenager indulging themselves in a bad mood. It is not a plea for attention. It is a common manifestation of a serious illness.
Imagine a parallel case when someone has a broken leg and they are ridiculed for not walking. Can they walk? Of course not. Does that matter to the people putting unfair expectations on them? No. How would a person with a broken leg feel if they were expected to walk and when they didn’t someone sat them down and talked to them about their attitude? Accepting that they can’t walk is not enabling or indulging them, but is respecting them and their (current) weakness as a human being. Every human has plenty of weaknesses, some of which happen to result in physical disability.
Respecting this element of depression is critical. There is so much stigma against people with depression. Subtle things which no one can see until you are on the receiving end. Micro-aggressions that alone are not so damaging, but come together in a cacophony of pain. To fight this stigma it is crucial that we see depression as a physical problem.
Psychosomatic disorder (your body is being affected by something in your brain)
After having said all that, this is not what the blog is going to be about. Sorry for the long introduction. If you think of it as more of a shout out, or throw back, it seems more reasonable. This blog post is going to be about the opposite. This will be talking about the psychosomatic nature of depression. Psychosomatic (from the Greek words for psyche and body) means that the illness involves both your mind and body, usually causally.
This can be initiated by anything from a concussion to a childhood trauma, but most cases of depression will be caused by a spiritual or an emotional trauma. These could be all sorts of things such as the loss of a loved one (not just grief. Grief is an emotional response, but depression is an illness), the birth of a baby (post-natal depression is very common), putting unhealthy amounts of pressure on one’s self, moving house or country, losing a job etc.
These are not physical changes to your body (except having a baby), but changes to your situation which have emotional/spiritual effects. The situation is essentially that an emotional/spiritual event has caused physical changes in the pathways and chemicals in your brain. Most depression is cause by non-physical events. By that I mean situations that do not directly impact your body (except your brain), but your circumstances.
None of this comes at the expense of the physical nature of depression. I have mentioned before that there is a genetic heritage when it comes to depression. This is a case where it is impossible to not see that there is a physical side to it. There are elements to it which are physical, but it is a complex interaction of the mind and brain. Both are crucial.
Depression is an affective disorder because it works with emotions. It has an effect on emotions. It is a psychosomatic illness because the symptoms of the body are caused by the brain. There is nothing wrong with the nerves that go down to my legs (at least I hope not!), but I still regularly lose feeling in them because of anxiety. There isn’t anything wrong with my stomach, but I still feel nauseous whenever I watch Newcastle play a football match (they are quite anxiety-inducing even for those who have no mental health illness). The mind has a significant degree of control over the body.
This also shows that a lot of depression is outside of our control or our will to recover. It is not someone’s fault if they have depression. It is an illness that is usually triggered by certain traumatic events. If it is caused by the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or the destruction of a house by a hurricane, then it would be crazy to blame them for having depression. It is your body’s response to a situation that effects your mind. The situation is may be out of your control. The mind may control the body, but we have a remarkably small amount of control over our minds.
If you have depression, it is not your fault that you have it. Even if someone sat in a room all month trying to be depressed they would struggle to manage it. You couldn’t have depression if you tried (theoretically this is possible, but realistically not). However, the messed up world that we’re in has conspired against us in such a way that the combination of factors in our life have given us this illness. It is the job of us and our team to deal with the tough situation we are in regardless of how we got here. Never feel guilty for having an illness, and if you do feel guilty about feeling guilty don’t worry. That is perfectly normal and in part is the fault of society and stigma. Don’t give up.
Remembering this is critical because it means that the mind can also help fix the body. So, does this mean that the cultural gurus of happiness were right? Has the ignorance of the masses been proved right? Of course not. Otherwise I would need to stop writing this blog. Writing the blog posts are not happy. They tend to be frustrating. I try and share my stories, which mean I trawl through some of the worst times in my life and relive them. I often have to stop because I feel like crying. I often have to stop because I feel so angry at the way people have treated me in the past. I often have to stop because I feel so frustrated at my own failings and the way in which I have treated others in the past. Happiness is still not a critical part of life and a positive attitude won’t cure depression any more than asking Sauron to destroy the one ring would have shortened the Lord of the Rings.
The reality is that depression is a complex issue with no easy solutions. But there are very long, painful and arduous solutions. If you have depression it is most likely caused by some sort of emotional or spiritual trauma. Please go and see a counselor about this. I am not a trained professional, but there are people who are. They can help you look at your life and help you work through these difficult events. They can help you see parts of your life where there is pressure and stress which you probably thought was normal. I have been seeing a counselor regularly in Dundee these past 6 months and it was great (I literally had no idea anything good came out of Dundee. Although to be fair, he was American so it hardly counts).
I couldn’t think of anything that caused my illness in particular, so was a bit hesitant to go. However, chatting to him was great. There were times that he got things wrong or that we chatted through things which weren’t so pertinent. However, he was able to draw certain themes or elements out of my life which I hadn’t realised before. One thing was the inordinate amount of pressure that I put on myself in situations. Any of my teachers at school may want to jump in at this point and say that it isn’t true in regards to school work. Which is true. But I put lots of pressure on myself when it comes to things such as sports, or games. I love to be competitive and find it really hard to turn off. Even if it is my first time playing a game I put on myself the expectation to play well and to win.
This means that some of my most poignant memories are football or rugby games that I lost. The angriest and most upset I was at school was when I lost sports games. After a season of rugby I would be able to recall every missed pass and tackle. I was determined to be perfect by eliminating all mistakes. Although striving for excellence in sports isn’t bad, it put immense pressure on myself. Although I am slightly better at managing this mentality it is still something that I struggle with. Meeting with the counselor helped me see how much this adds to my anxiety.
I never had anxiety when I played sports at school, but at university the pressure I put on myself would drive my anxiety through the roof. By talking through this I can now manage my anxiety better which has helped in a myriad of situations. Helping understand how I put pressure on myself has saved me from a lot of anxiety, meaning that the physical symptoms are better than they otherwise would have been. Understanding my emotions better has helped my illness.
So trying to be happy all the time does not work. It is naïve. However, acknowledging that the emotions and mind do affect the illness and the body is instrumental. Please go and see someone who is trained in these things. I know it is scary and that it probably seems like it won’t work. But go anyway. It is a system that has been shown time and time again to work. It will help you get better. It is not an easy solution though. That was the third or fourth counselor which I had seen and the first three had been unhelpful, but the fourth was great. It is a bit of trial and error, but can have remarkable benefits in the long run. I am fully versed with the emotional and physical (and probably financial) toll that it takes, but I am totally confident in saying that it is worth it.
The part where a good time with my friends makes all the difference
There was a time when I had no hope of life ever being worth living. I hated life. Every day was an excruciating scrape through existence. I am not exaggerating. I literally used to dream of dying. For me, the thought of being imprisoned and tortured by some evil regime was a lofty goal. My life was pointless and I hated it. At least if I was off being slowly killed by hateful people I would be worthwhile. Instead I was trapped in a miry pool of despair in rural Scotland. Everywhere I turned there was only anger and hatred, both towards me and others. Every night I would hope I would die in my sleep. At least that way no one could blame me and I could escape the existence I was trapped in. I dreamed of ‘when hope was high and life worth living.’ However, unlike Anne Hathaway I didn’t get my wish (praise God for that).
My health was a lot worse than I articulated above, but that is a small glimpse of how destitute I was. Yet, I did come out of that toughest time alive. I am still depressed, often totally incapacitated by it. I am still very ill, and have spent most of the last several years without the will to live. But, there was a very big turning point for me. I was going through a terrible time and wasn’t making wise choices to fight it. I wasn’t acknowledging the depression, or trying to deal with it. I was so overwhelmed with what was going on I was indulging my angry thoughts and was not making changes to my life that a mental illness requires. It was a spiraling disaster.
But the mind does effect the body. My school has a reunion for each class two years after they graduate. This happens every July during the school’s alumni weekend. For three weeks I was with my friends for 24 hours a day. It was an incredible experience for me. For the three weeks I was better. It was not a good spell, but rather everything about me was as it had been prior to the depression. Not a single symptom manifested itself. I very quickly went from the worst period of my life back to what I was before. I could not believe it. I was happy, energetic, vivacious, and the physical symptoms were gone completely. It was three weeks of heaven on earth. Would recommend if you get the chance.
Me and the crew during those few weeks.
I am not bringing this story up because it was brought about by a change of attitude. Trying to be happy didn’t effect that. What caused this miraculous turn of events I cannot say. My illness disappeared like a light coming back on. However, it was also switched back off at the end of the three weeks. As soon as my friends left all the symptoms came back overnight. It was as if the illness had just taken a holiday for three weeks. It left without warning and came back as if nothing had changed.
However, what had changed is that I had hope again. I had experienced a life worth living and that meant I knew that there was life at the end of the tunnel. Prior to those three weeks I had assumed that the rest of my days were to be lived out in a desperate misery. I was wrong though. By having a glimpse of a life worth living, my own, I could approach the mental illness afresh. This was a significant turning point for me. I no longer felt totally overwhelmed all of the time (just most of the time).
By wrapping my head around the depression I could start to make progress with it. I could start to understand what was happening to me both mentally and physically. I could approach the situation with a lot more hope. This meant that when I was going through really bad spells I could remember the tough time. It didn’t make me feel better, but it did allow me to see that the tough time will probably just be temporary. That my life is worth living. This hope allowed me to have a totally different attitude to depression.
Now, when I am going through a good spell, I am able to articulate how I feel and what my illness does to me. I am able to think about it and try to understand what it does to me. I am able to go to counselling and try and figure out what is going on in my life. All these things were possible because of an emotionally and intellectually freeing experience. My depression has never been that bad since (I don’t think it would be much possible for it to be much worse). What happened with my mind had a massive effect on my depression. That is what a psychosomatic illness is. The mental components affect the body in both a negative and in a positive way. Although we don’t have as much control over our minds as we would like, it can be used to make depression worse or better. This is why it is critical that people with mental health illnesses seek help. Find people to talk to, go to trained professionals, and use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Here is the CBT website I used. I found it very helpful. https://moodgym.com.au/
Here is the website of the place I went to in Dundee. http://dundeecounselling.com/
So in conclusion. Depression is very physical, very emotional, and very spiritual. The best way to fight it is attack it on all of these fronts. Don’t make it too much about the physical. Having said that, most of the discrimination in our world exists because people don’t think of it as physical enough. However, depression can also be over spiritualized or over emotionalized too. As always please let me know if I can help in anyway. Send me messages or leave a comment. I would love to help in any way that I can.