Depression As Adaption: When the Symptoms Make Sense.

Depression: When the Symptoms Make Sense

We humans can be so spectacularly different, but we do share some common ground. We’re driven by relatively similar needs and have within us everything we need to fulfil those needs. That doesn’t mean we always meet our needs well. In fact, sometimes our attempts to meet our needs can be breathtakingly disastrous. Who hasn’t been there?

For many reasons, the energy and resources needed to fulfil our needs aren’t always easy to access. Sometimes they can be buried under history and heartache. They can also be cast out of reach by the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ that we learned long ago – the ‘rules’  that at some point became so real and so unquestionable as to almost feel a part of our DNA.

When the needs left unmet are important ones such as love, validation, respect, visibility, acknowledgement, intimacy, connection, belonging, safety, nurturance, recharge, we will struggle, sometimes deeply. From time to time we all would have struggled in some way with the fallout from unmet needs, even if just for a short while. It’s part of the human condition. 

One of the truths about being human is that sometimes despite our best efforts to meet an important need, nothing works. When this happens we have three options – and only three. We can change the environment (from one that doesn’t support the need to one that will), we can relinquish the need or we can push the need down – depress it – in an almighty attempt to remove it from our awareness. 

If it’s too important, the need won’t disappear. It can’t. If everything has been tried and nothing has worked, the learning around the need will be that nothing makes a difference. The need won’t go and its presence will be a painful reminder that something important is missing. One way to stop that need from causing pain is by burying it – quite literally, by pushing it down (‘depressing it’) as far out of awareness as possible. Anything to shut it away and stop its constant reminder that there’s a yearning there that nothing can change. I’m talking about the most important of needs – the ones that, if left unmet, have the potential to break our hearts and leave us feeling like we’ve been stripped back to bone.

Things can get dangerous when the learning that ‘nothing makes a difference’ in relation to one need becomes generalised to all needs. If the unmet need is around connection, say, the learning might start with, ‘Don’t try to connect with people – it won’t work,’ but it might end with ‘Don’t rely on the environment for anything at all – there’s no point.’ 

When looked at in the context of need fulfilment, the symptoms of depression can be understood as a way to respond to the world when it feels as though there is no alternative. They can be explained as adaptive ways to blunt the painful awareness that something too important to let go of is missing.

The Symptoms of Depression: Why They Make Sense

In a perfect world, the process of needs fulfillment would look something like this:

  1. a need arises
  2. we become aware of the need
  3. we physically prepare to do whatever is required to meet the need
  4. we take action
  5. the need is met
  6. we reach a state of balance.

That’s the perfect world version. The world we live in can be a good one, but it’s certainly not perfect. Our needs won’t always be met with the greatest precision. In fact, despite our best attempts, sometimes our needs can remain painfully and unmistakably unmet. When understood in the context of the stages of need fulfilment, the symptoms of depression start to make sense:

Stage 1: A need arises and gives clues that it’s there.

The first clues as to the existence of a need comes through the senses. This includes the physical senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) as well as what’s called proprioceptive sensations, which are thoughts and dreams. At this stage, it might be clear that a need is there, but the actual need might not be sharp enough to distinguish (for example, a growling tummy, difficulty concentrating, thinking about food).

If a person has learned through previous experience that a need (or needs) won’t be met, they may shut down to sensations that indicate the presence of a need. This might be experienced as:

•   numbness,

•   hollowness,

•   a sense of nothingness.

Stage 2: We become aware of the need.

The more we pay attention to thoughts and physical sensations, the more we become aware of the need behind them that’s pressing for fulfilment. This often happens automatically, particularly for physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, warmth. (For example, as you pay attention to your thoughts that keep wandering to food, your growling tummy and the difficulty staying focused, it becomes clear that you need something to eat.)

If the belief is that needs won’t be met, and that attempts to meet needs will end in pain and disappointment, it makes sense to continue to work towards blunting the growing awareness of the need. This may be experienced as:

•  diminished ability to think or concentrate,

•  indecisiveness,

•  impaired memory.

Stage 3: Physically gearing to meet the need.

This stage involves readying ourselves with the energy and physical resources  to meet the need. This happens automatically, but if a need has been continually unmet, the learning is that there is no point reaching into the environment in an attempt to meet the need, and that doing so will only lead to disappointment. Remember that this learning may have been established in an earlier environment (childhood, adolescence, previous relationship) or a different environment (work, school, peer group) and generalised into all environments, including the current one (relationship, family, home etc)

The energy that’s been mobilised to meet the need has to go somewhere. Energy doesn’t just disappear. The alternative to putting it into the environment is to depress it, to push it down. This will feel like a safer option than using that energy to interact with the environment for satisfaction of the need – something which, according to history, only leads to hurt or heartache.

At this stage, there are signs of depressed and disrupted energy – energy that’s been ‘depressed’ rather than extended into the environment:

•  a depressed mood;

•  insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too little or too much);

•  psychomotor agitation or retardation (movement that speeds up or slows down)

•  fatigue or loss of energy;

•  there are also likely to be ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ leftover from long ago learnings that have outlasted their usefulness and are getting in the way of need fulfilment: ‘I should just deal with it,’ ‘I should toughen up’, ‘I shouldn’t ask for help.’

Stage 4: Reaching into the environment – taking action to meet the need.

Once energy is mobilised, there’s an active reach into the environment to meet the need. Depending on the need, this might be fixing something to eat, starting a conversation, asking for help, organising a catch-up with friends. When there is a belief that nothing will make a difference and the need will not be met, people learn that approaching the environment to meet a need is a potentially empty, painful, frustrating experience. This isn’t necessarily because the immediate environment (such as family or relationship) isn’t supportive but because some aspect of the environment now or in the past has resulted in pain and disappointment. 

A decision may be made, usually out of awareness, that it is easier to avoid the environment rather than to risk the pain that comes from important needs not being met. This may be experienced as:

•  loss of  interest in almost all aspects of the environment;

•  markedly diminished interest or pleasure in things and activities that were once interesting or enjoyable;

•  withdrawal from people and relationships;

•  projecting thoughts and feelings about the self onto the environment (the person who doesn’t like themselves believes others don’t like them; the person who is angry at themselves, believes others are angry; the person who feels hopeless, believes that others see them as hopeless.)

Stage 5: Has the need been met?

No. It hasn’t. Again. Despite the best intentions to keep the need depressed, it will still press for fulfilment, disrupting the way the person interacts with the environment. The continuing failure around need fulfilment will be further proof that reaching into the environment is pointless, painful and frustrating.

The effect of this may be experienced as:

•  withdrawal from the environment (from relationships, activities).

•  thoughts or attempts at suicide – the ultimate withdrawal.

•  feelings of hopelessness (‘Nothing makes a difference.’)

•  feelings of worthlessness (‘I don’t make a difference.’)

 

But Isn’t Depression a Chemical Deficit?

Yes. Absolutely. Depression has absolutely nothing to do with character. It’s a deficiency in chemistry, not personality and the sooner the world wakes up and realises this, the sooner we can be rid of the breathtaking ignorance that has many believing otherwise. Depression can happen to anyone.

The mind and body are intimately connected. A change in one, if significant enough, can lead to a change in the other. The effect can work both ways – mind on body and body on mind. It’s true that some personality traits can create a vulnerability to depression, but those same traits make those people sensitive, capable, funny, successful and strong – so strong – the strength that’s needed to carry on the world when something important is missing is enormous.

And finally …

Depression is not a dysfunction or a deficiency in character. Rather, it can be seen as an adaptive way to respond to a world that hasn’t been able to, or allowed to, support the fulfilment of important needs. This way of responding often happens out of awareness and when there is nothing else left to try. 

If you are someone who is struggling with depression, you need to know that what you are doing makes sense. It’s not crazy or dysfunctional and in no way is it because of weakness or flawed character. Depression is hurting you, but it makes sense. There is a very good chance that it’s an intelligent, adaptive response to a world that has limited your options, or has given you reason to believe that your options are limited. Understanding where it comes from can be the first step in moving towards something better.

If you love someone with depression, it’s likely you’ll feel an exhausting degree of helplessness at some point. Despite our very best efforts, sometimes all the love in the world just isn’t enough to give those we love what they need in the way they need it. Sometimes all you can do is to be there – but don’t ever underestimate the importance of that. Depression is as hard for those in its undiscerning, perilous grip, but it’s also awful for those of us who love them. 

The more we can understand about depression, the closer we come to understanding ways to ease it and to removing the stigma that just doesn’t deserve to be there. 

 

For ways to support someone with depression, see WHAT TO SAY (AND NOT TO SAY) TO SOMEONE WHO IS DEPRESSED.

10 Comments

Sharon H

Great article succinct.

I am blessed I have an amazing loving husband. I like to track he likes to stay at home. So we split the year into travel and non travel. He likes his electronics and times on his own and I reckon that is very much fair enough.

It is also when my wheels on my bus fall off. I am a shy extrovert obviously missing some point or other about making friends. Ihave loads of people who say they are friends. I have to organise coffee outings, they never do. I do all the asking, they do all the talking. I go to activities such as walking. I will be walking along with say Lisa she chatted away about her recent holiday and someone else sidles up next thing they are yacking and I’m left out. Happens all the time,

I have tried workshops and craft things but I can’t seem to understand. Or the teacher picks me out, literally everytime, and used my piece to work on to show the class. Or belittles what I have done.

I have a sister nearly nine hours drive away. She doesn’t want me either. I drive down there at a time that suits her and something always is to busy. I wait around in parks waiting hours for her to show up. She dies, then says she is tired and sleeps for an hour or so in my rv.

So hubby and I discuss all of this, we research we try and figure it out. I be been to over 17 psychologists I don’t know what a psychiatrist does that is different but I’ve seen stew of those too.

In summary I don’t feel depressed just that it would be better for the world if I wasn’t here. Is someone gave me an exit pill I’d grab it .

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Susanne

This article mirrors my situation with long term (fairly) mild depression. It’s very validating to read something that ‘gets’ what is at the root of my depression.

While I have been medicated (20mg daily of Lexapro) for longer than I can remember, it’s never really ‘fixed’ it. If I try to wean myself off (very slowly, of course), I usually can tell the difference within a few months and find myself headed back up to the original dosage.

I know my depression is because I have unmet needs. I am a wife and mother and have always put the needs of others first . . . which they were more than happy to let me do.

Because I didn’t feel my love reciprocated (and still often don’t), I sank into depression. More than five years ago I decided to develop a backbone and started insisting more of my needs be met, and that helped a LOT.

There are still things I want and need that are out of my reach, though, so the underlying depression remains. Thankfully, it doesn’t run my life, I do. 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Susanne, Your story makes so much sense to me – and I’m sure it will to others as well. It’s so easy to lose ourselves looking after our family. Anything you can do to meet your own needs is so important, though I know that as a wife and mother than can be so hard at times. You deserve the life you want and you deserve to be the person you know you can be. I hope that in time you are able to find a way to have what you need – and deserve. In the meantime, it’s such a credit to you that you are living your life in strength and courage and doing all you can to take charge of your life. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

Reply
Paulette

I am a counsellor and of course many of my clients are depressed. I also have been depressed chronically as far back as I can remember. It is better now. I have had trials of SSRI medications over the last twenty years. I currently am taking Bupropion XL which also has an off label usefulness to people with ADD.

I am not going to fling myself out of the life boat and only some friends know that I carry a silent sadness around with me. I cover it with irony and humor or talk about it but not for long. IMO people get fed up with depressed people. In spite of the fact that we live in an addictive society and many of us are trying to plug a hole in our hearts with junk, food, drugs, alcohol, distractions, etc. A pandemic of unmet needs of the heart.

I offer compassionate listening and do not belittle their stories of struggle. And yes I suggest good self care, avoiding alcohol, and setting limits on what one will and will not do for others.

I guess what I’m saying is, in my own life experience, I carry the blues with me. And yes, counselling for me was something I have done and still do.

I’d like to believe in the new “instant trama treatments” (just went to a workshop last week in which we dutifully tapped and said “I deeply and completely accept myself as I am”.) I knew I was lying and surcoming to the expectations of the instructions to continue tapping and professed complete self acceptance. I won’t be using that technique.

Does depression just “go away”? Maybe. I’m open to that. It certainly doesn’t rule me anymore as ruthlessly as it once did. I’m 66 now and married 10 years ago to a kind man. The emotional storms of my youth are just memories.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you for sharing your story. I know that many people have certainly recovered from depression, so it’s possible. Hopefully, the more we understand about depression and the more research energy goes into it, the more we’ll understand and will be able to taylor relief to each individual person. Credit to you that you are able to keep moving forward despite it.

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Nellie

Thank you for this article, it clarifies so much of what I already know but in a very succinct way.

Sadly what it doesn’t help provide me with a solution…

I can challenge my thoughts on an intellectual basis many times per day but it never seems to actually change my core beliefs.

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Hey Sigmund

I’m sorry to here that you’re struggling like this. Depression is an awful thing to deal with. We’re understanding more about it but there is still so much we need to know. Take heart that there is a lot of research being done around it to broaden our understanding and to try to find different ways to deal with it. The article was intended to explore the idea that if there’s something that’s so resistant to change, it may be that it has a good reason for being there. It might be hurting as much as it’s protecting, but it still has a good reason, specifically to protect us from the reality that a critical need will not be met. It’s only one theory of course and it may not fit for everyone. I wish you all the very best and thank you for sharing your experience. I know there are so many people out there who would also be struggling with depression and it would make such a difference to know that they are not the only ones who feel like this, even though it can feel that we sometimes.

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Wayne Burkart

I liked your article, up until the chemical deficiency part. What next, prescribe SSRIs. Listen honey, I can provide a host of anectdotals, that aren’t supportive of such a mindset.

Its not a chemical imbalance, its a life imbalance.

My depression has more to do as a result of repeated psychological traumas of a severe nature.

I would also never recommend anyone to see a practitioner in therapy unless they have at least a masters degree, and are part of a professional college or association that acts as a certifying and disciplinary governing body.

Very rarely would I recommend anyone to go to a psychiatrist.

There is an over reliance on medications, and all too often dispensed by family doctors with less than a 10 minute discussion.

GPs should not be allowed to prescribe psychotropic meds whatsoever.

I’m 50, and have a considerable past to draw upon in this regard.

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Hey Sigmund

I agree antidepressants aren’t always the answer, though I do believe they have their place. In fact, there is growing scientific evidence pointing to the effectiveness of exercise and mindfulness in managing depression. For mild to moderate depression, there is evidence that exercise can cause the same changes in the brain as antidepressants. There is also research that has found mindfulness therapy to be as effective as maintenance doses of antidepressants in managing relapse into depression, so it seems that the scientific community is exploring options and open to the possibilities of treatments other than antidepressants as an effective way to manage depression. As I said though, I do believe antidepressants have their place and that they can be effective if prescribed appropriately but I agree that they are often wrongly prescribed and relied too heavily upon.

The mind body connection is a two way one. A life imbalance will cause a chemical imbalance. In the same way an overexposure to chemicals will cause psychological changes, repeated exposure to environmental factors will cause chemical changes. The environment has such an enormous impact on the body physically – so I completely agree with you about the role the environment plays in depression.

Thank you for taking the time to comment and to share your experience. As with all those who have real experience, you have wisdom and insight that can’t be found anywhere else.

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Wayne Burkart

I am not nearly as trusting or optimistic of the pharmaceutical community, and with good reason.

All too often a prescription is the only tool used throughout the treatment of all illnesses. Very rarely is focus put on current situation, including lifestyle habits, sleep hygiene, etc. Hard to be happy, if you are in poverty only able to eat unhealthy foods, or live in unhealthy environments.

As well despite encouragement to seek help, the stigma which is thought to be imbedded mainly in ignorance, is routinely affirmed by institutions such as your employer, the justices and law enforcement communities, insurance companies, and even border protection agencies. All too often mental illness is used against the sufferer.

So take a happy pill, and keep quiet.

We don’t need meds, we need tools, and more importantly we need to examine many of the root causes and deal with that as well.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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