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:
- a need arises
- we become aware of the need
- we physically prepare to do whatever is required to meet the need
- we take action
- the need is met
- 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:
• 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,
• 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.