Ingenious stagnation — Understanding depression

Discovering the gifts of depression

Situational depression arises when some aspect of your life is unworkable or dysfunctional; this emotion stops you for a vital reason, and there are many ways to support yourself when depression is present.

When we looked at the gifts of sadness, I wrote about what I call the fundamental correlation error that I see with many emotions — which is that people blame emotions for making them feel bad, rather than understanding that all emotions arise in response to very specific situations. Emotions don’t cause the problems; they bring you the energy and skills you need to deal with the problems!

For instance, sadness arises in response to the fact that you’re holding on to something that doesn’t work anyway. Sadness doesn’t come to steal your stuff! And sadness is different from grief, which arises when a death occurs, or when you experience an irretrievable loss. Grief doesn’t create those deaths or losses — it arises to help you mourn them.

All emotions exist to help you, each in its own way. Depression is no different.


GIFTS: The Ingenious Stop Sign of the Soul

ACTION REQUIRED: Situational depression arises when some aspect of your life is already unworkable or dysfunctional; depression stops you for a vital reason.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: Where has my energy gone? Why was it sent away?

Important note: I’m referring to situational depression as a low mood that tracks to something you can affect with changes to your lifestyle or behavior, but there are many other forms of depression – many of which require therapeutic and/or medical intervention. If your depression is cyclical, or if it doesn’t respond to healing changes you make, or if you’re feeling continually low, please see your doctor or visit the depression page to understand more about your symptoms and your options.

In The Language of Emotions, I focus on situational depression, which is the situation-related low mood most of us have experienced. It’s not a serious condition, as the more intense forms of depression are, and it usually responds to all kinds of interventions (including placebo) if you catch it early; however, if it’s left untreated, situational depression can lead to more serious depressive conditions.

Depression seems to be continually in the news, but what I don’t see in this media flurry is people asking questions about why so many of us are depressed.

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

― Debi Hope on Twitter

Debi Hope is silly and arch, but she’s got a serious point: When we’re depressed, we often turn inward and blame ourselves, but depression is not simply a low mood that arises from within. Sometimes, depression is a perfectly reasonable response to trouble in your life; depression is often an important signal about real issues that impede or disturb you. In The Language of Emotions, I call depression Ingenious Stagnation:

Situational depression is not a single emotion, but a constellation of emotions, situations, decisions, and health issues that erect what I call the “brilliant stop sign of the soul.” Depression is an ingenious (though overwhelming) condition that takes you out of commission for crucial reasons…. Depression arises in response to exterior and interior conflicts that destabilize you, and while it can be very disruptive, situational depression has a vital purpose.

Though depression can and does spin out of control and destabilize bodily systems, emotions, and cognitive functions, there is often a point at which the depression arose in a manageable way as a response to trouble or injustice that was already occurring. Treating the depression as a separate disease entity without addressing the very real situations it points to is an incomplete way to manage it – because depression is often a natural protective response to disheartening or destabilizing situations.

The practice for depression is not to launch yourself toward happiness for the sole (and ultimately joyless) sake of happiness, but to understand what has occurred – inside and outside of you – to disturb you. Your first task is not to erase your depression, but to focus upon yourself with empathy so that you can view your depression not as a negative commentary about your value as a person, but as a vital message about the specific (though often hidden) issues you face.

Depression is, as every emotion is, a message about and a reaction to things that are going on inside or around you. It’s important to pay attention to that message and deal with whatever is going on. Current research is suggesting that untreated depressions, especially major depressions (see this Mayo Clinic description of major depression), can teach your brain how to fall into depression more easily the next time. Untreated depressions can wear a path in your brain, so it’s very important to address depression with whatever therapy best suits your particular situation.

It’s also important to note that cycling angers and rages often mask an underlying depressive condition (especially in men). If you flare up with rage and righteous indignation a great deal of the time, please check in with your doctor or

While anger can feel empowering when you’re depressed, too much anger can destabilize your health and ruin your relationships, so please get yourself checked out. The fact is that we all feel depressed every now and then, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of or angry about. Help is everywhere.

So, you’re depressed. What’s next?

We all experience depression for many reasons, yet in most cases, the cures that are offered to us focus primarily on us: on our behaviors, our chemistry, or our habits of thought; but depression isn’t merely an internally-generated emotion; often, depression is a response to external trouble.

There are plenty of external situations that are in and of themselves depressing — such as conflicts, difficulties, injustice, illness, loss, and upheaval. These things should evoke some depression.

In the face of troubles, something in us should stop moving blithely forward as if nothing is happening. Something in us should drop, lose energy, and experience a sense of despair or hopelessness every now and then. To not feel depressed about deep troubles may be a sign that we’re not really paying attention.

Depression can be very troubling, it’s true, and we should be vigilant about how long we maintain a depressive mood — but depression has a very important purpose, so it’s not something that should be avoided as if it’s the plague. Depression has a purpose, which is to tell us that something is wrong. Our job is to find out what that something is.

My brain gets an A+ in depression (my form is Early-Onset Recurrent Major Depression with Dysthymia — and a side of fresh fruit!), so I keep a pretty close watch on my depressive tendencies. I’ve found that by taking an inventory of what’s going on around me, I can pretty quickly pinpoint whether my depression is situational (which means I can make lifestyle changes) or more serious (which is a sign that I need to check in with my doctors).

Notice that this inventory is not merely personal, because depression can be a natural and healthy response to a rotten external environment. It’s important to be able to understand and identify the difference between depression that is internally generated, depression that is externally generated, and depression that is a combination of both.

If you tend toward depression, this inventory (and your doctor’s guidance, of course) may be useful to you:

The Personal (Are you taking good care of yourself?)


Are you eating well, or often enough? Some depressed people become food-phobic or food-centered, and their meals aren’t regular or particularly nutritious. Low blood sugar or spikes in blood sugar from a poor or irregular diet can exacerbate a tendency toward depression.


Are you getting enough, or any? Exercise has been shown time and again to be an excellent mood elevator and a way to break a depressive cycle. This article suggests ways to exercise when you’re so low that you can’t even find the energy to get moving.


Cover for The Promise of SleepAre you getting at least seven hours of restful sleep each night? In his book The Promise of Sleep, the father of sleep research, Dr. William Dement notes that of the three: diet, exercise, and sleep, only sleep is positively correlated with increased longevity and reduced prevalence of disease. This free HelpGuide article on How to Sleep Better has many excellent tips.

Very few of us treat our sleep as the most important aspect of our healthcare efforts, yet researchers are continually confirming Dr. Dement’s advice (most recently, it was found that you should keep your bedroom as dark as you possibly can make it, because light at night is being linked to depression).

An excellent and soothing book for people with sleep problems or insomnia is W. Chris Winter’s The Sleep Solution. He combines decades of strong research with a warm and friendly tone, and he offers ideas that truly help.

The Relational (Are you surrounded by sweeties, or … ?)

Your mate or lack thereof

Is your relationship working? Do you feel loved, respected, and welcome in your relationship? If not, your depression may be trying to tell you something. Or are you alone and feeling isolated? Loneliness and a sense of disconnection can lead to depression.

Your family relationships

Is your family a healthy place to be, or is it full of unrelieved tension and unsaid words? Family conflicts can feel depressing and entrapping.

Your friends

Are your friends supportive and restful, funny and dear? Or do you have to tolerate a lot of “frenemy” conflict and turmoil from people who really don’t have your best interests at heart? This study suggests that frenemies are not just depressing, but are actually bad for your health.

Your colleagues

Is your work environment healthy and emotionally well-regulated? It has often been said that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers.” How well is your workplace managed? How are you treated? Do you look forward to getting to work each day, or do you dread it?

The Sociological (Is your social environment healthy?)

Your financial situation

Are you experiencing money worries, or are you concerned about friends and family who are? There’s a reason times like these are called “depressions.”

Your employment

Are you unemployed, or is your current employment unstable? Both can lead to depression.

The condition of your community

Are you engaged with and hopeful about the future of your community, your town, and your county? If not, social disenfranchisement can lead to depression.

Your political situation

Are you hopeful about where your town, county, state and country are headed? Do you feel comfortable with your political party and its direction? If not, political powerlessness can lead to depression (and for some people, to repetitive outbursts of frustration and rage).

Some ideas for working through depression

If you’re already exercising, eating well, sleeping well, getting treated medically for depression, and taking good care of yourself — but your situation is depressing you, it’s important to look outside yourself for support. Therapy, sure, but therapy is not the only answer.

When you’re surrounded by, well, assholes, or your financial or political situations are unsure and loaded with trouble, then your depression is probably trying to tell you that something is wrong. So how do you work through your depression when, honestly, things suck and your depression is actually the correct emotion to feel in the situation?


Distractions like games, TV, movies, texting, web surfing, sports, masturbation … all of these can give you a nice time out and, in many cases, excellent positive input and a sense of pleasure and peace. Distractions are awesome!

Keep an eye on the amount of time you spend on distractions each day, but don’t shame yourself about it; just take note. Sometimes, distractions are the only things that can keep you going when you’re surrounded by trouble.

If you notice yourself using distractions all the time, be gentle with yourself and ask if the time you’re spending on distractions is actually keeping you from dealing directly with the depressing situations in your life. Maybe this is true, but maybe your distractions are keeping you afloat because you’ve got no real power, and it’s time to move on, but you can’t just yet. Distractions can be awesome! Love them, observe them, and treat yourself well around them.


Expressing yourself artistically, or viewing the artistry and craftsmanship of others, is a special kind of healing activity. Something about writing, singing, painting, building, dancing, and creating can evoke a sense of timelessness, sacredness, and transcendence.

If you’re feeling totally awful, you can even channel those awful feelings into your art and see what your awfulness is trying to tell you. Doing art with emotions is actually the genesis of the empathic practices in my books, especially Burning Contracts and Conscious Complaining. Art can help when almost everything else fails. Art heals!


Connecting activities are especially important for people who are experiencing relational and sociological depression. Creating or joining an interest group, volunteering, caring for youth or animals, giving or receiving bodywork, having good sex … all of these can help you reconnect to the positive aspects of humanity and community.

In depression, we tend to withdraw, which can be a really good idea when our depression is a response to rotten relationships or miserable social environments. But it’s important, when you’ve identified that your depression is a response to your environment, to reach out for healthy relationships, healthy groups, and positive social engagement.

Good people, healthy groups, and hopeful civic action exist. Don’t allow your depression to color the entire world with the palette it created from your current rotten situation. Healthy community and healthy connections heal!

Sacredness and Transcendence

Depression can strip the meaning from life, and it can lead to a sense of despair and hopelessness. All of the suggestions above can address depression, but if you’ve come to a place of hopelessness, you’ll need contact with something larger, older, and deeper than yourself so that you can engage with the sacred, soul-making work of wrestling with deep questions of purpose and meaning.

For many people, sacredness and transcendence live only in the realm of religion and spirituality. But the pull toward the sacred, the transcendent, the larger purpose, the deeper meaning — these live fully in the human heart and mind. Certainly, these qualities play out majestically (or horrifically) in religious or spiritual traditions, but these traditions don’t own sacredness, nor transcendence, nor purpose, nor deep meaning. These qualities belong to humans, and each of us has full access to them.

When you’ve lost your sense of purpose and meaning, reach behind and beyond yourself — to historical thinkers, to the grandeur and mystery of nature, to great writers, artists, and poets, to philosophers and dreamers, to beauty and to intensity — and take your place as a deeply feeling person in a world of sacred, profound, absurd, and transcendent ideas and experiences.

Depression can lead you into the dark night of the soul — and art, connection, sacredness and transcendence can lead you through that night and into the dawn of new ideas, new possibilities, and a deeper understanding of human nature, conflict, beauty, injustice, trouble, love, meaning, and perhaps, even assholes.


In the next post: The gifts of happiness

22 Responses

  1. Brenda Rothman (@mamabegood)
    | Reply

    I love your description about a healthy response to depression: not launching ourselves towards happiness just for the sake of happiness. I remember someone telling me once that a little time in depression or grief was okay, but really, I was overdoing it. Ha! The time I spent in situational depression due to infertility was invaluable. It wasn’t pleasant. But it forced me to face problems and worries and fears and beliefs that were making me unhappy. A gift, indeed.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Brenda — oy, the person who gave you a timeline for your emotions, boo. Next time, tell them you’re a grief and depression expert!

      I actually call people who are in the depths of emotions “shrines.” They are a place where an emotion can come to be felt, and listened to, and made sacred. Thank you for being an emotion shrine.

  2. Mary Tracy
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    Hi Karla. Thank you so much for this, it’s incredibly useful.

    I have a question: how is “major depression” different from “situational depression”?

    I’ve been struggling with depression throughout my life and I find that the root cause is always “deep dissatisfaction with the way things are”, which, as I understand it, is what you are saying is the cause of situational depression.

    So my question would be: isn’t “major depression” caused by the same thing as “situational depression”, just over a longer period of time?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Mary, good questions. The answers are yes and no. For me, situational depression is quite distinct from major depression, though some studies suggest (as you say) that staying in situational depression for too long can lead to major depression — though for some people this doesn’t happen.

      I might suggest that a long-term situational depression might be more like dysthymia — which is a persistent low mood, almost an outlook. This is distinct from major depression, which can be a very serious condition where you really can’t pull yourself out of the darkness, and for me, when it got really intense, I’d be deeply suicidal. One of the ways that I articulate between different forms of depression in my own psyche now is to see if I feel suicidal — and then to see if I can track to anything that is actually unlivable. If I can’t find the thing, then I know that my suicidal urge is a sign that my major depressive condition is active, and that I need support from my doctors.

      One of the most helpful things that happened for me in my pathway out of severe depressive episodes was to meet a very brilliant man who was a natural optimist. I had incorrectly equated the depressive outlook with intelligence, but when I worked with this man (he was one of my sociology professors), I realized that depression and intelligence are not directly connected. This was a huge help for me, and I was soon able to reach out for support instead of always finding reasons why it was smarter to be continually depressive and see troubles everywhere.

      Now, there are some data which suggest that mild situational depression tends to give people a more accurate view of reality and their own abilities — and that an overly optimistic outlook is actually problematic because people tend not to be as aware of problems and impediments, and therefore might waste their time or undertake projects that they actually can’t manage — so my idea that depressed people are smarter than optimistic people does hold some water. But my depression was very serious, and I needed to seek treatment rather than see myself as a smartypants because I was continually low.

      Thankfully, I’m still wonderfully critical, and pretty darned accurate about reality, so I have retained the pluses of a depressive outlook without the dangers! Hah!

  3. Brenda Rothman (@mamabegood)
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    That’s the loveliest compliment ever! You are speaking to my heart with these posts, lady.

  4. Martha Carter
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    Thank you, Karla, for all of the amazingly helpful information (and cute cat pictures!) you offer freely through Facebook!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Martha!

  5. Christina
    | Reply

    Minor WHENEVER spelling correction . . .Mr. Winterburn is silly and arch, but he’s got a serous (SERIOUS) point

    (You are so brilliant and your work is SO SO needed!)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yay Christina! I thank you from the land of dysgraphia. All fixed now, and I appreciate you!

  6. Kate
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    My therapist asked me a couple weeks ago to journal on what is my depression trying to teach me and I was a bit stumped and stuck as I has never heard it framed that way before . You helped me get unstuck and gav me specific areas to look at for needs changes. I will be reading more of you work for sure! Thank you !!

    • David Hopkinson
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      I had a similar question from a therapist, When depressed, to ask myself, what’s in it for me?”

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kate, I’m glad to be of help. My depression also says, “Hey!” Emotions like to be listened to, you know?

  7. David Hopkinson
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    I totally agree with your statement “Depression can be very problematic, it’s true, and we should be vigilant about how long we maintain a depressive mood — but depression has a very important purpose, so it’s not something that should be avoided as if it’s the plague. Depression has a purpose, which is to tell us that something is wrong. Our job is to find out what that something is.” Recently in a discussion about the part in the 23 psalm where it say’s “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,..” it was pointed out that ‘we walk through’ the valley! We don’t loiter or hang around, we walk through the valleys of pains and hurts that we all have to walk through but, we keep moving!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello David, and welcome! Yes, walking through the valley is a good analogy, as long as we don’t see depression as an odious thing to be endured. It’s an important emotion with a vital message — as I say with sadness (which arises when you’re holding onto something that isn’t working) “Sadness doesn’t come to steal your stuff! It arises when something isn’t working and you’re not letting go.”

      I would say the same for depression — it doesn’t come to ruin your life; it arises when things are seriously wrong already, and it takes away your energy and drive so that you won’t continue walking forward doing the wrong thing with the wrong intention in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Thanks, depression!

  8. Jennifer Boire
    | Reply

    just want to reiterate what you say about art and creative activities. I’ve been mildly depressed, in a ‘situational depression’ I guess, and am working with a transformative art coach, who has helped trigger my young artist, the child in me that loved to do all kinds of fun creative things with her hands, oil paints, paper dolls, knitting, cork knitting, colouring, and although I don’t think of myself as an artist (despite being a writer/poet), I throw myself into my Art Journal now, knowing it’s healing energy will uplift me. works every time. Thank you for your deep insights.

  9. Claire
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    To have found this post today verifies that the universe is a very efficient and wondrous place. Although spiritually aligned ( as much as my humanness will allow!) and optimistic by nature, I, too, have experienced situational depression at a few junctures in my life without knowing its name or that it is common place. Always, it has been deep, implacable discomfort demanding a call for change. Recently, I took the initial steps in laying the foundation for new conditions, yet the uncertainty of what this will bring unsettles me. Perhaps this is where prayer, hope, and what Elizabeth Gilbert ( whose post of this discussion appears on her site) calls magical thinking are required. Reading this post makes me think the remedy for situational depression is acknowledgement, fearless action, faith, perseverance and belief in a positive outcome. I am humbled and thrilled to have found you today. Makes me feel I’ve received a direct answer to my current plight!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Welcome Claire! The wisdom of the emotions is so wondrous. I went from being battered and pelted by them in childhood to seeing them as the foundation of action, motivation, art, sacredness, wisdom, and love.

      Emotions rock!

  10. Carolyn
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    I hope you write a blog post in the future discussing loneliness a bit more. You do talk about how balancing your intelligences and elements help us to feel whole and resilient and content to be alone. I’d love to see more discussion on the points you make above in relation to this.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Carolyn,

      Good timing! We actually just had a big post about loneliness on Facebook, and there were a lot of very good answers. It’s here.

  11. Rachel
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I notice that when I get depressed my energy drops and I am aware that part of me is trying to hurt myself. Like holding someone under water. After reading your views on depression, perhaps this self harm is just misdirected blame and frustration? Anyway, it definitely makes hanging out or being depressed a very unpleasant thing and I rush out of it. Which makes sense…who wants to get beat up?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Rachel — it sounds as if shame is a part of this equation. Depression’s job is to slow you down when it’s not a good idea to move forward. It gives you time to think and realize what’s happening.

      Shame’s job is to help you live up to the moral and ethical agreements you’ve made. The work with shame is to figure out what those agreements are, and to see if they’re worth keeping. Then shame will be more comfortable and understandable, because it’s working to hold you to worthwhile and workable agreements.

      We’ve got a course on shame starting Monday, October 26th; it could be very helpful: Befriending Shame at Empathy Academy

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