Ingenious stagnation — Understanding 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.

Depression has a vital message for you

Image that reads "Your emotions don't create problems -- they arise to help you deal with problems. Learn their language and you can change the world."When we looked at the gifts of sadness, I wrote about what I call the emotional attribution mistake 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: Inward Focus ~ Stillness ~ Purposeful Inactivity ~ Reality Check ~ The Ingenious Stop Sign of the Soul

WHAT YOUR DEPRESSION DOES: Situational depression arises when some aspect of your life is already unworkable or dysfunctional; depression stops you for a vital reason.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: Stop, listen, and discover why your energy has been impeded; there are always serious situations that need your attention.

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.

Understanding Situational Depression

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 an ingenious (though sometimes 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 disruptive, situational depression has a vital purpose.

Though depression can intensify to a place where it’s not manageable, 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 situational 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.

Take care with depression

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 help is everywhere.

So, you’re depressed. What’s next?

Photo of bright yellow water lilies in a peaceful pondWe 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 (or being surrounded by assholes). These things should evoke some depression.

In the face of troubles, something in us should stop moving blithely forward as if nothing is happening.

In my post Taking a Depression Inventory, you can walk through your life to find out why your energy is being sent away, and what your depression may be pointing to.

Related post: Taking a Depression Inventory


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
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      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
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      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
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      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
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    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
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    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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