Working through depression

See Ingenious Stagnation: Understanding Depression for specific help with depression.

When suicides are in the news, people tend to talk more about depression. Medical and psychological researchers (and news outlets) focus a great deal of attention on depression, and it seems that every week brings a new story about what does and doesn’t work for depression.

It’s vital to understand the difference between the emotion of depression and more serious or long-lasting depressive conditions.

This is great; it’s a positive movement that is helping to make depression more of an everyday topic (instead of a hidden shame). However, many media figures don’t understand depression very well, and many lump all depression into one category, as if mild depression and bipolar depression are similar things.

Or as if major depression can be treated in the same way atypical depression or postpartum depression should be. Each form of depression needs to be treated uniquely.

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 disabling state, as the more serious forms of depression can be, and it usually responds to intervention (including placebo) if you catch it early; however, if left untreated, situational depression can lead to more serious depressive disorders.

If you’d like to learn more about situational depression and how it’s different from sadness and grief, this post will help: Ingenious Stagnation: Understanding Depression

The excellent Helpguide.org depression page can also help you understand more about your symptoms and your options.

When you’re feeling depressed, there are many things you can do and many forms of help that are available. Reach out!

We need your voice, your presence, your heart, and you.

38 Responses

  1. Joan
    | Reply

    Your articles are priceless. I especially appreciated this one because it describes how I traverse those difficult times. Currently, at a comfortable place, I can see how your ideas all worked to get me here. Your summary is most profound, left me with a big grin. Thanks again.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks so much, Joan. As a professional artist, you’ve got a leg up in the self-care and creating-sacredness department!

      Here’s a post by mythologist Michael Meade, who always seems to be able to bring sacredness and transcendence to even the most rotten situations. The Hidden Hope of the World.

  2. Emily
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    I love how you address all the aspects of depression and all the possible causes because through my own experience depression can be related to any number of things and perhaps all of the reasons that you listed. For a long time, I struggled with depression, and I thought my mother would understand because she struggles with it herself. I soon learned that, because I did not come from a bad family life or have any traumatic experiences (like she did), she did not understand why I would have depression.

    Thank you for the thouroughness of this article. I especially enjoyed all your suggestions for treating depression. Good stuff!

  3. Katrina
    | Reply

    I have been reading the book “Acedia and Me” by Kathleen Norris over the course of the last several weeks. I found Norris’ description of acedia — as something often labeled nowadays as depression but, as she notes, actually very different from depression — fascinating. There is one person I know of in particular who has been diagnosed with depression — but after reading Norris’ book, I’d say that acedia more accurately describes his state of being.

    Intriguing.

  4. Jen
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    This is awesome, and brought me comfort, and sort of validated some things I’m going through, and some thoughts I have been having about my own depression. I realized recently that it’s not so much that I have given up on life- I have had to just pause everything, even some contact with certain people, so that I can come out of this stronger, and hopefully cultivate some healthier relationships. It has been necessary for me to be very protective of myself- it feels like a survival thing. I just wanted to say thank you so much for posting this.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Jen — I’m glad this is useful to you. But also, are you getting any good medical or counseling support? Please remember that depression isn’t a character flaw; in some cases it’s a disease, and a treatable one at that. Take care!

  5. Jen
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    Yes, I see a therapist, as well as a psychiatrist who is treating me with thyroid medication. I had wanted to mention in my previous comment that I do suffer from low thyroid. I wanted to mention that because some people who may have ‘treatment resistant’ depression might want to get tested for hypothyroidism.

    I tried to deal with this on my own, and could not. I hope that anyone who is suffering will seek out help also.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Jen, awesome! I am also being treated for depression with Cytomel (I was finally diagnosed with autoimmune hypothyroiditis a few years ago). Getting my thyroid right has been a life saver — literally. And you know what else? It has helped me become less hypersensitive emotionally. Two for one!

      I just took a person who is suffering from refractory atypical depression to my endocrinologist at UCSF. The thyroid is a huge culprit, but you sort of have to find this out through sheer luck. I’m glad you did!

  6. Jen
    | Reply

    Oops, and, to add: Thanks for your response & happy holidays! I’m following you now on Twitter, and look forward to reading through your other posts 🙂

  7. Jen
    | Reply

    Karla, that makes me happy to hear- that someone else is being helped from Cytomel! You just gave me so much hope, since I only just began taking it a few weeks ago! I’m so happy you have found relief.

  8. Joan
    | Reply

    Funny thing… I just reread this on FB and saw it as “Walking through Depression”. Kind of telling, isn’t it. Because of you I do walk through depression and other emotions. Like a walk through the forest…. , “Look there, isn’t that interesting the way I reacted, I wonder why I said that, Today I see that tree differently, it’s growling at me, yesterday it was smiling. or That sky has been great to me, maybe today it’s just having a bad day, I won’t rely on it.” You know what I mean … it’s not work anymore, it’s a walk through the park. (most of the time)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Joan, what a wonderful way to look at it. Thank you for saying that!

  9. Nancy
    | Reply

    What an EXCELLENT article!!! I really appreciate the way you can share insights that don’t come from textbooks or pharmaceutical pamphlets!!, but from experience and from the heart. I’ve blamed myself for feeling the despair, but see that some of the external situations that were going on in my life would make almost anyone else fall into a pit as well. Somehow, there is a comfort in realizing that – and I can just shine more empathy on my own heart. Great stuff, Karla – thank you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Nancy!

  10. Simon
    | Reply

    Great article!

    I’m glad you included masturbation as healthy entertainment. That made my day.

    Thank you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yay masturbation!

  11. Alicia
    | Reply

    All EXCELLENT information and advice – I learned most of it the hard way myself, so hopefully this blog will reach a lot of people! It would be great to see what you have to say, Karla, about when depression and anxiety are linked or combine to make one feel “crazy” – that’s been my most recent challenge. Meds help, sleep, exercise, diet, of course, but when working through these issues I find myself in a chicken and egg type situation: which came first and what caused it?
    Love EVERYTHING you’ve written that I’ve read so far, BTW! Your book could have saved me LOTS of money on therapy had it been around 20 years ago!! Thank you SO much!!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hoowhee Alicia, I also wish this information had been around 20 years ago! Wouldn’t it be great to get into a time machine and deliver this knowledge to the person you were?

      Here’s my hope that young people struggling with depression can use this hard-won information, address their depression in a way that works, and go forward to create wonderful lives for themselves. Yes!

  12. Bill
    | Reply

    Hi Karla
    Checking in – I would love to hear your thoughts on loneliness – unpacking it. What is the feeling loneliness? Have you written about it?

    I can “feel alone” while I’m in a crowded room, or if I’m physically by myself. So it must not be about being physically with or without people. I wonder if when I’m feeling alone, what I’m really feeling is sadness, maybe mixed with shame. Perhaps I’m feeling feeling disconnect or not fully present here and now. I’ve realized I’ve been dealing with that energy of loneliness and I choose to know what that is. And what message it is conveying to me.

    Mucho thanks! I’ve had many conversations with friends/my lover recently about what you have shared. Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned. 🙂
    Best
    Bill

  13. Tyler
    | Reply

    Huh. . . .yes all those things. I guess it is one of those feelings that other feelings sit underneath of. For me, reading this, loneliness is also about fear- living alone as I do now, I wake up and fear that I have suddenly grown old(i’m in my thirties!) and my life is over. Perhaps thats the “forever feeling” aspect of loneliness talking- it seems to contain an awful lot of things-
    anyway this is a very helpful starting point for me, too, thank you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Tyler, for what you’ve added. I wonder, too, if there’s some depression in loneliness — which would make sense, because feeling alone and not liking it (we’ve all had times when we were happy to be alone, but that’s not loneliness) would be one of those situations that doesn’t work for us. The ingenious stagnation of depression might step in to say, “Hey, this isn’t workable.” The problem, of course, is that it’s so much harder to get out and meet people when you’re depressed. Sometimes, emotions can go on a bit of a bender and get in the way. Go home, depression, you’re drunk!

  14. Tyler
    | Reply

    Ha ha ha. .. . .I like how you talk to depression. Loneliness then as sadness(or grief), shame, and some depression. And as a separation from its cause. The word “loneliness” is actually a sentence- “being alone AND not liking it”- a process. This is super helpful for me, thank you. And its an awesome book you’ve written, too. It contains the most constructive, insightful thinking I’ve ever found about dealing with empathy and emotions on an inner level. Thanks again!

  15. Bill
    | Reply

    Thanks, Karla and Tyler. I appreciate what you wrote.

    Yes, “being alone and not liking it” and perhaps thinking “and this is how it will always be.” So, to listen to my loneliness energy – perhaps I can ask it what message it has for me.

    Perhaps loneliness’s message is: “Go out and love. Connect with someone you love.”

  16. Megan
    | Reply

    Your article was by far one of the best and most helpful I’ve read on this topic! You reminded me of my love of art and how expressing myself is a manner in which I cope with my depression! My goal for this week: dive in to an art project!!
    Thanks!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Welcome Megan – and hooray for your art!

  17. Bill
    | Reply

    Thanks for this, Karla. The recent comments brought me to this page, and I re-read this. Very timely for me, only recently coming to terms with recent feelings of depression. Recognizing now it’s time I get support.

  18. Karla McLaren
    | Reply

    Hello Bill! I too have had to get some support this year; thank goodness there are workable and accessible solutions for depression, whew.

  19. Keith Bramstedt
    | Reply

    Karla
    In “Emotional Genius” you say depression has a “protective” function. How do you mean?
    My only idea of what depression protects me from is from an emotionally regressed culture.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Keith. Depression stops you for a reason, and sometimes, that reason is that you are surrounded by people who aren’t supportive of you or compatible with you.

      The practice then, if the depression isn’t too intense, is to dream your way into a social milieu that does support you. Or if you’re in a really low mood, you write down the odious qualities of everybody around you, and then find the opposite so that you know the kind of people you want to be around.

      If the depression is very intense, don’t try to tough your way through. Reach out for help.

      • Keith Bramstedt
        | Reply

        Karla
        Thanks for responding.
        In “Emotional Genius” you also warned against the type of meditation where one sits completely still and quiets the mind, “fire only” meditation I think you called it. Today I saw an article on line from the Daily Mail in the UK in which research has showed that meditation can have side effects like depression and psychosis.
        I am interested in starting meditation but am leery of the above type of meditation now. What kinds of meditation do you recommend? You mentioned in the book doing meditation that involves at least two elements (water, air, etc).
        Thanks, Keith

  20. Max
    | Reply

    Hello Karla all anything feels like anymore is self-medicating to repressed emotional pain and emptiness and my soul is sucked out of me. I feel unable to concentrate or even daydream anymore what do you recommend I do?

    -Thanks, Max

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Max; you’re not alone. This is a time to reach out to friends, family, your doctor, or other supportive people. Depression such as you’re experiencing can get itself into a feedback loop, and it can make it hard to function on your own.

      Don’t tough it out. Depression isn’t a character flaw. It’s a serious situation that requires care and support when it becomes this intense.

      This piece on HelpGuide.org may be supportive for you: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/dealing-with-depression.htm

      If it’s not clear in this post, I keep a very close eye on my Major Depression, and I know now when I need to get to my doctor, stat. I work with my depression, study it, and live pretty darned well with it now. It doesn’t have to be a life sentence.

      Take care,
      Karla

  21. Vicki
    | Reply

    Karla, so many spiritual teachers teach that suffering is independent of life circumstances, that depression is completely a result of your thinking i.e. when your mind is quiet and you are connected to conscious awareness, depression melts away and leaves you with merely situations without any emotional valence. Problem is, what if you feel trapped in a life you don’t want, are financially unable to leave and feel unfulfilled and alone? Is it a case of OK so your life sucks but you don’t have to suffer over it? I seems like gross spiriual bypassing to call depression a purely inside job. Surely we must take care of our human needs as well as our spiritual nature? Sorry for the long question, but I’ve been struggling with it for a long while. Thankyou!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Vicki, and welcome!

      I grew up in the metaphysical/spiritual community, and my mother was a yoga teacher. I saw firsthand that these ideas about emotions don’t work in the long run. They also don’t work in situations where a person was traumatized, and needs their intense emotions to arise so that they can heal.

      Emotions are treated as problems to be gotten rid of in most spiritual and religious traditions. For instance, I think that 5 of the 7 deadly sins in the Christian tradition are emotions! Normal human emotions. The only emotion-honoring spiritual or religious tradition that I found is Taoism, which treats emotions as aspects of intelligence. Or perhaps Sufism, because the great Sufi poet Rumi was an emotional genius. However, I don’t know enough about Sufism to say for sure. Rumi may just have been a special person.

      Teaching people to calm their bodies with meditation and mindfulness, and teaching people to observe their emotions is a really good idea. But the idea that emotions should fade away once you do that, and that you’ll be emotionless, isn’t correct.

      Emotions are now understood to be a basic function of cognition — not the opposite of rationality, but the foundational underpinning of rationality and consciousness. Without emotions, we can’t make sense of the world, we can’t attach value to incoming data, we can’t make decisions, and we can’t relate to others or to the world. Emotions are crucial for everything we do.

      Many spiritual and religious traditions are decades or centuries behind the times in regard to their understanding of emotions. Some forms of prayer, meditation, and mindfulness can support people in their emotional lives, but if the tradition treats emotions as problems, it can’t help people learn how to understand or work with them skillfully.

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