Everyone has had a taste of what depression feels like. Everyone feels the blues at times. Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life. There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia – Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.
Years ago: I am walking down a Manhattan street on a grey day. I am feeling so sad; beyond somber and without any external point of reference. I looked up at the grey buildings. I suddenly have the sense that I am a building; a tower with a cracked foundation slowly falling to the pavement below.
I step into a church I don’t know. I try to pull myself together. “Please God. I need your help.” I have to be in Court shortly. I look at my watch. My suit feels tight against my skin. I struggle to make the sadness more manageable, more contained. I leave because I must, not because I feel any better; but because I am an adult and have to move through my day, no matter the volume of pain ringing in my ears.
The sadness from that day would end. I would feel better. But a pattern was developing, even then. A pattern of how I would respond to sadness in my life, both past and present.
The Struggle to Break Free
Some folks have given up hope that depression will ever leave them alone. They’re just hoping for more good days than bad. When it’s a relatively good day, when life is in flow and not stuck in the muck of melancholy, there is happiness, or perhaps, relief. The depression gods’ hurtiling thunderbolts have missed them this day. But when they’re in the thick of it, they fight their sadness. It’s as if they’re pressing on the gas trying to escape their pain while depression has its foot on the brake.
Sadness is not Depression – though they are cousins
First, let’s be clear: sadness is not depression, but it may manifest as persistent sadness that can be a symptom of clinical depression. When I developed depression ten years ago, my sadness was accompanied by lots of crying for no particular reason.
Paradoxically, Dr. O’Connor, in his book, Undoing Depression , wrote that depression is often the absence of despondency:
“We confuse depression, sadness, and grief. However, the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality – the ability to experience the full range of emotions, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.”
Maybe this is why we don’t see – we don’t see how we react to our own sadness because we’re stuck in the vortex of depression where everything, like the perimeter of a tornado, is thrown together.
This relationship between sadness is troublesome for a depressive. This is so not because there is anything wrong with sadness – it’s a normal part of the human experience and gives our lives depth and pitch. It’s the bass tone you hear when B.B. King plays the Blues. In my experience, sadness has a bittersweet quality to it. As the great novelist Herman Hesse once penned, “It was if all of the happiness, all of magic of this blissful hour had flowed together into these stirring, bittersweet tones and flown away, becoming temporary and temporary once more.”
The Brain Knows How we React to Sadness
A recent study revealed that the brain’s response to sadness can predict a relapse into depression. Faced with sadness, the relapsing patients showed more activity in a frontal region of the brain, known as the medial prefrontal gyrus. These responses were linked to higher rumination: the tendency to think obsessively about negative events. Patients who didn’t relapse showed more activity in the rear part of the brain, which is responsible for processing visual information and is linked to greater feelings of self-acceptance and non-judgment of experience.
According to Norman Farb, Ph.D., who did the study: “For a person with a history of depression, using the frontal brain’s ability to analyze and interpret sadness may actually be an unhealthy reaction that can perpetuate the chronic cycle of depression. These at-risk individuals might be better served by trying to accept and notice their feelings rather than explain and analyze them.”
We keep trying to find the source of our sadness like squinting to find the bucket that has fallen in the deep well. We circumambulate the hole, peering into the darkness, but don’t see the flashlight nearby that can help. We can’t see that our attempt to break down and explain our sadness to ourselves isn’t helping – it’s hurting us.
A New Relationship to Our Sadness
In his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer, Ph.D., writes:
“This is an opportunity to move from mental work to heart work. Self-compassion has a distinctly nonintellectual and non-effortful feel to it. If we can find ourselves in the midst of suffering and acknowledge the depth of our struggle, the heart begins to soften automatically. We stop trying to feel better and instead discover sympathy for ourselves. We stop trying to feel better and instead discover sympathy for ourselves. We start caring for ourselves because we’re suffering.”
Don’t always try to figure out your depression. Give yourself a breather from solving it, this boulder of sorrow. Instead, see that you – yes, you – are worthy of compassion from yourself because you suffer. If you don’t know how to feel this compassion for yourself, isn’t it about time to try?