Let’s talk about depression. Did you ever notice how a loss like a divorce can be a catalyst for one person to be devastated, while for another person it can lead to a new, better life? Hell, it can even be both of those things for the same person! What’s up with that?! It’s because a depressed mood and the symptoms of depression stem from your beliefs about yourself, your goals, and your appraisal of what a situation ultimately means.
Clinically there are several types of depression, but it helps to simplify to the two “biggies” of feeling small, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), and Persistent Depressive Disorder, which is basically a less intense but much longer lasting version of MDD. With that in mind, here is basically the DSM-5 list of depression symptoms: At least 2 weeks with either depressed mood or loss of interest in or pleasure from nearly all activities plus 4 of the following:
- Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless most of the day, nearly every day, from your own point of view or as observed by others;
- Gaining or losing more than 5% of your body weight in a month without dieting, or having a decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day;
- Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day;
- Others see you as being restless or slowed down, every day;
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day;
- Feeling worthless or inappropriately guilty nearly every day – not just feeling guilty or being upset with yourself, but much stronger feelings, even up to delusions about your worthlessness;
- Not being able to think or concentrate, or being indecisive nearly every day – either in your own opinion or as observed by others;
- Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrently imagining suicide without a plan, or developing a plan for suicide, or attempting suicide…
Often definitions aren’t enough to help you understand enough to answer the question “Do I have depression?” So please see a mental health professional if you think you may be depressed. But in the meantime, we can dive a little deeper.
Above I described depression as an appraisal; it’s a negative judgment about a situation that leads to some dour consequences. Losses often make us feel sad, that’s natural. But how we feel about what the loss means about us and for us will determine if we get depressed. One of my heroes in psychology, Alfred Adler, described it as when you “act, think, and feel in such a way as if the horrible fate you have conjured up had already befallen you and was inevitable.”
In depression, you don’t just get sad from losing your partner, you appraise that it was some deep flaw(s) of yours that led them away, and that since those flaws are fundamental to you, you’ve made it so that you are going to die alone. Of course, that’s not an accurate appraisal, but another brilliant mind in the history of psychology, Richard Lazarus, tells us that there’s good evidence that the following people are more likely to make these dour appraisals:
1) people who feel they don’t have control over the bad (or good) outcomes in their life; 2) people who think outside influences are more powerful than their own efforts; 3) self-blamers. If you see these tendencies in you, get ready to fight back!
Lazarus says the key is to realize there is a huge difference between realizing you are helpless to fix or restore a loss, and deciding things are hopeless for you because of the loss. You must truly accept your loss and learn to see it as part of the past. It’s painful to give up on our commitments, especially the ones we come to feel define us. But it’s a little easier to choose to see that even a great loss doesn’t have to be one that destroys the meaning in your life. In addition to scientific evidence, I’ll bet you can see that even among the people you know who have experienced major losses, those who have more commitments in their lives outside the one they lost get sad, but are less likely to become depressed.
In sum, depression means deciding, consciously or unconsciously, that you cannot resign yourself to a specific loss, and that you are choosing not to pay attention to the fact that you have many other valuable commitments that define you. Getting out of depression is about consciously accepting that you cannot repair your loss, and that you do have other valuable commitments, or that you can create them if you choose. Loss isn’t a walk in the park, but it doesn’t have to be a trudge in the mud. Your beliefs about yourself and your goals are the deciding factors.