13 Ways of Defining Depression

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With all the conflict about defining depression, it’s not surprising if you’re confused about what it is, where it comes from and how best to treat it. There may not be much disagreement or confusion about what it does to you. But there is a difference of opinion about whether those impacts are a good or bad influence in your life.

You may not worry about definitions at all but simply be content to have a name for what you’re living through. Life isn’t collapsing around you because of anything you’ve done. Your experience is shared by millions, and now you know what it’s called.

At last, you begin to believe that you can deal with it. Who cares about causes and theories? Leave all that to doctors and take the treatment they recommend.

There will be Choices

You should be aware, however, that in doing this you’re making one choice among many possibilities. You’re adopting a definition of depression that can not only set the course of treatment but also the way you think about yourself and, perhaps, your future.

Depression has a way of recurring with increasing likelihood after each bout you come through. If you live with it for many years, you may change your view of the condition several times.

You may come to think of it as permanent, something you’ll have to adapt to and live with forever. You may even change your response to depression so completely that you stop trying to get rid of it and embrace it as a positive dimension of life.

I’ve been through so many phases of trying to understand depression that I thought it would be helpful to start writing them all down. Looking at depression from a dozen angles – or 13 or whatever the number – has turned out to be another aid in my recovery.

This exercise is one of many that has helped me keep a distance from the illness. It reminds me that depression is a thing, whatever its nature might be. It’s like a spell of bad weather that I have to live through. However I might define depression, it doesn’t define me.

13 Views of Depression

  1. Disease: When I first heard about neurotransmitters and the idea that depression was a brain disease, I took comfort in accepting my condition as a chronic illness like diabetes. No wonder I couldn’t fix it on my own. The whole thing is a matter of biological mix-ups, and medications would correct the problem. I didn’t have to feel ashamed of who I was or doomed because I so often succumbed to depression. There was hope for the future.

  2. Condition: After a while, especially as I failed to get much help from medication, I became disillusioned with the idea that depression was all about neurochemical processes in my brain. I came to think of depression as a condition rather than an illness like diabetes. It was always there in the background of my life, ready to come out of hiding and grab me every so often. I just had to accept it and adapt as well I could.

  3. Disability: As depression gradually ate away at my ability to work effectively, I considered another view of the illness – as a disability. I learned that I had a right to ask for an accommodation in handling my work. I negotiated a new schedule with my employer but could never bring myself to get a ruling that would formally label me as disabled. I couldn’t see myself in those terms. For a lot of people, it’s a lifesaver, but I felt it would bury me deeper in a life dominated by depression.

  4. Spiritual Crisis: There were times when I looked at depression as a step toward spiritual enlightenment of some kind. It was the resistance and despair that had to be lived through to achieve a deeper awakening of soul. I was looking for a sense of connection to life in a larger sense, a profoundly peaceful union with a universal presence. These were powerful experiences, but depression turned out to be a trap rather than a step toward enlightenment. Whatever spiritual life I had disintegrated when severe depression took hold.

  5. Normal: For a while, I wondered if depression could be a mood and state of mind on the downside of normal. Had a life experience been medicalized by psychiatry’s diagnostic categories and the pharmaceutical companies? A lot of people believe this to be so, but I’ve never been able to put severe and recurrent depression into that category. Perhaps psychiatry had gone overboard with the milder forms of depression, but there was no way I could imagine what I went through as anything like “normal.”

  6. Weakness: Despite all I learned over the years about depression, it was hard to avoid the inner belief that it was all a problem of will. There was a false echo in my mind each time I talked about the illness. Wasn’t I just making this up, trying to hide from life? It was the classic mindset of seeing a stain (that’s what stigma means) in my character, worsening the contempt and self-hatred that depression brings. When you feel worthless through depression anyway, it’s easy to buy into the stigma and prejudice that so many non-depressed people have.

  7. Behavioral Problem:> I’ve spent a long time looking at depression strictly as a here and now problem. It’s about what I do every day and how I do it. This gives me something concrete to work with. I can track what I do and spot the triggers that send me into a downward spiral. I can look back at what I did in those moments and see what came out of each one. Then I can recognize the moments when I need to stop myself before doing something that will only worsen depression.

  8. Personality: At times, I’ve believed that I had a depressive personality, streaked through with behaviors and attitudes that put me on the downside of every day. Personality doesn’t change very easily, but I worked a lot with psychoanalytic therapists to do just that. One psychiatrist brought out a problem with this approach. Entering and untangling the past can only help after you’ve shaken up your awareness of what you’re doing in the present and found possibilities of future change. Without a future, the past can too easily look like an endless replay of problems that will never stop.

  9. Family Inheritance: I’ve thought of myself as the offspring of depression through my mother and generations of her family history. It wasn’t just a genetic inheritance but a way of living that was an open invitation to join the party. It was the only sort of party I never missed.

  10. Trauma: The more I learned about the varieties of trauma, the more I realized how powerful an influence it had been in my life. It wasn’t a matter of extreme forms of abuse but the subtler ones of emotional absence, belittling comparisons and icy responses, repeated in patterns year after year. Depression became the typical response, a way of filling in the blanks of emotional life.

  11. Cognitive Problem: It was another revelation to find how active a partner my way of thinking was in locking me into depression. My mind had always been my greatest asset in navigating life, but now I found it to be the prime suspect in my own unraveling. My way of interpreting things skewed them into dangerous shapes. I turned my life into a mindscape of depression that stretched endlessly in all directions.

  12. Creativity: Depression was so deeply marbled into my nature that it seemed at times to be essential to the creative work I was doing through writing. I resisted medication for a while partly because I was afraid I’d lose the edge, the pain I considered necessary to the creative process. The facts didn’t support this belief. I couldn’t think straight let alone get creative while depressed, but that didn’t change my view for a long time. Inspiration and depression seemed inseparable.

  13. Life Advantage: Most recently, I’ve come to look at depression through the eyes of Thomas Moore and Tom Wooton. They both see the condition as an experience to be embraced as thoroughly as any other rather than eradicated. Despite its obvious pain – or perhaps because of that pain – your life can be enriched by accepting another side of the fullness of living. Given all the losses I’ve put up with because of depression, I can’t go as far as they do in embracing the condition as a positive. But I’ve learned a lot from the idea that you can expand your awareness and comfort zone, as Wooton puts it, to include even so difficult an experience as depression.

I keep finding new ways of looking at depression, and each view reveals its own surprises. Whatever misery it has caused, living with it seems to pry open one part of my life after another. Each view of depression is another way of looking at myself and understanding a little more of what being alive is all about.

Have you cycled through many ideas about your depression? Is there one view that holds true more than others? Or do you think of depression as combining all these dimensions?

24 Responses to “13 Ways of Defining Depression”

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  1. Lucie says:

    I found this page that explains anxiety and depression quite well actually.
    Not as well as this, but its worth a read.
    https://nakedliteral.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/the-stigma/

  2. my work considered it a disability
    in the beginning i though it was a weakness
    today i think it is creativity
    and also “self awareness” – through depression i’ve come to know myself more and more, who i am, what i want to do, what i love, my strengths, my areas of improvement, the imbalances in my life
    i thank depression
    i see depression as a Gift
    Noch Noch

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Noch Noch –

      Thanks for this comment. It’s strange how a serious illness can push you to see so much more in life than you had before. That’s definitely been the case for me.

      By the way, you’ve written this like verse – it has the beautiful rhythm and eloquent simplicity of a good poem.

      John

  3. WillSpirit says:

    Hi John–

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful response.

    In truth, I feel badly about that comment, which is why I’m adding another. Although I stand by most of my previous points, they were hastily constructed and do not come across in a compassionate way. They sound too focused on criticism. It is true that some of the ‘definitions’ sound like value judgments to me, but your post is thoughtful and the breakdown quite useful. I must have been in an irritable mood to have written with so little attention to the obvious value of your essay.

    Yes, ACT has helped me tremendously, but I wouldn’t say that it is the only method that gets my stamp of approval. Over the years (I saw my first therapist at age sixteen, and I’m fifty-three now) I’ve tried everything that came my way, much like you describe. Years and years of insight-oriented therapy, Jungian therapy, CBT, DBT, a boat-load of medications, at least four different spiritual paths, countless self-help books, etc. I worked on exercise, diet, supplements, meditation, light therapy, increased socialization, volunteering in mental health settings, and so on. It all helped, but nothing felt decisive or kept me permanently ‘better.’

    The difference with ACT is that it has taught me not to care about my mood state so much. Just the mere process of letting go my obsession with my depression has freed me from much of it. I still feel down sometimes, but I’m more able to think: “Oh, look at that, I’m feeling depressed again” rather than: “OMG, I’m losing it!”

    I’ve even moved beyond Tom Wootton’s “Depression is Beautiful” stance, because (for me, right now) that gives the condition too much emphasis. I’m starting to see my mood as irrelevant; interesting, sometimes poignant, sometimes painful, but not particularly important to my day-to-day life. It no longer interferes with my activities. In fact, I your description of how depression feels to you now sounds like something I can imagine having written myself; in particular: “Perhaps because I have become more detached in this way, I’m more focused now on the spiritual dimensions of the experience and the approaches based on acceptance rather than avoidance.”

    In my case, much of this acceptance comes from ACT, but it’s also been supported by my previous years of Buddhist meditation. I don’t go to Buddhist Sanghas so much anymore, but they taught me to take the ‘observer’ stance which is one of the pillars of ACT: to separate the Self (capital ‘S’) from mental processes.

    Anyway, I think the reason my post came across so harshly is exactly that I’ve learned to defocus my attention from depression. The thirteen definitions seemed to be giving it too much attention. But I forgot that what’s true for me, where I am now, is not true for everyone. Other people are in different places, prefer different strategies, etc. If I could have edited my comment I’d have made this larger picture more clear.

    But one of the things I’ve learned over the years is to correct my mistakes. Alcoholics Anonymous is big on that, but I suppose it’s just part of being an adult.

    You left a very nice comment on my site not long ago, and I’m sorry that my next remark on yours sounded so critical. You have a terrific blog that obviously helps a great many people. I admire how write with such honesty about your long and ‘storied’ history of working through depression. And although my last comment didn’t make it clear, your thirteen definitions helped me look at the ways I’ve categorized the condition over the years.

    Warmly,

    –Will

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Will –

      I appreciate your comment, but please don’t feel I thought you unfairly critical. I always learn a lot from your ideas and honest stories about all you’ve been through with depression – not to mention your recent illness. And I often drill more deeply into intellectual distinctions before I feel ready to do something. A legacy of perfectionism and avoidance.

      Thank you for describing the way ACT has helped you. I agree that we seem to have gotten to a similar place with depression. The feelings, the thought patterns and the rest come and go. It’s amazing how fine it feels to let them happen and just as amazing how bad it feels to catch and stop them from moving on.

      I look forward to talking with you more after I’ve gotten farther along in understanding and applying ACT.

      John

  4. MJ says:

    Wow – I came over from Lawyers With Depression (yes I am, yes I do) and this is a great post. It and the comments have helped me think over progress I’ve made, progress I still could make, and the value (for me) of compassionately recognizing the family component and then getting on with things.

    I have a Zen practice and am trying to embrace my frequent low mood and regular bouts of despair as a way to practice compassion to myself and others, and detach from my thoughts so I can get on with life. It has helped, but I still have a ways to go. Waking up in the gloom at 3 am is no fun, even if you can do your gratitude practice and come back to center before 5 or 6 am.

    The family component is such a hard one. I used to see myself as the disappointment – a worrier (such a fearful, worried child from the get-go) and sad girl who should have been gloriously happy with my wondefulness all the time (so they said). Then I learned to recognize the deep depression in parents and the dominating grandparent, and their alcoholism and emotional overeating, and that it just felt better to them for someone else to blame me as the “sole” depressive in the family when I should focus instead on reflecting more glory back onto all of them.

    Sadly, I’m in my 40s, parents in their 70s, and we still cannot acknowledge their (and their parents’) crushing depression and hopelessness and the self-medicating drinking. Bringing it up just creates a storm of crying, screaming and accusations (I’m always the troublemaker, everyone else is perfect etc.). I can get beyond much of this in my life with honest recognition of the issues, but I can see that the generations above me can’t, didn’t, won’t. Oh well.

    I had a cousin kill himself when we were in our teens. I don’t know what his issues were, and because the party line is that we are all perfect (except for me), he’s never discussed – he was imperfect, and apparently an embarassment to be disregarded. I wonder now if he was depressed and could have survived with intelligent help. Was he ignored by a parent absorbed in his/her self and drinking habit instead? He gets my compassion now too.

  5. Bruce says:

    John,

    This is a very insightful post. Depression is truly like the six blind men and the elephant fable, each one sure that his definition is correct.

    It helps me to think of my recurrent depression as a predisposition due to early life trauma. When I say early, I mean early – in the womb and in infancy. A nervous, smoking mother during my gestation and poor attachment in the earliest months of life were sufficient to create a depressive imprint, a style of responding to later life stress. Affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and psychiatrist Douglas Watt have characterized depression as an evolutionary preserved mechanism to turn off intolerable separation distress. [1] In other words, it has a biological use in early life in that it saves the baby from stress that could otherwise be fatal. That imprint is encoded deep within the limbic system and becomes activated in later life. There is growing evidence to show that the imprint is encoded through epigenetic modification. [2]

    So in that sense, depression is a condition or a “potentiality” that can be triggered when stress gets the better of you. Then it can become like a disease, especially when severe, prolonged, or intractable. It can advance into a disability or a chronic cognitive problem because the imprint distorts your thinking. But dealt with appropriately through medication, psychotherapy, and the wide range of non-drug treatments, the potential towards depression has another dimension. Because depression involves feelings (and can only be resolved by deeply examining your feelings), it can lead to a life with more creativity, spirituality, or empathy towards others. But these are the fruits of recovery rather than depression itself, which is always destructive. It sure is for me which is why I don’t let it get the best of me.

    There is one category you left out: “appropriate” — as in appropriate response to a disturbed and unfair social environment such as the one we see in the world today. As Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Erich Fromm considered our culture to be insane, and said “it is the fully sane person who feels isolated in the insane society.” There is more truth in that than commonly accepted. But at bottom, the depressive response has its roots in the imprint stamped into our system in early life.

    Bruce Wilson

    1. Watt D. Panksepp J. Depression: An Evolutionarily Conserved Mechanism to Terminate Separation Distress? A Review of Aminergic, Peptidergic, and Neural Network Perspectives. Neuropsychoanalysis 2009;11(1):7-51.

    2. Schroeder M, et al. The epigenetic code in depression: implications for treatment. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2012;91(2):310-4.

  6. Jaliya says:

    I suppose it all begins with our own ‘version’ (experience) of depression — is it major? Dysrhythmic? Situational? Accompanied by some other difficult condition or illness? It does help to consider all the possibilities that we become aware of … and in some ways, given the ‘sources’ that ‘blend and intemix’ (as WillSpirit has written), it’s never a done deal, because change is always occurring …

    In my situation, depression is not a passing thing. It’s been a lifelong aspect of my makeup. It’s much more than a transient mood … much more than passing ‘weather.’ I could say that it’s part of my internal, intrinsic ‘climate’ … It does arise, and dissipate, and there is a foundation of larger design as well. Perhaps there’s ‘capital-D Depression’ and ‘small-d depression’ …

    I’ve become most concerned, lately, with how this lifelong challenge may have contributed to an autoimmune illness that was diagnosed in my blood last summer. It’s been said that history is the gradual instant … Nothing appears out of a vacuum; all things that develop come to form over a period of time, becoming more apparent …

    I do know one thing: As long as we continue to consider major depression as simply a ‘mental illness’, we won’t evolve our thinking about it, or how we treat it. Any condition that lasts over a long haul will influence and effect function across a wide variety of systems and organs. Nothing occurs in isolation.

    All the possibilities that you’ve written of, John, have made sense to me at one time or another. Whatever the difficulty is, it affects a whole person.

    Simple, consistent acts and mindful changes made from day to day … sometimes moment to moment … These are the things that work best for me. Since I now live with physically verifiable illness as well as the more nebulously named ‘mental illnesses’ (major depression and CPTSD), I begin my work with the basics: air, water, food, warmth, a balance between movement and rest, wakefulness and sleep; mindful movement, housework, and thinking … and loving relation above all.

    A condition that we all live in, that isn’t often considered or discussed in relation to depression, is the larger social/cultural context in which we live. Major depression may occur within a particular person — but the person lives within situations that can augment the illness (and I do believe that major depression is an illness) or ameliorate it. We can’t discount the larger picture.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Jaliya –

      There seems to be more and more evidence of the connection between the immune system, inflammation and depression. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your illness was part of the overall condition you’ve lived with. In some ways, it seems we are so arbitrary in cutting ourselves up into separately identifiable states of being, as if everything going on in us weren’t related in some way to everything else – especially through the intricacies of the nervous system. The distinction between mental and physical illness is fast disappearing as we probe more deeply into these things. I think you’re right also about depression being related to the larger context we live in. Everything we do and think is so deeply rooted in the culture and communities we grow into. I have a draft post on this connection that I’ve never quite finished, but you remind me to get back to it. Writing is the best way for me to explore and learn about almost anything in my life.

      Thanks for sharing your insights once again.

      John

  7. WillSpirit says:

    Your thirteen takes on depression don’t sound as much like definitions as judgments. In what you’ve written the mood state is assumed to be well-understood experientially, but its meaning and value are questioned.

    To debate whether depression is a personal advantage, or spiritually enriching, or character weakness (etc) has almost no bearing on the basic feelings one endures, though it heavily influences our thinking about ourselves and our problems. In other words, it’s not primarily therapeutic. It’s a common practice both inside out outside mental health clinics, but it does little to assist those of us learning to live as people who get depressed.

    To me, the 13 categories sound mutually compatible. A weakness can be a spiritual asset.A behavioral problem can be so widespread as to be normal. A disability can even be a personal advantage. Categorizing depression like this develops semantic distinctions, but not healing practices.

    One of the biggest problems during depression is our tendency to want to figure it out, to judge it, to justify our state of mind, etc. What if the mood is just a transient reaction to many different factors: inherited, situational, biochemical, cognitive, and so on? What if the sources blend and intermix so much they can’t be isolated? Then we would be forced to quit trying to define the problem and start trying to work on it.

    No matter what the cause or category we assign to a difficult mood, we can say a few fairly invariant things about it: 1. it tends to wax and wane. 2. we can build up our ability to tolerate the feeling state. 3. As we increase our tolerance, we can increase our functionality in the face of the mood. 4. the state is likely to dissipate more quickly as we become more tolerant and adapted to it.

    Personally, I see these facts as the central issues in depression. Questions about cause or value seem secondary to these very pragmatic analyses. Gaining mastery over depressed states takes time and happens incrementally. But there are many tools available that help in the task, especially mindfulness meditation and acceptance work.

    One of our biggest challenges we face as people who experience depression is learning to not over-think the situation. This is a time when thought is really not our best ally. CBT approaches teach us to alter our thinking, but meditative practice teaches us to detach from it. In my experience, the latter approach is the more expedient.

    By detaching, many of these definitions/judgments cease to matter. The focus turns to other important features in the world besides our internal mood state. Like, how do we build lives that matter despite the stormy internal weather we sometimes experience?

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Will –

      I would be the first to agree that over-thinking depression – a habit that psychoanalytic therapy encouraged me to do – doesn’t have any healing value. But that is not at all what I’m doing in this post. As I mention early on, listing the ways I’ve thought about the depression experience has been highly therapeutic. It is another one of the practices that has helped me detach from depression, disassemble its varied dimensions and then single out each one to be dealt with in the way that is most effective for me. The 13 can indeed be compatible, as the condition affects so many aspects of life.

      I have never found one method, as it seems you have, that has consistently helped me. I went through several periods when I thought I had found the right approach, but none of them proved to be reliable over time. And the time of active searching has been about 45 years, with another 15 before that of living with it but unaware that it was an identifiable condition. So it goes back to young boyhood. This experience has made me interested in any and all methods that others have found effective as well as those I’ve worked with.

      As I’ve tried to describe in several posts, I presently feel “recovered” but remain unclear how that happened. Over a couple of years, I gradually became aware that depression had become a much smaller thing in my life. I no longer felt it as part of my identity or as an often overwhelming presence that not only darkened my feelings but destroyed my mental focus and memory, among other things. I still live with “symptoms” but take them in stride as part of life and have the skills to recognize them immediately. Perhaps because I have become more detached in this way, I’m more focused now on the spiritual dimensions of the experience and the approaches based on acceptance rather than avoidance. I look forward, by the way, to reading your posts about acceptance and commitment therapy, as well as getting more deeply into Tom Wooton’s course.

      Thanks for your comment. Your ideas are always challenging and full of helpful insight.

      John

  8. Judy says:

    John, as always, you’ve hit several nails on the head! I’ve certainly experienced all of those definitions you’ve given. There certainly were times when I felt that I was in a spiritual crisis – I had one therapist tell me I had a spiritual vacuum (which was really helpful, by the way) and that there really was not much to be done about what was basically, she thought, my “personality disorder.” Talk about wanting to jump off a bridge after that! Well, thank God I got beyond that and through the work I’ve done, feel I have a deeper spirituality now than I ever did while I belonged to an organized religion. Like you, I can’t quite embrace it as a positive, but I have to say that I now look at it as the journey I’m on that has brought me, actually, a lot of good things – wisdom, courage, compassion and good people – that I may not have encountered otherwise. In my case, depression was the wake-up call from a life lived with no feeling, so much so that I really believed I never got angry and had no opinions about anything. So much easier to hide behind other people! Well, the waking up has been painful at times, but I don’t ever want to go back to the mindless, numbing existence I had before.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      I used to say, and feel, that depression has been nothing but a weight of misery – or some such phrase – but I really have changed my view. It’s definitely been a means of opening up my mind and feelings to so much that I never would have understood without its continuing pressure. Recovering into life has been a kind of rebirth – as difficult as any birth can be. Once again, I think we’ve arrived at a similar place.

      John

  9. Elkie Martinez says:

    I can relate to a lot of what I have read in this blog. I have also suffered with severe depression for many years. Eight years ago I was diagnosed with bipolarII, although I have had my highs & lows, I suffer much more from the depressive side. My life has felt like an unpredictable rollercoaster. I have been to many doctors, have tried countless medications which almost always seem to result in unbearable side effects & very little benefits. I have seen therapists, attended support groups, spiritual groups, taken vitamins, supplements….you name it, I have probably tried it seeking some relief to this difficult illness. I have asked God many times why I have this illness & to please reveal to me it’s purpose in my life because I really just couldn’t understand it. I asked Him to please just show me the answer, give me something that could help make me whole again, feel “normal” & allow me to live a good life, the life that he intended for me. I promised Him that when I found the answer, I would share it with the world & try to help as many people as possible. He answered my prayers three months ago & I want to share it with you. Three months ago I was given a sample of a coffee to try that contained an herb. My brother gave me the sample & said to try it & just let him know if I liked the taste & how it made me feel. My life has changed for the better since the day I tried this coffee. I felt immediate results, I actually felt energy, good energy, no caffeine gitters or anxiety, no more fatigue. I began to feel joy & was in a very good mood. I started losing weight in the first 6 days of taking it. I slept better, was able to focus better, my memory was better, it’s like the fog was removed from in front of me. I was able to cut my medications in half. I felt “alive”, was this what “normal” people feel? I thought?

    This herb is like a miracle to me. I cannot say that I don’t still deal with some aspects of this illness, because I do but it is very managable now. I am functioning, I am happy, I feel a peace that I have never felt before & I owe it all to God for His natural medicine, that He created & has changed my life. I have a life again, my children have their mother back & despite all of the everyday challenges I face( just as we all do) I am happy & enjoying life & everything seems to be in perspective now, yes, even my problems. If you or a loved one suffer from depression & you would like more information on the herb that helped me please email me at [email protected]. I would be happy to send you info on this herb and some samples of this coffee/tea so that you can experience it’s benefits for yourself. Wishing you all health, peace and happiness!!! Don’t ever give up trying, there is help for this.

  10. Jennifer Maurer says:

    John, this was a very illuminating post. You elegantly show that how we define depression has a great deal to do with how we choose to respond to it, the implications of that response on our depression and on our self-image which, even when we can’t see it, is much larger than the experience of depression (although our definition can make these world views one and the same). It is interesting to see the progression of understanding your 13 definitions provide moving from a narrow clinical definition to a much more spacious and accepting space by #13. Though certainly, my own experience tells me that we can move through all of these definitions in the space of a few days (even moments) in a deperate effort to seek relief when severe depression hits. There is a wonderful expression in Buddhism, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” I too try to embrace and work with definition #13 and use compassionate mindfulness to work with the cognitive aspects of depression (and make different choices that may lead out of rather than deeper into depression).

    One book that was extremely helpful to me was Philip Moffitt’s Dancing With Life: Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering. It is very accessible for those of any or no faith and was really helpful for shedding light on how depression can become workable when we learn not to add suffering and resistance and how to observe the workings of our mind as something the mind does and not necessarily who we are. That ability to be the observer of depression through mindful awareness is but a breath or two away from being engulfed in it. Thank you so much for prompting me to recall my own definitions and experience.

    To yours I would like to add that learning to live through depression (whether episodic or a seemingly daily companion) can create a deep capacity for sharing compassion that is a healing balm for others.
    The Storied Mind is a perfect expression of this definition.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Jennifer –

      Thank you so much for this beautiful comment. I will look for the Philip Moffitt book right away. There’s a long way to travel between understanding acceptance and taking it deeply into your life – and I’m slowly moving along that path. Every bit of new inner knowledge about pain vs suffering is invaluable. I hope your practice has helped you make depression “workable” – I like your use of that word. Making things workable each day seems to be my primary occupation.

      John

  11. I appreciate this list. Thanks for putting it together here.

    As less-experienced with this… word, I am still working on my definitions and it helps to see what a longer journey does for understanding.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Amy –

      I’m glad the list is helpful to you. It does take a while to live through all these views – but as I think about it there are a lot more than the ones I’ve listed here.

      I hope your experience of depression doesn’t go on for long!

      John

  12. Dan Lukasik says:

    Great blog on how there are many ways to think of depression. When I first was diagnosed with depression about 10 years ago, I thought of it strictly as a “disease” with a capital “D”. Over time, my thinking has changed. No doubt depression has a powerful physical impact whatever its causes. When I was deep in the bog of depression at its worst, I felt like I had terminal cancer (Thankfully, I have never had this illness). I felt in pain, all the time and everyday. I just wanted it all to end – – looking back, I don’t really know how I survived. I could say it was loving friends and family – which I had. But there are lots of people with depression who had loving friends and family and didn’t survive. I really identify with Thomas Moore’s thinking on the topic. Another great thinker to check out is the Jungian writer, James Hollis, Ph.D. who wrote “Finding Meaning in Midlife” and others – he opines that depression is the result, in part, of the pain of our unlived lives – powerful stuff!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Dan –

      Survival can be as much of a mystery as recovery. Allowing support and loving relationships back into your mind and soul has to be a big one – though something has to change even before that is possible. Thanks for letting me know about James Hollis. I’ll get hold of that book as soon as I can.

      And thanks for taking the time to comment.

      John

  13. Wendy Love says:

    Oh my goodness this post has prompted a lot of thinking in me. Yes, I know that I too have gone through several views of depression but it will take awhile to process that thinking. However, when I think back on it in chronological order I think I have spiraled (both up and down) from
    1. just a temporary setback, something to be fixed in time
    2. a curse (resulting from divorce) that was setting out to ruin my life
    3. the realization that there was a genetic component
    4. rearranging my life to fit into depression
    5. accepting my new rearranged life as normal and permanent
    You have really struck me on this one and I plan to give it further thought.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Wendy –

      It’s been very helpful to my recovery to look back in the way you’re doing now. I find that this lets me detach from identifying with the illness even more than a meditation exercise.

      Perhaps you’ll keep us posted on how this process works for you.

      John

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  1. […] the author, John, wrote a post that got a lot of reactions, very detailed reactions. It was called ’13 Ways of Defining Depression’. In this well-written article he reviews the many different ways that he has defined depression […]

  2. Storied Mind says:

    13 Ways of Defining Depression…

    13 Ways of Defining Depression With all the conflict about defining depression, it’s not surprising if…



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