(I’ve changed the title of this post because I realize the earlier version sounded too sweeping. This post is focused on the way we can beat ourselves up for not being able to will or wish depression away at moments of greatest vulnerability to its onslaught. I didn’t mean to suggest that we can never gain any control over the problem at all through such means as cognitive therapy and meditation. Of course we can, and those methods have been critical for my own recovery. Hopefully, a new title at the top were make this clearer.)
When you’ve been in the midst of severe depression, have you groaned in exasperation: “Why can’t I control this? How can this keep happening? I should be able to will it away. Why can’t I?” I used to do that whenever I went under, and words like those are a sad refrain running through most of the discussions of depression I’ve heard.
About 15 years ago, one therapist I worked with – briefly – told me that feelings depended on the intention I brought to a situation. If I went into it expecting to be irritated, defeated or excited, that’s what I would feel. The general idea was that we could turn the experience of life in a positive direction, if only we brought the right intentions and thoughts to daily living.
Though he didn’t quite say it, he clearly believed that I could intend my way out of depression. Thinking bleak and hopeless guaranteed I would feel bleak and hopeless. So he gave me meditation exercises to help me think more positively and cultivate attitudes of loving kindness and forgiveness. He was certain that I could dispel depression by developing new mental habits for responding to life events. While meditation definitely helped and later became an important practice in my life, the positive intention approach didn’t solve the problem.
I had never experienced at that time – or since then – any intention or thought that could keep itself from drowning in depression. And depression never came because I thought about doom and gloom or interpreted events in negative ways. It was always the other way round. Depression came out of nowhere – no cause in sight. It was like a flash flood or a tsunami that was suddenly upon me. Only after a wave engulfed me did my mind interpret everything as hopeless.
With that experience as background, I’ve been deeply interested to read about research on how emotion relates to mental life, as summarized in Joseph LeDoux’s, The Emotional Brain. LeDoux is one of the leading neuroscientists who has participated in some of the extensive research he summarizes.
He describes the complicated – and unconscious – processes that take place across many systems of the brain to generate emotion. (The researchers, by the way, make a sharp distinction between emotion, involving all these brain functions working outside consciousness, and the conscious feeling you’re aware of.)
The action starts with some external stimulus – like suddenly finding a mugger or a loved one in front of you. There are bodily sensations, activation of arousal systems, flashing lights in primitive parts of the brain. Those basic arousal signals are translated by a number of intermediate systems and sent on to the parts of the brain’s cortex that are responsible for higher level interpretation.
There the working memory processes the signals in several ways, such as matching them with long term memory of similar situations and structuring them with language. The result allows you to recognize the mental commotion consciously as fear or anger or love. Then the brain can tell the body to get busy with appropriate behavior, like running from the mugger or embracing the loved one.
In this view, all the unconscious systems generate a powerful flow of emotional energy into awareness, but the flow back into those unconscious systems isn’t nearly so strong. That says a lot about the attempt to command depression.
This is how LeDoux summarizes two key points. (For emphasis, I’ve reversed the order in which he lists them.)
… [E]motions are things that happen to us rather than things we will to occur. … We have little direct control over our emotional reactions. … While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.
… There is but one mechanism of consciousness and it can be occupied by mundane facts or highly charged emotions. Emotions easily bump mundane events out of awareness, but nonemotional events (like thoughts) do not so easily displace emotions from the mental spotlight — wishing that anxiety or depression would go away is usually not enough.
There it is – and perhaps that statement will help you the next time you’re beating yourself up for not being able to control depression. It’s also good to keep in mind when someone with Sympathy Deficit or Hateful Personality Disorder tells you to get a life or pull yourself together.
Have you had this problem of adding self-insult to injury by despairing about your lack of control over depression? Do you condemn yourself for not being able to will away other powerful feelings as well?