Around 25% of people will suffer with some form of mental illness each year, and depression is probably one of the most common; and is likely to affect a lot of people at some point in their life time. Everyone's experience of depression is personal to them. I thought it might help others if I share mine... with the aim of helping people realise that it is more normal than they perhaps think.
I will start this post by saying, if you think you might be depressed please, please seek help. Talk to someone. Don’t wait. Go and see your doctor or therapist. Talk to your partner, your friends or family. At times when you feel incredibly low it feels like no one can help, but, believe me, they can.
There are many different types and triggers for depressive illness. From life events such as death, loss of job, finances, relationship breakdown and birth. Personally my diagnosis wasn’t one of ‘clinical depression'; it was ‘situationally’ or ‘environmentally’ triggered depression’.
Before I get into this, it is perhaps worth shining some light on how - I now understand - that our brains work. Our brains are constantly evolving. The plasticity (or makeup) of the brain is constantly being built or reshaped as we process, and react to, many of the stimuli we experience every waking hour, of every day, for our whole lives; all through our 5 senses. It does this by building neural pathways based on the things we learn, and people we meet, as we interact with the world.
Signals travel down the neural pathways to different parts of the brain using a neurotransmitter chemical called serotonin. Serotonin is also known as the happiness chemical because during times of reward, recognition, excitement or stimulation the brain is flooded with it to aid the passage of many more signals related to happy mood, eating, sex drive and sleeping by enabling the related brain activity to take place. In depressive illness the production of serotonin either slows or stops. Depleted levels of serotonin reduce the ability for these signals to move around the brain; essentially creating brain signal traffic jams. When the signals required for normal functioning and thinking can’t get from A to B it means the brain isn’t working properly.
It is known that high levels of cortisol in the body also creates an enzyme that slows or stops the production of serotonin in the brain. Cortisol and adrenaline are produced in the body during periods of stress to sharpen the senses and enable us to react to a threat. This is OK in short bursts, potentially leading to short term fatigue or feeling low afterwards, but over the long term, if there is no reprieve from the stress, the reduced serotonin production can become more serious and lead us into a deep, more lasting depression; as the balance of chemicals needed for normal behavior of neurotransmitters starts to malfunction.
As humans, many of us have an instinctive need to feel worthy and this comes through positive affirmation and recognition; which equates to a deep feeling of safety and security. Some of us have this need more than others. I read a book recently called 'Why Buddhism is True' by Robert Wright; in it the author says that all our most basic instincts are driven in some way by the evolutional theory of 'natural selection'; the theory being that everything we do, however subtle or abbstract, is actually driven by our evolutionary need to get our genes into the next generation.
This is why we can sometimes react emotionally to a perceived threat; and it can be intensified when our needs in this area are not met on a prolonged basis. The threat in itself doesn’t have to be significant, real or life endangering; but if you’re in this sort of situation for extended periods it can make your threat systems, that are designed to protect you, work overtime. This can create an imbalance in your brain which can make you anxious and ultimately depressed. And so the cycle continues.
During my lowest times, I remember being up in the middle of the night. Having not been able to sleep – again. I was crying in despair and thinking that my life and everything I had worked so hard for was lost. I felt that I had lost control of my own ship and I was sinking, fast. I didn’t realise it at the time but the consequence from the way I was living my day-to-day life had pushed me into a state of depressive illness. I had many of the symptoms that people would often associate with depression but I just didn’t add it all together, e.g.
1. Not sleeping 2. Quick temper 3. Withdrawal from friends and family 4. No interest in previously liked activities 4. Low self worth / doubt in my abilities 5. Cloudy mind 6. Greater indecision about what next 7. (Oh, and quite a bit of spontaneous crying!)
There are of course other symptoms that people experience. These were just mine.
I went to the doctors and asked to be referred to a therapist; where I was diagnosed with situationally triggered anxiety and depression. At that time, I carried on working, believing I could just get through. My therapist had prescribed me some medication to help me sleep (what a relief) and also some anti-depressants to help address the chemical imbalance in my brain. I really struggled with the idea of taking the latter initially but now feel that it was absolutely the right thing to do. I was cautioned to be careful with the sleeping tablets because, as it happens, they were addictive.
Of course treatments differ from case to case. Talking was a great tonic for me. Therapy was also great. Meditation really helped. If recommended by a doctor or professional sometimes medication is necessary. Is was for me. The key thing I found was that there is a way through. There is always a way through.
If the depression is caused or intensified by an environment then you have the option to challenge it, change it, or walk away. Walking away is not failure, it can sometimes be best thing you will ever do. All of these take courage but part of my own recovery was to assert a level of control over the situation; obviously with the things I could control and then accepting things I couldn’t control. The sense of owning your own destiny is a powerful thought. You are an amazing being, and it is important to remember that.
The thing I knew pretty early on, was that battling on regardless wasn’t an option. I needed help and I needed to change some things.
My mother once said to me that, ‘you have to give your permission to allow someone or something to hurt you, or make your feel bad’. I liked this, it really resonated. My considered response was to revoke my permission.
I will end this post by referring to a recent article I read by one Dr. Tim Cantopher, called ‘Depressive Illness -The Curse of the Strong’. In which he says that depression is an illness of the strong and not the weak. This is because if a person with depression were not strong then they would have given up long before they became depressed. Think about that.
Remember, there is no shame in it.
I sincerely hope this helps you. Good luck.