The Inuit have over fifty words for snow, and the Japanese language has around the same amount of nouns to describe rain. Curiously, in English, we use the same word over and over to describe a state that can stem from many different things: depression.
In the course of therapy, I routinely invite people to check in with and identify their core emotions. “I feel depressed,” is a frequent refrain. This always begets further probing. Depression can be the result of a genetic lottery, but often, there is more to this. Most of the time, depression is a collapse that occurs under the weight of stuck or blocked emotions.
The relationship between emotions and depression
Depression is a phrase meant to capture a cluster of symptoms. Negativity, flatness, low motivation, and hopelessness. Irritability, indecisiveness, and inertia, and, cruelly, an absence of joy.
Allow me to digress for a moment.
Recently, I noticed over the course of several days that the battery on my iPhone had been draining down to nothing by noon (bear with me). No juice left for all the fun and practical things I like to do on this device! As it turned out, it was an app that was responsible – an app that had become stuck trying to update. There, but not processing, just running in the background and sabotaging my hardware. Apparently, it takes a lot of battery power to maintain this state of purgatory.
It was easy enough to free my app from this cyber no man’s land, but releasing emotion is a big ask: for starters, we often don’t know exactly what we are feeling. Sometimes, we just feel off. Some of us are quick to anger, but struggle to allow more tender, vulnerable feelings. Others cry easily and often, while swearing they ‘don’t have anger’ (I hear this all the time, and let me tell you this: unless you are a robot, you have the capacity for anger).
I like to get curious with my clients about all of the emotions that might be lingering beneath depression and anxiety. Honouring and experiencing an emotion – even if it’s just in the safe confines of a therapist’s office – ultimately feels better. The alternative is that dead feeling inside that we’ve come to know as depression.
Why do we turn away from emotion?
This might sound reasonable, but why do most of us struggle with it?
For many reasons, paying attention to our core emotions is counterintuitive, even threatening. If we’re lucky, our early experiences with emotions – even the dark, messy ones – were validated by our caregivers. If we’re super fortunate, we’ve been helped to manage potent emotions constructively by those that raised us. The rest of us (a sizeable majority) struggle with having certain emotions. I call the emotions we struggle with our “no fly zone.”
What this looks like
My client, Olivia,* is a naturally spirited person. Her emotions feel powerful to her. Her mother was caring in many ways, but distant and contained and seemed to find Olivia’s intensity overwhelming. Moreover, throughout Olivia’s childhood, she was dealing with with a partner who had chronic health issues. Olivia can still recall the mixture of fury and shame when she expressed her emotions and received no recognition or acknowledgment. Even her joy and excitement was often met with a distant response. Now, many years later, Olivia’s nervous system still recognises anger as a feeling with the potential to make her feel rejected.
Olivia and I have discovered that strong emotion generates anxiety. Feelings are threatening, as they are associated with shame and loneliness. The psyche’s priority is to protect. So, Olivia’s anger is muffled, and comes out often as criticism, prickliness, and apparent indifference. Every so often, it escapes as a burst of rage. All of this makes relationships very challenging, although Olivia longs for closeness.
Olivia thinks she might be depressed, and certainly she fits some of the criteria for depression. But she is suffering because her powerful emotions are like energetic children being continuously shoved into the basement. They are clamouring to get out, but she views them as intrusive and threatening. When they do get out, it’s more of an escape, and they reinforce her impression that they are wily and unwelcome.
How can we become more connected to emotion?
Together, my clients and I identify which emotions are present. We pay close attention to how these emotions announce themselves, internally and externally. We learn the subtleties of bodily sensations that signal emotion, as well as how to differentiate emotion from reactivity, depression, and anxiety. Over time, we can turn toward some of our most difficult feelings with compassion and curiosity, so that constructive – rather than destructive – responses can be formulated. This is no small task, but certainly more transformative than simply providing better ways to keep them in lockdown.
Why we can’t just ignore difficult emotions
We need to pay attention to our feelings, because all feelings have needs attached to them: anger needs us to make things fair and just. Sadness needs comfort. Excitement needs us to explore, and joy needs us to rejoice! Fear needs us to determine if we’re safe. When we block emotions, we can’t listen to what they need from us, and we can’t act accordingly. Emotions need to be felt and understood, so that they can lead us toward constructive, meaningful action.
Here’s the good news
It should be noted that processing emotions doesn’t mean that they get to have their way with us! We can engage with our feelings without becoming hijacked by them. For some, containment is an important part of constructively dealing with emotion; for others, allowing emotions a voice is the focus.
The good news is that when we process these tough emotions, we usually don’t feel worse – in fact, the words I hear most often from clients after doing this work is that they feel “lighter” and more “open.” Additionally, once we honour emotions in a reasonable, balanced manner, we start coping much better with the situations and relationships in our lives that need some TLC.
Please reach out to me if you’d like to explore how this all is configured in you, and your life. And for further reading on the relationship between emotions and depression, I recommend Hilary Jacob Hendel’s excellent book: “It’s Not Always Depression.”
*Olivia is a pseudonym, and this example is actually a composite of multiple presentations, meant to illustrate this concept without exposing anyone’s specific personal details.