The other day I did something a little out of character. Normally I don’t engage in debates about mental health in my down time – after all, it’s good for all of us to put things down from time to time.
Driving along a narrow country road, my friend who was giving me a lift in a (let’s say, slightly ageing) car, mentioned how people who consider themselves depressed should just get up and do something about it. I rolled my eyes at the comment and tried to ignore it, but the one-sided conversation continued with words such as ‘lazy’, and ‘don’t know how good they have life’.
So I decided to help someone come to their own conclusions of how depressive feelings can feel.
“Stop the car”, I said (more than once to get this to eventually happen).
“Give me the keys”, I explained, “and I’ll tell you what if feels like to be depressed”.
Confused, and more than a little dubious at handing over said keys, I took them and threw them (no great distance), out of my window, and turned to my friend and said, “OK, lets go”.
Confuddled, they said a number of confused and obvious responses – “I cant go” – “I don’t have the keys” – “Can you please get out and get the keys”- “What the *hell…” (*expletive substitution here for obvious reasons), and the comments kept coming.
“Just go”, I pressed, in a slightly raised voice.
“I – CAN’T – GO”, came back the more agitated, staccato reply.
“HURRY UP”, I equalled with volume, “JUST GET MOVING, THERE ARE PEOPLE BEHIND US”, which, down this windy lane was no joke: a couple of cars had pulled up behind and then overtaken with some obvious irritation to our randomness in stopping.
“I DON’T HAVE THE KEYS – I CAN’T MOVE THE CAR – YOU THREW THEM OUT OF THE WINDOW”.
At this, I got out of the car and retrieved the keys and gave them back.
I felt at this time best not to ram home my point, but later on we discussed how having feelings of depression has nothing to do with being lazy, or that making comparisons to others struggling in life doesn’t make anyone feel better (it’s not that people challenged with feelings of depression don’t understand others dire circumstances; they very much do – just that this fact doesn’t jump start a wave of “wow, that really cured me’s”).
States of chronic depression are more about dealing with times when there are a lack of various chemicals in the brain (let’s call them ‘keys’ to tie up this analogy), that allow us to have feelings of accomplishment or success or achievement; no ‘pat yourself on the back’ neurotransmitters, which, in turn, create the necessary motivation to repeat those positive actions again. This ‘lack’ can have many different causes – maybe one big issue, perhaps a few coming in quick succession, or often a number of concerns with varying degrees of volume.
It can be a bit Catch-22. Generally, there are reasons that someone would have declined onto a depressive state, but whilst we can often work our way through those situations, there can be a number of reasons why we can’t. We feel flat, and down, quite negative in thought, then we don’t feel in the right mood (due the lack of those pesky chemicals), to get up and go do, further fuelling the flat, down, negative state.
At times like these, we can have extended periods of time with very few positive chemicals in the brain, which can maintain a low state of mood, and a feeling that the end will never come. If this low state continues over months or even years, then we can eventually forget what ‘normal’ life once felt like with less stresses, and this low can become what we perceive as our norm.
Not so easy then to fire up the engine without those ‘key’ chemicals.
Another thing that happened was how ‘un-creative’ my friend became when under stress.
He could easily have got out of the car to get the keys himself, – a simple answer to end the issue he was faced with. But in the short term his thinking became a little more narrow, and under pressure to perform (with cars hooting their horns behind), his thinking became more problem-focused, blaming, angered, and fixing on what he wasn’t able to do at that time, over what he was, thus adding to the stress and potentially, further fuelling that downward spiral.
So, whilst there can be ways to move forward, opportunities are understandably missed because of our negative mindset when we’re in that space, and the missed opportunities may create a feeling of being stuck with a sense of “nothing ever goes right”.
Understanding low mood is a complex issue and whilst the steps leading to this place are unique to each person and must be treated as such, the fundamentals are very similar.
If you consider low mood or lack of motivation as a ‘dormant state’, there is a very telling footnote in the excellent book The Brain’s Way of Healing, written by psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Norman Doidge –
The temporary shifting into dormant states is a strategy seen in different types of organisms. In the plant kingdom, seeds can go into a dormant state if the external environment becomes too hot or too cold for them to control their internal cellular environment, and can survive without water, sun, or nutrients for centuries. The great physiologist who coined the term and concept ‘homeostasis’, Claude Bernard, pointed to many cases of “latent life”, wherein animals oscillate between fully active living states and dormant ones. The dormant ones occur when the animal can no longer maintain ‘homeostasis’ – that is, it can no longer control its internal environment because external conditions are not compatible with normal life.
The revival can often require an input from the outside.