Understanding and Healing Depression
The following article is intended to provide a better and more optimistic understanding of the experience of depression than the conventional medical explanations. It was written for people experiencing Depression and considering suicide, to provide an avenue of hope. It is long, but I hope it is helpful.
(Note: Never withdraw from psychiatric medications without taking advice from your physician.)
Understanding and Healing Depression
Our beliefs about depression are vitally important to the way we actually experience depression. Being depressed is difficult in itself, but what makes it extraordinarily bad is our common beliefs about it. These common beliefs make our experience of depression many times worse than it has to be, and most of these beliefs are completely wrong.
Most of us believe that depression is a bewildering ‘mental illness’. We believe that it involves sudden and inexplicable changes to the complex biochemistry of a brain that is so intricate and mystifying that it will not be understood by science for centuries to come. Therefore we can never hope to understand what is happening to us. We believe that depression is losing control of our minds, losing control of ourselves, and that the person we are is damaged or broken. This is a frightening thing to believe about yourself. Our colleagues, neighbours, friends and families tend to believe the same thing, so they feel sorry for us. Because we can’t ‘control’ what we think and feel we are therefore unpredictable, and sometimes they are nervous or fearful of us. And so, in addition to the basic depression, we feel damaged and different, rejected, alone and isolated. The effect of this can be devastating. On top of this we tend to believe that the ‘illness’ has no cure and that it will be with us in some way for the rest of our lives. This makes the dreadful experience of depression largely complete and most of it is based on ideas and beliefs. Because of our common beliefs many of us who are experiencing depression see only a future of inner darkness, rejection, isolation, failure, self-loathing, and a complete absence of hope, which leads to suicidal thoughts and sometimes suicidal behaviour. Most suicides occur because of an inner certainty that this pain is here to stay. It will always be with us, there is nothing that can be done about it, and only death can allow us to escape from it.
But if everyone understood what depression is, if we knew where it comes from and understood that it could be repaired, the whole experience of depression becomes simple to manage. Like a flu. No-one considers suicide when they have a flu, no matter how bad they feel. No-one regards flu victims with suspicion or thinks of them as broken or different. We know they’ll be back to themselves in a fortnight. How different would the experience of depression be if all of us knew that we can fully recover from it? What stigma would there be if we knew that people who have had depression and recovered from it are capable of achieving a level of mental health, happiness and wellbeing that far exceeds that of the ‘normal’ people who inadvertently stigmatise them? This is possible for the majority of depression sufferers. The purpose of this article is to make it clear to those with depression, and particularly those considering suicide, that most of what you ‘know’ about your problem is just wrong, and that the option of death is not required to escape the pain. Depression is easily understood and it can be ‘cured’.
Where do our ideas about depression and other mental disorders come from?
Our misleading common knowledge about mind problems reflects the thinking of the accepted experts in the field of mental health, the most important of which are psychiatrists who lead most mental health services. Psychiatrists are doctors. Doctors are probably the most highly regarded professionals in society today, and most of us automatically accept what they say without questioning them. This includes media organisations and governments. Medical thinking has enormous benefits for us all when it is applied to the physical and organic conditions but it doesn’t work very well when it is applied to problems of the mind. This is like using engineering knowledge to understand Botany. It’s an inapplicable knowledge base. If you believe that problems of the mind are ‘illnesses’ that must have medical solutions you have absolutely no hope of understanding them or healing them. This is why the numbers of mind problems in our society have increased relentlessly over the last century, and have reached epidemic levels today. It has been difficult to think outside of the medical box, complete cures have not been sought or found, and vast profits are made from the management of long-term incurable ‘illnesses’ with pharmaceutical medication.
The Cause of Mind Problems
Depression is not in your genes and you didn’t inherit it from your parents or grandparents. It is not caused by a sudden and mysterious “imbalance of brain chemistry” or faulty brain wiring. It is not a largely incurable ‘illness’ as psychiatry and psychological science mistakenly believe.
Depression, like most other psychological disorders, has its origin in previous emotionally painful experience. Research tells us that between 70% and 90% of people presenting with mental health problems experienced trauma or emotionally painful events, particularly in childhood, such as parental separations, violence in the home, exposure to death, parents with mental health problems, neglect, sexual, physical or emotional abuse and so on. Researchers tend to look for those obvious things, but if they looked beyond the obvious that number would rise to almost 100%. Children can be ‘traumatised’ by things that an adult would barely notice. A life of depression, anxiety or addiction can begin with small events like toileting accidents, a fight in the school yard, rejection by our young peers or attending a funeral. Try to recall the intensity and power of child emotions and how the most innocuous set backs sometimes seemed like the end of the world.
‘Locked In’ Thoughts and Feelings
When events like these are traumatising it means that the thoughts and emotions that the child experienced during these events become ‘locked in’. This means that the brain was unable to make sense of what was happening and couldn’t discharge the painful emotions and ideas that were experienced. These locked in thoughts and feelings affect how we see things and feel things in the present, long after they happened. When you see mental health problems clearly it is common to notice the thoughts and emotions of a child mixed in with those of the adult. Think of a grown man running from a room at the sight of a 10 gram mouse, or someone washing her hands 40 times each day because of a child’s idea about germs. People experiencing depression usually feel a locked in shame or guilt, or sadness or anger, and sometimes a mix of these emotions, that began when they were children or young teenagers. They also have locked in ideas associated with the emotions, like “I am weak and pathetic”, “I am ugly and unloveable”, “I am a bad worthless person” or “I am a failure and deserve nothing good”. Anxiety disorders are usually caused by ‘locked in’ fear and fearful ideas. A mix of thoughts and emotions from a single event can make it appear as if a person has two or even three different disorders. This is why Depression seems to take so many different forms and presents so differently from person to person. This is why Depression seems to be accompanied by other ‘disorders’ so frequently. Most so-called disorders are simply different expressions of the same single mind problem. That problem is “painful emotional experience that the brain was unable to process” and it is not difficult to treat in the great majority of cases.
Removing Emotional Pain
Removing the emotional pain from painful experiences is one of the brain’s most important tasks in keeping us mentally healthy, and it is supposed to do this automatically.
Take a few minutes to think of the hundreds of upsetting experiences you have had throughout your life. Recall the things that happened to you, the things that were done to you and the things that you did that you were ashamed of. Think of all the disappointments, the losses, the rejections, and humiliations, everything that hurt you, from childhood to the present day. Notice the way in which you can think about most of them without being upset. You can probably smile when you think of them because they don’t matter anymore. These experiences were ‘processed’ by your brain and the pain was removed completely, sometimes quickly and sometimes more gradually, and today you can see them differently.
However, you might notice that there are a few experiences in your past that make you feel uncomfortable or emotional when you are reminded of them, because the feelings you had at the time are still with you, almost exactly as they were.
These events were not processed properly by the brain which means the events were ‘traumatising’ and the thoughts and emotions of the traumatising experience are ‘Locked In’. Painful thoughts and emotions from the past do not belong in the present.
Such events might include the loss of someone close, a parental separation, not fitting in or being bullied at school, or the pain of a romantic relationship that ended poorly. Maybe the fear you felt during an act of violence, an accident or a hospitalisation, emerges from time to time. It might have happened to you, or to someone you cared about. It could be something as simple as the shame and humiliation of an early academic failure or a toileting accident, or as catastrophic as a sexual abuse, or an assault . For some it might be the experience of a death, or a funeral, that scared the life out of a very young and inexperienced self. Maybe you can still feel the guilt of treating someone badly. Or you feel the anger and sadness of being unloved or harshly treated by a depressed or alcoholic parent (who was deeply affected or traumatised by their own painful experiences), and you have carried the child’s thoughts and feelings with you ever since. These are the type of experiences from which depressions and other mind problems emerge.
You probably do your best not to think of these things because it is unpleasant but the thoughts and feelings of those events are still alive inside you, even when you are not thinking about them, and even when those events have been completely forgotten. It is common for people with mental health problems to have few memories of difficult childhoods. Sometimes the thoughts and feelings remain in the background and are barely noticeable. And sometimes they come front and centre because something that happens in the present awakens them. Because of this pain from the past, some of the things that happen to us in the present day affect us a lot more than they should, as they trigger the emotions felt by our younger and more vulnerable selves, which can overwhelm us and linger for a long time. Sometimes we don’t notice that there is anything amiss, and we imagine our anger, or sadness, or fear, or guilt, or shame, is entirely justified and rational. Sometimes we know there is something not quite right about this, which can be unsettling or frightening, because we don’t understand what is happening and we don’t know how to stop it.
Every single one of us have the thoughts and feelings from past events trapped inside of us because, at times, our brains were unable to do the job they were supposed to do. These trapped thoughts and feelings can affect us in many different ways. This is one of the reasons why people seem to be so different from each other and see things in very different ways. The majority of us are vulnerable to various psychological problems because of this. Many of us do not develop ‘diagnosable disorders’, largely because of the random luck of living, but our quality of life is a lot less than it should be. Good mental health is a lot more than the absence of a diagnosis.
You might now begin to see why there appears to be so many different disorders and why so few of them fit neatly into the narrow psychiatric descriptions that we use so readily. Events that caused us sadness in the past, that the brain was unable to remove, might create a depression later in life. The same might be true for anger, guilt or shame, but the experience of depression will be a bit different. Events that caused great fear or insecurity might lead to an anxiety disorder. But very few painful events create single emotions and simple thoughts. For instance, a death might cause many different thoughts, emotions and feelings – fear, sadness and anger, and even guilt – which might later crystallise into a mind problem that fits many diagnostic boxes and none. How do you classify the thoughts and emotions of a child in a home with a violent parent, or one experiencing sexual abuse? When we clear away the clutter we will see that most ‘diagnoses’ are merely different expressions of the same thing – difficult experiences in the past that the brain was unable to ‘sort out’, leaving us with a mix of emotions and poorly formed, inflexible ideas and beliefs trapped inside us.
If you are depressed or suicidal…..
If you are suffering with depression, and sometimes feel suicidal, then you have difficult and painful experiences in your history that your brain was unable to process. Those experiences are still with you and they are affecting you. They make your feelings in the present more powerful and intense than they should be and they make you see yourself, and the things that happen, in a very negative and pessimistic way.
You might immediately recognise some of the events in your past, distant or more recent, that cause your painful feelings today. Maybe you haven’t noticed the connection between the two. Your current problems may have begun soon after and it is clear to you that they are the cause. But you don’t realise that those feelings can be removed and you don’t know how to remove them. If you have no idea where these feelings come from it is probably because the difficult events happened when you were quite young and you have forgotten or buried the memory of them. As kids we do this quite easily. As kids we have very little experience of the world with which to understand some of the stuff that happens to us, so we find a way to put the painful things aside to sort out when we are older and wiser. Until we do that the pain, and the child’s understanding of the events, remains in place and prevents us from seeing some things in a rational adult way. Unfortunately our modern way of life rarely allows us to return to the past to heal old wounds. One of the things that many of today’s mental health experts have yet to appreciate is how very vulnerable we are as children to difficult and traumatic experiences that will affect us throughout our lives. It is the emotions of ignored or forgotten childhood events that are responsible for the mysterious ‘endogenous’ mind problems that seem to have no cause. These hidden experiences are easy to recover, because they are still there just below the surface. If they weren’t there you wouldn’t be having a problem with them. And removing the emotional pain of those memories is not difficult when you understand how it is done.
The reason why the brain is sometimes unable to remove the emotional pain of those experiences is simple.
In order to remove the pain from emotional events the brain must be able to see them in your mind and have time to think about them and sort them out.
The mind is as much a part of the brain as the visual display screen is a part of the computer. If the screen is used only for social media or video games the computer can’t do anything else. If something is not allowed into the mind the brain can do nothing with it. It is only when we think about difficult experiences that the brain can actually see them and do the work it is supposed to do.
But if something is very painful to us we often do our very best not to think about it, to avoid the pain that we feel when it is in our mind. We do something to keep us busy. We are encouraged to “take your mind off it”. We prevent the brain from seeing what it needs to see, and so it cannot remove the pain. And so that pain stays with us for a long time, much longer than necessary and often for our entire lives. One painful experience might make it difficult to think of, and ‘fix’, the next painful experience that happens to us, and so the ‘locked in’ thoughts and feelings might accumulate and grow over time. We come to believe that thinking of painful things is bad for us and actually causes depression or anxiety, because that is the way it sometimes appears. Very many of us have developed the habit of always doing something to keep the mind occupied at all times, to ensure there is no room for painful memories to ‘pop’ in. This prevents healing. It prevents mind/brain development and we might remain stuck in a younger level of maturity. It prevents the personal growth that is essential to happiness and wellbeing.
Why is this not Obvious?
The idea that mental health problems are rooted in the past seems so simple, so why is this not obvious to us? The main reason is that we ignore our minds. We pay no attention to them so we notice nothing about them. We live automatically without looking at the processes that drive us. We observe and analyse nothing, because to do so would mean remembering and feeling the painful past. So instead of noticing that the thoughts and emotions that trouble us are from a younger version of ourselves, we go with the flow and accept that they are “Me”.
We avoid thinking about the 6 year old who assumed he was “worthless” and “unloveable” because that was how his parent seemed to act towards him. Instead we just embrace the presence of dreadful and permanent character flaws and personality defects. We imagine that “I am a horrible, weak, pathetic, useless failure of a person”, which is a child’s belief that is as true as the belief in Santa Claus.
We avoid thinking about the 8 year old who inadvertently learned that death and illness means being buried alive in a wooden box and being sealed under cold wet mud with worms and slugs, because that moment was horrifying. Instead we just accept that death and illness is something to be terrified of, and spend our lives desperately trying not to think about them, until we can’t.
Circular Thoughts and Images
Which brings me to another feature of mind problems like depression and anxiety. Did you ever wonder about those thoughts that keep ‘popping’ into your mind, unbidden and unstoppable, going around and around in your mind in circles, repeatedly? They lead nowhere and they make you feel sad, angry, anxious or ashamed, and they often keep you awake at night. Because of them people say, “I think too much”, but the opposite is true. This is what happens when the brain is prevented from thinking, or reflecting, about the things it needs to sort out, because we refuse to allow it or we are just too busy to let it happen.
Circular thoughts are the brain’s thoughts, (all thoughts are the brain’s thoughts) and it’s pushing them into your mind repeatedly, into the only place it can actually do the work it needs to do. This might be the stuff and concerns of day to day life that we don’t give our brains time to think about. But for many of us these thoughts and images are little pieces of those unsorted past experiences, causing us emotional pain to draw our attention to them. This is no different than the pain that draws attention to a physical wound, which says, “fix me before there is further damage”. Circular thoughts, ruminations, worries, and unsettling images, are your brain’s way of telling you that it has unfinished business that it needs to think about. To do this it needs peace and quiet, and time to reflect. Lots of it. These circular repeating thoughts and images, while frequently disturbing, are a normal brain function. We all experience them. We all experience them more than we should because our modern technological lifestyles, and our cultural beliefs, keep us remarkably busy and preoccupied with avoiding boredom, so we no longer ‘take time to think’. We don’t give our brains the time to do all the work they need to do to keep us mentally healthy.
We no longer reflect. Most of our socially agreed ideas about happiness and wellbeing involve ways to avoid reflection at all costs. Our beliefs about the best way to live cause us mental health problems.
Solve the Great Mystery of your own Depression
If you have been experiencing depression, and maybe thinking of suicide, there are simple steps you can take to make your life a great deal more bearable. Importantly, you can solve the great mystery about about where your depression is coming from. Just take the time to think about your past and identify the things you avoid thinking about the most, the things from your history that make you feel strong unpleasant emotions in the present. This is a bit like the way a GP tries to identify the site of the pain precisely. “Do you feel pain here? When I press here? What about there?” Ask yourself, “What were the worst moments, or times, in my life?” and check your feelings as you patiently scroll through them. To be clear, this requires spending enough time alone with just your thoughts for company. It cannot be done during advert breaks.
For many of you this will be fairly easy because the source of your feelings should be obvious. For others there may be many different events, and some of them may be tangled up together, so you might find some quickly, and others will emerge gradually over time. Some of you will have memories that have been completely buried and you are unaware of them. If this is the case just spend enough time thinking about your younger years, searching for the most unhappy and painful moments, and they will eventually come to you. They will come to you because they haven’t yet been filed away, and can never be filed away until the brain is allowed to see them in mind and do its work.
As you identify the pain of the past you will notice that those are the same feelings and thoughts that trouble you today.
There is a good chance that your depression is caused by a single event. An event can be as short as a few seconds or as long as a relationship with a ‘pain-full’ and suffering parent, or repeated exposure to bullying or abuse. Most depressed people typically have several past events that cause them trouble, from childhood, teenage years and later. Sometimes the emotions of different events, past and recent, are tangled up with each other. It is useful to think of a painful event as a tangled ball of wool that the brain needs to untangle by thinking or talking about it. Some of you may have 2 or 3 balls of wool to untangle separately. Others might have 7 or 8, with 3 or 4 of those tangled up together. This can make the experience of day to day living very confusing. In extreme cases a person may have a dozen or more events and experiences to sort through, but no matter how tangled up everything is the brain is capable of fixing it, by untangling one experience at a time. It should also be said that a depression created by a single event, while much easier to fix, can often be as bad, or worse, than one created by a dozen.
If you have a good idea about where your depression is coming from you should now try to accept that those thoughts and feelings can be removed. Try to recall all the difficult experiences that no longer trouble you, and recognise that your brain has done this for you over and over again throughout your life. And it can do it again. It can do this if those experiences, and the pain of them, are allowed into your mind for a short time.
The way you have managed your depression prevented healing
Take some time to notice that the methods and little tricks that you have always used to help with your depression/anxiety has always involved ways of ‘not thinking about certain things’, ‘taking your mind off things’ or ‘thinking about safe things’. They involve doing the exact opposite of what you need to do to heal. They involve ‘hiding from your thoughts’, or ‘running away from your mind’, and yourself, and no matter how long you have been doing this it works for a short time only, and frequently not at all. Maybe you try to be busy at all times, finding it hard to sit still, spending long hours at work, or you use all your spare time incessantly watching TV, reading books, being online, playing games or indulging obsessively in hobbies. Maybe you always have to be in the company of others, you are only comfortable when you are talking, or you delay bedtime until you are so exhausted that sleep will descend instantly, leaving no opportunity for an unwanted stray thought to arise. Maybe you use sleeping tablets to ensure this happens. Some discover the trick of endless fantasising or daydreaming. More destructive methods include drinking, taking drugs or gambling. You might have been doing these things for so long you have forgotten why you do them, and you just believe they make your life in some way better or less painful. Most of them actually work for short periods but it is your habits of trying to keep painful memories, thoughts and feelings out of mind that keeps them alive inside, keeping them ‘Locked In’ and keeping your ‘illness’ firmly in place. Healing and growth occurs only when you spend time with your thoughts. All of these activities serve to prevent that very thing from happening. Trying to hide from thoughts, or trying to keep them at bay, is like trying not to touch an open wound because it hurts. It can’t be cleaned and a bandage can’t be put on it to allow it to heal, but the stuff of every day life rubs against it, sometimes just irritating it and sometimes making the pain of if hard to bear.
Removing the Pain
If you have identified the past events that are causing your depression you now have a choice to make. You can continue to live with your depression or you can find a way to allow your brain to remove the pain from those events. There is only one way to do this, ideally with the help of a therapist. You have to allow yourself to think about them or talk about them, one at a time, until they are fully understood and until the pain is completely gone. This is not always a simple choice and for some it can be very difficult to do. Thinking and talking about unprocessed painful experiences is usually the same as living through them again for a short time. This means having the thoughts and feelings of actually being in that past place, and you have been avoiding that.
Healing usually involves replaying painful events over and over in your mind, telling yourself the ‘story’ of them by putting them into words, without skipping over the worst parts, and trying to remember as many little details as you can. It involves looking for inconsistencies in your memories of the events, the things that don’t add up or don’t make sense, and the things that must have happened that can’t be recalled or simply aren’t there. Talking and thinking about painful events is often like pulling off a sticking plaster, where there is sudden heightened pain as you experience the emotions and feelings that your younger self felt at the time. Usually they are the feelings of a child, and the feelings of children are particularly intense and powerful. It is unpleasant but the pain in most cases diminishes in seconds or minutes, and is replaced by a curiosity as lost memories, new thoughts and realisations begin to bubble into your mind. This is what healing looks and feels like. Reflection will provide clarity and the relief of an emotional burden lifted and your experience of life will begin to feel different.
If you have a number of difficult experiences tangled up with each other, resolving or fixing them can be very tricky indeed, but it is always doable with time and patience, usually by working on them one at a time. Many mind problems have their origins in truly awful experiences that take a bit longer to process, such as sexual abuse as a child or adolescent. This is one of the most difficult and frightening things to work through, as the mind is flooded with the feelings and thoughts of the terrified child that lived through it. This is what healing looks like but it is bizarre and terrifying if you don’t understand what is happening, and it can cause lingering anxiety or panic if the work is not fully completed and the experience fully processed. A therapist with experience in this area will help you to work through something like this.
You might not be ready to do this at this time in your life because you are not ready to think and talk about such things, or you would rather pretend to yourself that the events never happened. You might be able to talk about the events easily, but you want to ignore some of the details, the worst details which are causing your problem. This is more frequent for younger adults. This will change, but just knowing where your problem comes from and knowing what needs to be done in the future to heal might make a big difference to your experience of depression. This is the difference between being ‘mentally ill’ and having an understandable and fixable mind problem.
If you are ready to address your mind problem you might now go to a therapist or counsellor with a clear idea of the thing, or things, you need to talk about. A therapist can assist or facilitate by asking the right questions, and allowing you the time to think and talk, and re-experience and process, but it is your brain that has to do the work and it is you that will know if the pain has been completely removed.
Talking and Therapy – why it works and why it doesn’t
“Talking helps” has become a bit of a cliche but it might now be clear why it is usually true. When we talk about painful or confusing things we have to think about them. When we talk about such things we bring them into our minds where the brain can see them, and reduce or eliminate the pain they cause us, and provide solutions or more healthy perspectives. Talking and reflecting about the things that trouble us is crucial for our mental health. Women are a lot better at this than men. Men are taught to believe that having certain types of feelings, and admitting to having such feelings, is weak and ‘not masculine’. Therefore they do not talk or think about the things that affect them the most, especially things that might make them feel emotional and maybe bring them to tears. Because of this the most masculine of men can be full of ‘locked in’ emotional pain. Men have been shaped by our culture to be particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, and to hide those vulnerabilities from others. This is part of the reason why up to 80% of suicides are men.
Therapy and Counselling can work well for most of us because it gives us the chance to talk and think about those things in our histories, and in the present day, that cause us to suffer emotional problems, which helps to reduce and remove those problems. In therapy we can talk about things to a stranger that we may not be able to talk to friends and family about, because we are afraid it will change how they think about us.
However, it is often the case that therapy doesn’t work. Sometimes it works a little and the therapy continues for years. All too frequently it helps temporarily but the depression comes back, which can be very discouraging for the person and leads to further feelings of hopelessness. There are a number of reasons for this. The most common one is that the client didn’t talk and think about the experiences that needed to be talked about, or didn’t talk about them for long enough or comprehensively enough. The tendency is for both client and therapist to focus on the most immediate or obvious problem, but often neither are aware that the most obvious problems have been created, or made much worse, by earlier experiences that have been overlooked, forgotten or deeply buried. Unless the root experiences are identified, brought to mind and processed, the problems will keep returning in some way. It is common for the client to withhold the one thing that is causing her problems because it is the one thing that she has always refused to talk or think about.
Another factor is that most current therapy practices are ‘person-centred’ and they have little appreciation of the fact that the brain has a job to do if the therapy is to be successful. The typical 50-60 minute therapy session often isn’t long enough for the brain to sort things out, and reflection homework (brain homework) is not built in to current models of practice.
Importantly, alcohol, drugs (eg. marijuana) and medications (eg. anxiolytics and antipsychotics) that make you sleepy, or affect concentration, prevent the brain from doing the work it needs to do in therapy, and outside of therapy, which makes healing very slow and sometimes impossible.
The Brain’s Power to Heal Itself
Depression is an expression of the brain’s attempts to understand and integrate difficult painful experiences, from the past and in the present, in circumstances where it is prevented from doing so. It tries to heal itself by pushing painful, depressing or frightening material into your mind until it can complete the work it has been trying to do. The truth is that your own brain knows more about your condition and how to heal it than any expert you are likely to meet. In a way, most of us with depression are capable of healing ourselves. This is something that our ancestors used to do unknowingly and automatically. According to some studies, in the 1950s only 1:1000 of us suffered with depression and that was mostly limited to the elderly. Today it is more than 1:10 and it is common among our children. For the thousands of years before the current age of ‘busyness’ and screen technology the brain had all the mind space it needed to reflect on and process difficult events. This prevented disorders from developing, and healed them over time if they took root. Today our modern way of life stops this from happening. Today, the idea of spending long periods in silence, being with our thoughts, seems unimaginable to most of us.
Today, happiness is largely measured in money, which provides the best possible ways to avoid boredom and reflecting about uncomfortable things.
It doesn’t work of course. In modern society we have hundreds of diagnosable psychiatric/psychological disorders, dozens of theoretical models intended to explain them, and a professional landscape that is teeming with different kinds of doctors and therapists trying to heal them. Today, our collective mind problems have the appearance of an epidemic that has spiralled beyond our control and only a tiny fraction of us are immune.
It is unfortunate, but healing our mind problems requires us to do something that we have come to believe is completely unnatural. This requires spending hours at a time being alone, without distractions, allowing the brain to think about what it needs to, particularly those painful events that continue to affect us. As a clinical psychologist I ask all of my clients to spend at least one hour each day alone and in quiet, with their thoughts, with no TV, radio, computer or smartphone. Initially this is to help find all of the painful experiences from the past that are troubling. When ‘mind space’ is suddenly available the brain eventually starts to fill it with all the stuff it never got to work on in the past. Later, this time is used to reflect on those experiences after discussing them in detail in therapy. Those who do this heal themselves and change very quickly.
It is my experience that most clients with depression, if they are willing and able to talk about what they need to talk about, and they are willing and capable of reflecting on their experiences in their own time, can heal the root cause of their emotional problems in two to four weeks. Some can heal in less time, and some require more. Some require a lot more because of the complexity of their history and their difficult day to day circumstances, but anyone capable of thinking and talking can heal fully in time.
Getting rid of the pain of past events will remove the core of the depression but it won’t fix all of your problems. You will probably have problematic beliefs about yourself and the world, shaped by those past events, that need to change. But without the blockages of unexamined painful experiences from the past, your brain will now be able to remove such clutter more easily. Getting rid of past pain will not bring back a lost loved one, or a lost relationship. It cannot instantly supply you with a circle of friends, a relationship, a better marriage, a steady adequate income, a more supportive and nourishing family, or a nicer home. It cannot immediately provide you with skills that you don’t have, like social skills to make friends or employment skills to get a good job, but it will allow your brain to work more freely, to see things more clearly, to find healthier perspectives, make better choices and make it more possible to change the things in your life that make you unhappy. This may take time.
Importantly, the process of removing the pain of past experience will provide you with direct knowledge and experience of the way in which the mind and brain actually work, how mind problems develop and how they are healed. This will place you in the relatively rare position of being less vulnerable to mind problems than ‘normal’ people, and better placed to achieve a level of happiness and wellbeing.
The approach outlined here has been simplified with a view to providing clarity and optimism. It is part of a broader therapeutic model, Neuropsychological Processing (NPP), which cannot be fully described in a short piece of writing, and is thus necessarily incomplete. Addressing the underlying core of depression is simple and straightforward in theory, exactly as described above. In the real world things are often more complicated. Healing requires spending time alone with your thoughts, and most of us feel an enormous and overwhelming resistance to doing this which must be overcome. Some of us don’t have our own personal living space to do this, and others can’t or won’t make the time because they have every moment of every day accounted for. There are times when healing might require changing the unhealthy habits and routines of a lifetime, and it is often the case that people would rather cling to these habits because their depression isn’t quite bad enough. And some of us live in poverty or financial insecurity and cannot focus on healing due to concerns about basic survival in a society with diminished community.
It is my hope that most people who are suffering from depression today, and maybe considering suicide, will be able to recognise themselves in this discussion, and realise that they are not hopeless ‘mental cases’ with an ‘illness’ that will burden them forever. They are people who have had bad experiences as children, as teenagers and as adults, who did their very best to avoid thinking about those experiences – just like everyone else. It is my hope that this view will make more sense to them than their current conventional understanding, that they will see that depression, without the catastrophic beliefs, is not quite as bad, and that their experience of depression will change for the better and eventually be resolved.
Finally, from the NPP perspective the commonplace prescription of antidepressants is like taking paracetamol for a broken bone without setting it. This might reduce the emotional pain artificially but it won’t address the real problem. Depression and most other mind problems are not medical disorders and there will never be a pill or a medical procedure to fix them. They can only be ‘undone’ in the place where they developed and where they continue to exist – in the mind – and only the brain can do it.
The one benefit of antidepressants, I believe, is for those few whose ability to think and talk has been compromised by the severity of their mind problem, or other factors.
Michael L. Fox