Although it is not a conscious choice to become depressed, many people are locked in repeating cycles of depression that they feel powerless to break free from. How does this happen? It usually begins with how our early caregivers treated us – and themselves. For example, if our feelings were treated with curiosity, love and respect, we learned that feelings were important and worthy of expression. Conversely, if our caregivers were stressed or unavailable to us, they could not tend to our emotions. From this, we came to the conclusion that our feelings were unwelcome and a burden to others. We also saw the negative results of sharing our feelings (e.g., getting yelled at, hit, ignored or humiliated). In short, we learned from our caregivers’ behaviors whether or not we could safely express emotion and which ones were “acceptable.”
They also taught us how we should prioritize things in our lives and how to cope with the world around us. From the practical to the emotional, we used our caregivers as a guide for how to treat ourselves and everyone else in our lives. For example, if we saw our caregivers constantly putting others first to their own detriment, we learned to do the same things ourselves.
Sadly, these learned actions – to ignore, minimize or dismiss our needs and true feelings – become the cornerstone of our adult lives and are perpetuated in an automatic and unconscious way. Ultimately, we turn these destructive behaviors and thoughts on ourselves and repeat the inadequate and maladaptive coping strategies we learned. This can result in self-blame, self-sabotage and automatically burying our true feelings. If the majority of our coping strategies are unhealthy, we wind up becoming chronically depressed and find it difficult to achieve mental health or maintain a peaceful state of mind.
When people are caught in this kind of depressive cycle, it can be quite difficult to develop the perspective and the tools needed to objectively identify and deal with the real feelings underneath the symptoms. However, with good psychotherapy, people can learn how to identify and reduce their depressive symptoms. Ultimately, directly dealing with and experiencing our complex feelings results in increased hopefulness about the future and an improved ability to enjoy one’s life and relationships.
For more information on how avoiding feelings can lead to depression, see Dealing with Feelings.
For those who are not familiar with the signs and symptoms of depression, I have included the following information from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH.gov). Please note that not all people with depressive illnesses experience the same symptoms. Further, the severity, frequency and duration of symptoms will vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.
· Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings
· Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
· Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
· Irritability, restlessness
· Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
· Fatigue and decreased energy
· Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
· Insomnia, early–morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
· Overeating, or appetite loss
· Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
· Unexplained physical problems without identifiable medical causes (e.g., headaches, back pain, fatigue)