What Your Stress Response Says About You

As a psychotherapist, I often hear people talk about how they just get so stressed out over the smallest stuff but they feel like they can’t control it. They know the stress is not good for them and that they should not get so stressed over such small things, but it just keeps happening anyways. “Something happens, blood pressure goes up and there is not much I can do about it. I just get so easily stressed out.” I hear this a lot.

This morning I watched an interesting lecture on depression given at Stanford University by Robert Sapolsky, who is an author and one of the world’s leading nueroendocronologists. In this lecture, which I will link to below if you are interested in watching it, Sapolsky explains how depression is a serious biological disease just like diabetes. In fact, Sapolsky states that depression is one of the most damaging diseases that a person can experience.

What I found really interesting about Sapolsky’s lecture was when he started talking about how depression as a state where someone cannot get out of bed, is not really what depression is. A more accurate biological manifestation of depression is a continual heightened stress response. This means that a defining characteristic of a person with depression is an continual activation of their stress response. Interesting, right? Like a machine gun going off all day, a person with depression is often experiencing an uncontrollable stress response to various things in their life that don’t warrant the kind of stressed out response they get. This gradually wears a person down over time and causes them to feel worn out, low energy, low drive and unable to get out of bed at times.

We often think of depression as a depressed or heavy state. I found it fascinating that depression can manifest as an over-active, hyper-stimulated state. A person who is always getting upset or stressed out over the simplest things (like dishes not be done, being late, closet not organized, someone cutting them off in traffic or saying something they don’t like, etc, etc…) is actually experiencing a major symptom of depression.

I am interested in this because as a mindfulness teacher and practitioner one of my main interests in mindfulness is its ability to help us get much more skilled when it comes to dealing with our stress response. Instead of our stress response to various little things causing our entire day to be ruined because we get so upset or stressed out, mindfulness helps us to respond positively to our stress response by noticing that it has kicked in and then being able to let it go. This is often called self-regulation.

Since an elevated and often uncontrollable stress response is a main characteristic of depression, I find this lecture encouraging since it validates what I already know- that regular mindfulness practice is an effective intervention for depression (and anxiety). Practicing mindfulness also encourages a person to take a more active role in their mental and physical health rather than engaging in learned helplessness, which causes the depressed state to spiral downwards.

 

You can watch the lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc

Advertisements

I Choose Depression

When I told my mother that I am dealing with intense depression she said, “Well son, depression is a choice.” Then she quickly escaped any further conversation about it by making up a story that she was in a meeting and had to go. What meeting? My mom has not worked in over twenty years.

Even though I felt deeply wounded by her quick dismissal of my pain, I thought about what she said. “Depression is a choice.” Am I choosing to be depressed?

A fellow psychotherapist whom I sometimes have lunch with deals with serious depression. But he is one of the happier people I know. He often says, “I choose joy. I choose to be joyful because I have to.” Really? You have to? I find it odd that someone who is very depressed could appear so happy. Something seems very forced and inauthentic about it to me, but who am I to judge? Don’t most people do this?

Deep down, depression is a choice. It is true that I have little interest in happiness. I find positivity and happiness to be incredibly banal and superficial states to be in. If I am happy, great- I will enjoy it. But it is the pursuit of happiness and positivity that I think is responsible for so much misery.

As a psychotherapist, the one thing I hear all the time is, “I just want to be happy.” This I feel is the root of most people’s unhappiness (and empty bank accounts).

I choose not to be happy. If happiness shows up, as it sometimes does, I don’t turn it away. I enjoy it. But I choose to not strive to be happy and positive. I don’t think I should be happy. In fact, I think the desire to be happy is just as dangerous as driving a motorcycle at high speeds.

Depression is a logical emotional reflection of the world we are living in today. Just like a pool of water reflects the sky and trees that hang over it, depression is a reflection of the world the soul is living in today. The soul is lonely and in a state of terror and despair. The soul is sad about all the sensless violence all around. The soul feels under threat from the absence of creativity and authentic community in our working and private lives. The soul feels stuck by political and economic conditions outside our control. The soul feels empty because the more it tries to find fulfillment in external things, the more alone and empty it feels. The soul is quite frustrated in the Capitalistic world of today.

And then there is the simple fact of our own mortality. The fact that everything we love, everything we hold close to ourselves, everything we have earned, even ourselves, will disappear. When a person really looks closely at the image being reflecting by the pool of water- depression is what they will see.

Most chose not to look at all. Just keep looking away. Say you have a metting to get to.

My mom is right though. I do chose depression because depression is what I see reflected back at me, especially in my work as a psychotherapist. I mean how could I hear about the worst things that happen to people in life, day after day, without feeling depressed? How could I be a psychotherapist and be happy? Happy Psychotherapist is just another term for Sociopath Psychotherapist, Psycho Psychotherapist or plain old Shitty Psychotherapist. If a therapist is able to be happy while hearing about the worst things that happen to people, stop seeing them. They do not care about you, even though they may act like they do.

The best psychotherapist I ever knew, who was given all kinds of awards and wrote several books and was a prestigous mentor to many including myself, jumped off a bridge.

If I am going to provide guidance to those going through the various difficult aspects of life, I want to be one of them. I want to get real with myself and stop pursuing fake dreams of Hollywood induced happiness. How else can I really help? This is what I learned from him.

In middle-age, my life has become more about learning how to live with, learn about, accept and get better at describing the image being reflected back at me, rather than trying to change it, run from it, fix it, deny it, worry about it, complain about it and/or ignore it (common stratageies in the America of today).

Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone. This is my strategy. I leave my depression alone. I see it and accept that it is there. I lean into it and learn from it. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I just notice that it is there and smile at it. Sometimes I notice that it goes away.

Because of depression I am pushed further inside of myself. I am forced to let go of any kind of belief in the attainment of any real Hollywood fulfillment through economic and material gain (consumerism) and instead work towards transmuting my loneliness into real solitude.

I meditate. I contemplate. I sit alone.

Loneliness is a terrible feeling of disappearing even when we have so much and are around so many. When lonely, we can never get enough and are continually in pursuit of more. We even feel separated from ourselves when alone so we turn on the TV for company. Solitude means to be at home in ourselves. A person who is in real solitude is a person who is comfortable within themselves. A person in solitude is a person who is no longer disappearing. They have arrived. They are two people in one. Friends with themself. A person who is dealing with lonliness (which is the majority of people in American society) is no one in one. They have no friend within to sit with.

The person who is striving for happiness is often no one in one. This feeling of being no one within is the fuel that keeps us searching for more. Some of the greatest empires and fortunes have been built by these kinds of people. But this striving is an endless pursuit because it is the pursuit which is creating the loneliness.

Depression pushes us down into solitude. The person with depression is given the opportunity to become more at home within themselves by being pushed further within. The person who survives and successfully manages depression is the person who has been able to move from loneliness into solitude. Those who do not survive depression or who end up having depression destroy their lives, have not been able to move through loneliness. They get stuck in continually feeling as if they are disappearing inside because they are pursuing happiness on the outside.

So yes, I do chose to be depressed. Why not? Depression helps me to relate to the world in a way that feels more logical and sane. The happiness and positivity craze that the vast majority of people are suffering from at this moment in history, only leads a person away from themselves and towards more lonliness. Just do a Google search on the amount of people taking psychiatric medications and buying self help books in this country. The pursuit of happiness and positivity creates a superficial existence that lacks substance because it is always in pursuit of something. Depression is deepening. It pushes a person further within themselves because there is the realization that the loneliness in the outside world can never bring them the happiness they were looking for.

Fuck happiness. Stop buying their books and going to their workshops. Stop ingesting their pills. By now don’t you see that it does not work? Instead, get better at being depressed.

It is only through going further within, through the deepening of one’s relationship with oneself that real solitude can be attained. And it is when we discover solitude within ourselves, that we really start to live free.