The Spiritual Power of Depression
By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S
This clever tagline was used for years by a pharmaceutical company hawking a particular anti-depressant, or SSRI, and the medication in question allegedly ameliorated not only the despair and fatigue of depression but also the actual physical aches and pains that often accompany it. Many patients swore by it, still do. In fact, there are a host of such SSRI and other anti-depressant drugs on the market that have helped scores of people get over the depression hump.
No one likes to be depressed. Yes, depression can, indeed, hurt—mind and body. And it’s emblematic of our instant-gratification culture to do something to feel better right away: take a drink, smoke a joint, pop a pill, find a distraction—ANY distraction. We’re supposed to be happy, right? Depression, it seems, is simply not acceptable.
I try to offer clients another perspective. Perhaps their depression is a wake-up call. I ask them: What is your depression trying to tell you? Jungian therapist and author James Hollis says that when the same angst keeps coming up again and again, it’s “the soul knocking on the door.”
Depression and anxiety come with the human condition. We all confront painful and difficult times in our lives when we feel low, or anxious (the flip side of depression), and not like our best selves. This is normal. What’s most important is to explore the depression, to sit with it, to try and move through it, and in so doing gain valuable insight about the choices we are making and the lives we are leading. Chances are, there’s either a situational reason or, more likely, an unconscious imperative that is not being addressed.
Jungian therapist James Hollis, in one of his many books, Swamplands of the Soul/New Life in Dismal Places, writes:
“It takes great courage to value depression, to respect it, not to try to medicate it away or distract ourselves from its misery. Down there is potential meaning, split off from consciousness, but alive, dynamic. Although a depression robs conscious life of energy, that energy is not gone. It is in the underworld, and like Orpheus who goes down there to confront, perhaps to charm, the lower powers, so we too are obliged to go down into the depression and find our soul’s treasure.”
However, and this is an important caveat: Clients who are deeply, clinically, depressed and/or who have a genetic component to their depression, likely have dysfunctional brain chemistry; they have a medical illness. They can fall into darkness precipitously, dangerously, and get stuck. Once there, they don’t have the energy, or functionality, to do the necessary therapeutic work. They need medication to “bring them up,” to stabilize them enough to explore their issues and look inside themselves.
In Darkness Visible, the writer William Styron describes his harrowing experience with clinical depression:
“The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.”
Owen Powell, LCSW, clinical director of Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, has witnessed powerful changes in seriously depressed clients who finally resort to medication. She says:
“For people in this category and others who have been endeavoring to independently bootstrap and white-knuckle their pain for years, deciding to take medication can be a tremendous gesture of self-love and self-compassion that can be as powerful as the medication itself. This symbolic gesture can even help them have more courage to ask for help and accept help from others.”
She goes on to say that for clients who aren’t interested in doing the critical therapeutic and spiritual work, taking medication as a superficial fix isn’t the answer.
“Taking medication to numb or ignore the pain is not helpful. It seems that medication, like everything, is about how you frame it, view it, interpret its meaning.”
Indeed, research bears out that the most successful treatment for depression is a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
In my own practice and life, I’ve seen a number of people who begin taking meds during a dark period, with positive effect, then find it difficult to stop. Many, either out of fear and/or difficult side effects when trying to quit, continue taking them—for years, even decades. For clients who are not genetically depressed, living in such a medicated state can ultimately tamp down the motivation for looking deeply within.
Admittedly, it’s daunting, if not impossible, to navigate this journey alone. Medication or not, seeing a psychotherapist or joining a therapeutic group can go a long way toward healing. Journaling about one’s angst, according to research, is highly effective. James Pennebaker, psychology professor at The University of Texas/Austin, has found that writing delves much more deeply into the unconscious than talk therapy. Pennebaker, who advocates journaling four times a week for 20 minutes at a time—as a regular discipline—has spent years researching the therapeutic benefits of writing. His findings also suggest that writing about emotions and stress can boost immune functioning in patients with such illnesses as HIV/AIDS, asthma and arthritis. And that keeping painful secrets can make people sick.
Expressing yourself through art, meditating, exercising, getting outside into nature and sunshine, eating a whole foods diet, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and connecting with others can also bolster emotional and spiritual recovery.
Once stable, clients must explore not only life situations that are toxic or dysfunctional but also existential questions.
Are you being true to yourself? Are you on your rightful path—or one that’s been prescribed by others? Are you using your talents and abilities to contribute something to the world? Are you allowing yourself to love and be loved? Are you keeping healthy boundaries around yourself, yet allowing yourself to be vulnerable with appropriate people? Are you finding meaning in your life? These are some of the deeper questions that might plague us.
So first consider exploring the question: What is my depression trying to tell me? Sooner or later, we must answer the soul’s summons. To ignore it is to remain unconscious.