Feeling blue, sad, lethargic or unmotivated can be a transient mood that comes with disappointing news, such as not getting the job you interviewed for, being turned down for a date, or missing someone who has moved away. “Situational depression” is a normal response to difficult situations and down moods tends to dissipate with time and activity. “Chronic depression,” on the other hand, is often described as living in an interminable fog. Life may feel dulled and require effort, but people manage to carry on, and because they’ve felt this way for so long, they may not even be aware that it could be any different. A “major depression” can set in with a life-altering loss, like the death of a beloved spouse, disabling illness or financial crisis.
At one time or another, most people face such a loss. It may take several months or even a few years to recover one’s sense of balance as adaptations and adjustments are made.
How do we know if someone is depressed? Signs may vary with individuals, but typically, glum demeanor, lack of motivation, social withdrawal, irritability, negative thinking, and in more serious cases, hopelessness and despair, may be apparent. And of course, any indication of suicidal thoughts should be taken seriously and professional help sought immediately.
Human beings are neurologically wired to respond to threat to life and well-being with three innate and automatic responses of fight, flight or freeze. Depression can be understood as a “freeze” response, often reflected in a sense of physical and emotional stuckness. And this is where our “Daruma Psychology,” discussed in the previous “Let’s Talk” column (published in the Oct. 18-31, 2012 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly) comes in. Research on overcoming depression has found that changing negative thinking can trigger the brain’s response to move on from surviving to thriving. Repeated negative thinking can work to activate the freeze/stuck survival response that the brain is committed to being vigilant about.
“Seven times down, eight times up” is a good reminder of how important it is to develop practices that strengthen our resilience to the winds of life. Challenging our negative beliefs and thought patterns require paying conscious attention to that internal, monkey-mind chatter that goes on in your head. Typical of this saru-chan chatter are negative words about self and others, such as “can’t,” “won’t,” “never,” or what one famous psychologist called “catastrophizing” and “awfulizing” found in words such as “horrible,” “terrible,” “unforgiveable,” etc. And of course such thoughts are certainly understandable in many situations, but the practice of resilience and therefore, mental health, requires that you move on from limiting self talk to actually replacing it with the language of possibility and promise. A good example of this way of thinking is reflected in the message often heard from Rev. Bob Oshita of the Sacramento Betsuin, that when you bend to the pain and disappointment, take a deep breath, and open your mind and heart to the impermanence of all things, such acceptance can allow life to flow.
Caveats: 1. Some depressions can be the result of chemical or hormonal imbalance affecting the nervous system and may require more intense professional support. If symptoms of depression are protracted, see a medical doctor for treatment and referral. 2. This column is intended as an educational/informational forum and not a replacement for professional mental health treatment.
Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Sacramento and Berkeley with specialization in intergenerational trauma. www.satsukiinatherapy.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story”). The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.