Karoly Irtzl: Emotional dynamics of depression

What is depression? Where does it come from? Different words have been used to label this mysterious psychic phenomenon for thousands of years: melancholia, nigra bilis, lugubris, morositas, wistfulness, saturnine, and the modern scientific diagnoses: depression, unipolar disorder, depressed episode of the bipolar disorder.

In this mood you feel hopeless, overwhelmed and experience a lack of motivation. A dead end from where there is no way out. One is desperate to find joy and happiness, but there are only bad thoughts and the sour experience of making wrong decisions all the time. This is a real misery what is natural you want to turn and run away from.

There are emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, which we are more liable to experience and act out than others. The reason for this is that certain feelings and attitudes fit our self image better. Whereas, there are certain emotions, in every one of us, that are much harder to show or live with. We become extremely sensitive to them, because they have a shocking effect on us: we experience turmoil and terrible insecurity when they appear.

In the course of the development of our cognitive and emotional abilities we encounter problems that originate from the contradiction of inner motivations and values. One or some of these conflicts can be so painful and confusing that we can not decide which leg we should tear off to get out of the trap. In the inner world this choice can be as dramatic as this. Another “solution” of this contradiction is ignoring the conflict. With an unconscious training we experience that we can make it. As life passes, we unconsciously learn how to react to frustrations and stress situations by displaying those emotions that may be still disturbing but meet our and our parents’ expectations, and fit the self image better. People can readily recur to these emotions. Experiencing these feelings can curiously cover the other more primary and more frightening reactions which are suppressed this way. So, it is a very interesting feature of human nature that we can use this subconscious substitution to defend ourselves against those moods that we are completely unable to cope with, because we are not used to them and they painfully contradict the image of our personality. The emotions that are easily displayed are likely to become “cover emotions”, and those that are difficult to act out and deal with are likely to become “hidden emotions”. All of us differ more or less in this respect one way or the other. One’s hidden emotions can be the other one’s cover emotions. A real irony and challenge of life is that the passion of romantic relationships often originates from this exciting contrast. Later on in a marriage this contrast can be a source of eternal conflicts and life-long learning as well.

A constant search for new experiences, discoveries, surprises, impressions, enthusiasm and bliss is what characterises the other end of the bipolar disorder: the manic or hypomanic episode, the partly successful running away from being depressed. To break out and achieve that extreme zeal that is to cover depression you need a tremendous amount of energy and a technique to focus your attention to exclude the disturbing part of reality. The problem with this try is that one does not work through those barriers that block the way. It is only an emotional gut reaction lacking the comprehensive and intelligent understanding of the problem. And so, as soon as energy is consumed and the nervous system switches to rest the person is likely to fall back into melancholy but even a deeper one. It is amplified by the feeling of exhaustion which naturally generates a lack of motivation from what one is likely to try to get rid of if perceived as something intolerably terrible. And the vicious circle starts again. Escaping from reality again and again with the help of a certain special kind of experience results in getting familiar with and accustomed to it. It will gradually be less surprising and less effective in eliminating the problems and changing the major attitudes to them. So, to sustain a positive result stimulation has to be increased, which at a certain point becomes a really silly thing to do, because it can cause serious mental or even physiological problems, and one can destroy his or her life without even realising the fact of being addicted. Sometimes these altered states of mind are a spice of life, and can liberate you like a celebration with those who are close to you. But using these extreme experiences regularly for escape is like forcing the mind to think differently, and because of this a desperate fight can start deep inside. So, in a lot of cases addiction is a consequence of trying to escape from depression. Thinking it over, many conclude that these hysterical, auto suggestive, psychedelic or alcoholic states of mind are just pointless efforts to forget bad disturbing thoughts because they have to come to reality afterwards anyway.
To live in a constant depression, without any remarkable maniac defence mechanism, means being aware that illusory trips will not help. However, one can yearn for a life of ease, and lacking the ability to get it feels helpless. One finds that there is no way to change that miserable mood, but still believes that would enjoy happiness if something was different. One can blame oneself or others for this, and at this point from under the cover of depression, melancholy, sadness, bitterness or resignation a different feeling can emerge: anger.

In case when depression is on the surface we often find an underlying turmoil of unexpressed anger and annoyance. Suppressing anger really consumes energy. No surprise that one experiences a lack of energy in a depressive episode like this. It happens many times that prostration is a result of an aborted revolt because one cannot find a compromise between the ambivalent feelings of extreme anger and sorrow. In this situation psychotherapeutic treatment of the mopes has to include the improvement of those abilities that make one able to surmount this deep conflict concerning the pattern of relationship to others and the basic questions about e.g. freedom, independence and anxiety.

Feeling down can also be a result of futile trials to fulfil exaggerated, idealized but obscure desires of the family. When these too high expectations are built into a person’s value system then the series of disappointments can cause a resignation that can take the form of depression. In this case it is called “learned helplessness”.

In other cases, for example, anger can be the cover reaction to stress situations, which can hide the depression or anxiety or the feeling of exposure that one is unable to integrate.

So, symptoms can be seen as imperfect solutions to very deep primary problems of self development. From this perspective a symptom can show a certain coping strategy toward difficulties. With resignation anger ceases, or when anger is acted out the feeling of guilt or despair goes away, etc. Nevertheless, these reactions are not real solutions because they can cause suffering and secondary problems for us, or for others. Uncovering and facing our hidden emotions helps in getting familiar with and tolerating them. As a result of this, one can become stronger and more balanced, because being less frightened makes it possible to deal with them, and so, the acting repertoire of the personality can get wider. Therefore it can be very helpful to devote time to reveal and make friends with the underlying obscure primary fears and desires to find more creative and adequate answers to our problems.

Karoly Irtzl
psychologist

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