Why do people become depressed? A popular theory is that it is the brain chemistry that is in disarray. But this way of thinking often obscures the issue.
Depression rarely comes out of nowhere. It almost always has an explanation, even if it is not apparent to us.
A better explanation for why many people become depressed is, in my opinion, that we develop vulnerabilities earlier on in our life that predispose us to live a life that is lacking in zest, enjoyment, and meaning.
Oftentimes these earlier vulnerabilities point us to experiences of trauma, neglect, or interpersonal disappointments that may or may not be fully apparent to us.
We almost all undergo some kind of trauma, neglect, or serious interpersonal disappointments at some point in our life, and how we deal with these events can prepare the ground for a later depressive episode. To understand why this is is to understand how humans function.
Responding To Trauma By Losing Ourselves
When we go through difficult events that we don’t know how to deal with, our psyche responds just like a lizard that loses its tail because it is afraid of a predator. It helps us make an adaptation out of fear, but always at the cost of making us a little less human, or little less ourselves.
Overwhelming shame, for example, might make us abandon a piece of who we are, or in the worst case, our entire person.
How Abuse Can Lead To Depression
If I was abused, for example, and didn’t know how to deal with my conflicted emotions I would become depressed, this is therefore not because there is something wrong with my brain. It is because some part of me doesn’t want the life that I have. My depression is like the last call to me deep from within that indicates that I need to make changes to my life situation because the status quo is antithetical to life. My adaptations to a difficult situation, have now become destructive to what life is really about. Life has turned against life, and my depression is thankfully alerting me to this fact.
Trauma Comes In Many Forms
Trauma does not have to imply a big dramatic calamitous event, but can refer to any moment when we felt overwhelmed with painful or distressing emotions we did not get the help to deal with. Sexual abuse, physical violence, or growing up with alcoholic parents are some of the more apparent reasons why a person might get exposed to emotional overwhelm, but there are many others.
One of the more frequent causes of adaptations out of fear is the fear of losing love from the people we depend on. In Alice Miller’s book “The Gifted Child”, she describes how this can happen due to growing up with narcissistic parents.
A child, she says, has the need to look into their parent’s eyes and see themselves reflected. If I cry, I need my parent to validate that I am feeling sad, and if I am happy, I need my parents to be happy for me. Unfortunately, some of us look into our parents eyes, and see our parents feelings, not our own. When we are sad, they feel inadequate and get annoyed with us. When we are excited, they are too busy watching TV, and tell us to shush.
These kinds of experiences when they accumulate over time can create serious distortions to our self-image, and can make us abandon ourselves in a pursuit to become more acceptable to our parents.
Research has shown that threats to our sense of safe connection with a caregiver register in our brain as panic, and that losing our connection completely registers as pain. To avoid feeling these unbearable emotions, we will do a lot, even if it means ridding ourselves of our natural spontaneous desires and feelings.
Other ways to deal with the threat of loss is to become numb, or to become what the psychiatrist Karl Jaspers has described as a “dead person with wakeful eyes”..........