The topic of feelings has come up a LOT in this blog over the last (almost 4!) years of writing this blog. One of the central skills we have to learn in our work to diminish and overcome anxiety is the ability to see feelings for what they really are – reactions to our thinking.

That takes some practice, as anyone reading this blog knows. Feelings, well, FEEL so real. They seem to carry crucial messages. They almost seem to be their own creatures – distinct from us, and having a power and a will all their own.

That makes a ton of sense. Feelings evolved as ways to motivate creatures that didn’t have the rather impressive brains we modern humans do. Feelings help drive us to do what they need to do. That includes dealing with danger…

SO – if our brains THINK we’re in danger then feelings are just going to do their natural thing and react to that perceived danger. They will try to get us to GET MOVING – run away or fight – and as you all know that leads to all the reactions of the Flight or Fight Response.

It is really, really important to get this thought firmly planted in our brains: feelings are reactions to thinking. That’s ALL of our thinking – not just the stuff we’re conscious of at the moment. As I’ve written in an earlier blog post HERE we have multiple tracks of thought running in our brains and often unaware of a lot of those tracks. Feelings can react to ANY of those thoughts zipping through our brains…

I’m focusing on this discussion today because there is a special class of feeling that can get even us experienced fear-busters rattled, upset or even think we’re getting off-track. That’s those ugly feelings of depression, doom, despair that can well up from our souls and overwhelm us.

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What the Heck IS Depression?

Holy crap, there is a ton of writing and thinking around depression. It is my argument that depression, like a lot of things that happen in the brain, is not just one single thing. Nor is it always springing from one single cause. It is however also my argument that depression the vast majority of the time is the result of ongoing anxiety – anxiety that seems to be unable to find any relief.

What does that mean? Let’s try it from an evolutionary perspective:

Anxiety = I’m in danger and I better get the hell out of here! (Run or hide)

Anger = I’m in danger and I CAN’T get away, so I’m going to have to fight my way out!

Depression = I’m in danger, I can’t run, I can’t fight – I’m trapped and I will stay trapped.

I’m basing all this thinking on the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the bulging brains who at the University of Pittsburgh back in the 1960’s did all the work around depression (see my post about his work and more about depression HERE Based on the work of Seligman and his fellow researchers depression has been pretty accurately mapped. And armed with this understanding we can tie depression back to anxiety…

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I Think I’m Doomed

That isn’t a bad summary statement for depression. It seems to be that as long as we have a sense that there’s some hope for eventual relief/freedom from our fear, whatever that happens to be, then we are anxious but not depressed. But when we decide (often, maybe even usually, unconsciously) that we are screwed/trapped/not going to escape our terrible fear, well then, depression kicks in.

If it’s this simple why do we make depression such a big deal? I argue it is linked to our parallel confusion about figuring out why we’re anxious (at least at the start of our anxiety work.) Many of us that have fought or are fighting anxiety have had a heck of a time identifying what our anxious thoughts actually are when we first wade into this work.

Well, if we’re having a hard time identifying what thoughts are scaring us, it makes perfect sense that we could also have a hard time identifying what thoughts are making us depressed. We just “suddenly” seem to be depressed, and that it “comes out of no-where.” Which isn’t true – but it FEELS that way.

And that leads to all kinds of problems. Depression is so (pardon my French) DAMN debilitating. There isn’t any real motivation in our soul. Everything seems gray, like the color has been leached out of the world. Nothing seems to matter anymore. Joy is a distant memory, and we tend to see everything in the worst possible way when we’re fighting depression.

Maybe worst of all is that terrible sense that this WILL NEVER CHANGE. That’s how it feels… and that can really get us in trouble. As with anxiety when we’re fighting depression we are not thinking clearly or well, but we often treat our thinking JUST as if it was still useful/clear. We start making less-than-intelligent decisions, we begin to abandon work or efforts that might actually help us, and we reason it away by saying we don’t FEEL like it…

Notice how I’m talking about thinking vs. feelings again? This is one of the first places we can attack this problem – but more about that in a minute.

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A Quick Note About Medication and Depression

I’m going to divert off briefly to talk about the role of medication in dealing with depression. As you may have noticed medicating depression has become a big business in this country. That by itself tells us just how many people are fighting anxiety that has morphed into a sense of being trapped, but that’s another blog post.

Depression takes a terrible toll. It makes a lot of sense that the medical community wants to find a quick and effective way to deal with depression. But in our rush to medicate depression we can become convinced that depression is usually some physical problem, best dealt with by medication. The problem with this thinking is that way, way too many of us go that route, and even find some relief from our crushing sadness and despair, but never turn and deal with the problem’s origin – our anxious thinking.

Do NOT get me wrong – medication can be a fiercely effective tool in the fight to break the power of depression and anxiety. Sometimes our depression needs something to disrupt it to help us get moving. And used in conjunction with work to identify and root out the thinking that is generating depression in the first place it can be extremely useful. But it will not, by itself, for the vast majority of us, end depression.

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We Can’t Trust Our Feelings When It Comes to Depression

In fact we really can’t trust our feelings very much when it comes to anxiety, period. And depression, believe it or not, is a set of feelings. It is the emotional response to the conviction that things will never get better – and that conviction can ONLY come from thinking.

So the bottom line in this conversation is that to deal with depression we must first identify where we’ve convinced ourselves that things have or are going to hell in our lives. Which is exactly what we need to be doing in our fight with anxiety as well. In other words (one more time for the cheap seats) depression is an OUTCOME of long-term anxiety.

While we begin that work we have to get firmly planted in our thinking that however we feel when we’re depressed those feelings are a direct reflection of our thinking, and NOTHING MORE. They don’t tell us the truth, they can’t read the future, they don’t have certain knowledge that we need to listen to – they are just feelings.

One important outcome of that understanding is this: depression isn’t addressed effectively by sitting in a corner and doing nothing. It is very tempting, it FEELS like what we should do – but that’s a lie. It is a lie because whatever is making us anxious isn’t going to kill us and eat us right this second, and whatever is making us anxious is a PROBLEM – something we need to face, sort out and address, rather than run and hide from.

That may mean seeking medical help and finding a medication that works. That by itself can be a big challenge – not all of us respond well to anti-depressants and some of us have reactions to those meds that make us feel worse. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort.

It definitely means finding the tools and assistance to identify what anxious thinking has led to depression in our thinking. Tools like this blog, tools like the number of books on depression you can find at your local bookstore, tools like solid, helpful therapy. Easier to say than do when we’re fighting depression – no question about that. But it is also the way out.

Depression/feelings of despair are very debilitating. They can suck the air out of the room. They destroy motivation. Everything seems to hurt, everything seems an effort. But all of that directly springs from anxious thinking that has turned to depressed/trapped thinking. We have the ability to break free of our feelings. We are more than our feelings. We are stronger and more able than we know. The first step is taking a first step…

God Light