Depression is painful, it’s debilitating, it sucks the life blood from us and it really hurts. Although there is still a common belief that this condition is an illness, a chemical imbalance, a brain disorder or a genetic disposition, the growing body of knowledge in the field of trauma suggests that depression is more a symptom of underlying imbalance.
As a therapist and someone who deeply values the modern understanding of trauma, attachment and dissociation, when I work with people suffering from depression, I am interested to know what happened to them, rather than what is wrong with them. I am inspired greatly by Bessel Van De Kolk, a Boston-based psychiatrist, deemed as a world expert for research in the area of post-traumatic stress and the development of the phenomenon of developmental trauma. I also found the work of Dr Terry Lynch, author, mental health activist, physician and psychotherapist, truly helpful to help us understand the truth about depression.
Both these two authors articulate in their work the strong links between trauma and depression. Even what may seem like a minor life incident, especially in childhood, can become a trauma which is stored in the body as an unconscious memory . If in moments of deep stress, shock or physical/emotional hurt, we are not resourced suffiently to process what is happening, then this event leaves a deep
imprint on the brain, and is known as a traumatic memory.
Emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during trauma are not like memories to us, we feel them as unpleasant physical reactions to life today. The key to how traumatic events impact our life is the degree to which we can process our emotions. If there was no-one to talk to, who saw and understood us, or our feelings were ignored, shamed or criticised, then we don’t learn how to experience them fully, in a safe and loving way, that allows us to integrate their wisdom, and move on. So in many different ways and under many differnet circumstances feelings become scary entities, to avoid at all cost.
In therapy the inquiry leads us to understanding how the need arose to shut out one’s true experience, to not feel or express what was painful, or wrong or terrifying? What has driven a person to cut off from such reality, to bury stuff and bury oneself under distractions like over-exertion, addiction to work, sex, gambling, substances, or just being somebody else?
Wise as this kind of strategy is, when we’re without adequate resources to do otherwise, these are the kind of things we do that can lead to depression, because when we don’t feel our feelings, we lose our way, we stray from the path of being the most genuine person we can be. Our gut feelings are there for our survival, to know what’s safe, to know who we are, to lead us all the way through life – if we have no sense of direction, then life loses it’s meaning, because without a sense of self we feel lost, confused, vulnerable and hopeless. These are some key elements of depression.
So therapy is a gentle unfolding of all of this, and about getting to place of safety and acceptance of where we are. From here the real work of reconnecting with the body, our felt senses, emotions and sensations can begin. So therapy is relationship building, safety making, gaining insight and it is also then about helping develop the ability to feel what wants to be felt and to develop a compassionate and softening relationship to it. This is true resilience – the ability to be with what is alive in us in any moment, allow the body to speak and tolerate what are often very disturbing experiences. In therapy I use this compassionate self exploration as a way to gently unwrap the cause, the unmet need, the unexpressed emotion.
Carolann Gneist is a person centred therapist and can be contacted personally through: https://www.thenurturing.co.uk/