Dana stood outside Philip’s apartment, waiting for him to answer her knock. When he finally opened the door, she was taken aback by the person she saw standing there. This tired figure wasn’t the Philip she knew. She entered and sat on the couch, waiting for him. He walked across the room as if it were a thick swamp.
Her friends had told her something seemed to be wrong these past two weeks. He’d stopped going to work, passed on invitations to gatherings, and barely answered his phone. Still, she hadn’t been prepared for this. She asked what was going on. Even his words seemed heavy and slow. The spark in his eyes was gone. It was difficult to engage him. Everything about him—his tone of voice, expressions, movement—seemed full of hopelessness. Dana noticed her own discomfort and agitation. She had always stood by her friends, offering comfort through breakups, losses, and sadness. But this was something else entirely, and she was surprised and confused by her desire to get away.
Many people mistake depression for simply another feeling such as anger, or sadness. But depression is not an emotion. And it is definitely not the same as sadness.
Depression vs. Sadness
Sadness is an emotion.
When you sit with someone who is feeling sad, they might start telling you about what is upsetting them. Tears may flow. But then, if both of you suddenly remember or share something funny, that same person could very likely start laughing.
Sadness often lies within a person’s zone of resilience, unless it is a trigger for unresolved trauma. A person who feels sad is often still able to stay regulated and go on about their day.
Depression is not an emotion.
In contrast to sadness, depression is a particular cluster of experiences that includes cognitive, physiological, and multiple emotional aspects. A person with depression may have difficulty thinking and concentrating. The tone of their thoughts is often bleak and pessimistic. It may not be easy to recall positive memories. To some, it may feel as if a thick, dark fog has spread through their brain, making the neural connections harder to see and the firing slower.
People with depression might move and speak more slowly, have difficulty sleeping, and have a change in their appetite. They may report feelings of numbness, emptiness, or heaviness. It can be hard for them to connect with feelings like joy and hope.
One of the many definitions of depression is “a place that is lower than the surrounding area” (Depression, n.d.). I like this definition because it gives a good visual that reflects the relationship of depression to the zone of resilience. Depression falls below this zone.
In this hypo-aroused state, a person may no longer be able to access resourceful memories, ideas, or feelings. Not having this capacity to feel variety means that a person’s system is no longer able to regulate itself. Think of a room with a malfunctioning air conditioner. Suddenly it is ice cold, but the thermostat is not able to turn off the cooling system or adjust the temperature to bring the room back within the optimal zone. The system remains dysregulated.
How Can Depression Impact Friends, Colleagues, and Partners?
We are social beings. As such, we are wired to tune into others for clues about safety. For instance, if we hear a loud bang next door, we will look at the people in the room with us to see their reaction. Are they worried? Do they get up and run out the door? If they seem at ease, we can shake that startle off and go back to enjoying the evening.
Social connection not only helps us co-regulate, it also helps us thrive. However, dysfunctional social engagement can also result in co-dysregulation. So, isn’t it possible that our instinctual survival mechanism is wired to be triggered by dysregulation?
Consider Dr. Tronick’s Still Face Experiment. It begins with a mother playing with her baby of about 1 year old. They are seen engaged with each other, mirroring sounds, smiles and gestures. They interact and co-create a connection. The mother is then instructed to look away for a moment and then look back to her baby with a completely still face, showing no reaction or response to the baby. The baby’s confusion and alarm are very visible. She tries every way possible to engage her mother and, with each failed attempt, becomes increasingly distressed (Tronick, 2009).
As adults, we are of course more equipped to analyze and respond to situations than a baby when faced with an unresponsive dysregulated system. But still, it is not unlikely that an alarm goes off at a primal level. In the presence of a non-responsive other, such as in the case of a hypo-aroused depressed system, our nervous system senses the pull toward dysregulation. It fights back with agitation and a desire to attack the perceived “threat.” That is why it is common for people to feel angry or irritated by others who are depressed, or have an urge to get away.
You might wonder, then, what you can do to help a loved one struggling with depression when you feel challenged by its presence.
First, know it is natural, and perfectly okay, to feel challenged by the presence of depression. Then remind yourself it is important to take care of yourself so you can be there for the people you care about.
Here are some steps you can take before visiting loved ones who are in a depressed state:
- Practice breathing techniques to ground and settle your own system into your zone of resilience.
- Do some stretches and twists to feel more in your body and connect with yourself as an individual.
- Repeat a few positive affirmations to help you differentiate and reduce overwhelm. For example, say your name and then, “I am okay. I can be with my friend and still keep my balance.”
Here are some suggestions for activities you might do with a friend experiencing depression:
- Take a walk together. You can talk while walking or just notice the scenery. Walking has been shown to help with depression (Robertson, Robertson, Jepson, & Maxwell, 2012).
- Color together. Coloring has been shown to help with depressive symptoms (Flett, Lie, Riordan, Thompson, Conner, & Hayne, 2017). Coloring can also be a good icebreaker when talking seems difficult.
You can also find great tips, on GoodTherapy and Google, about what to do when someone you know has depression. Remember also that one of the best ways you can help your friend is to help them connect with a compassionate therapist or counselor who can offer professional support.
- Depression. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/depression
- Flett, J. A. M., Lie, C., Riordan, B. C., Thompson, L. M., Conner, T. S., & Hayne, H. (2017). Sharpen your pencils: Preliminary evidence that adult coloring reduces depressive symptoms and anxiety. Creativity Research Journal, 29(4), 409-416.
- Robertson, R., Robertson, A., Jepson, R., & Maxwell, M. (2012). Walking for depression or depressive symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 5(1), 66-75. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1755296612000099
- Tronick, E. (2009). Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0
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