Depression has many origins, but trauma is one of the major categories. People suffer from all kinds of traumatic experiences, but here are a few examples of how trauma could have caused you to become depressed.
1. You got bullied in school and you concluded from the experience that you were a social misfit, weak, shameful. You carried that belief into adulthood, practicing it in your mind every day. You gave up on standing up for yourself or expecting to get what you want. You focus on trying to please other people to prove your worth, and very narcissistic people who need an adoring audience are drawn to you. You spend your time with people who are self-centered, critical, and see you only for what you can do for them, not for who you are or your inherent value as a person. You are alone with who you really are, and you have already concluded you are a social misfit, weak, and shameful, so you reinforce your sense of worthlessness. Feeling alone, full of shame, unseen, how can you not be depressed?
2. You were in the car in high school when your friend who was driving and drunk crashed the car and died. You survived but felt so guilty that your friend died and you didn’t that you are stuck in “what if….” You think if you had stopped your friend from driving, or from drinking, or you’d insisted your friend go in a different direction, that your friend would still be alive. You feel like a murderer. You have sudden images and sounds from the accident flash in your mind, and each time you feel flooded with guilt. It is difficult to feel like you deserve to live, to be happy, to be in love, to be successful, when your friend never got the chance. So you sabotage any chances you get to be happy. Naturally, what’s left is depression.
3. You gave birth and in the process you and/or the baby almost died. The pain was unspeakable, the terror overwhelming. After both of you are fine physically and you go home with the baby, you are crushed with depression. You are stuck in your brain in the moments of trauma. You are convinced someone is about to die, even though you know that’s probably irrational in the present. The part of your brain where the trauma is stored is still living in the moments of trauma, and in those moments, the reality is that someone is probably going to die. Because that memory is not linked with the rest of your brain, it doesn’t know time has passed, and you and the baby are safe now. So you live with the terror and conviction that someone you care about deeply is about to die. This is a grief that can’t be resolved until the trauma is resolved, so it holds you in a depressed state.
4. Your father beat you as a child. You had to shut down emotionally in order to survive the experience of the person who is supposed to love and protect you being hateful and dangerous instead. That way, you don’t feel anything, so you don’t have to feel the rage and shame and hurt and sadness of this reality. You also find that if you shut down, he stops sooner than if you show anger or cry. Shutting down your emotions becomes your default state and gets locked in. Without access to your emotions, you can’t feel or express them as new events stimulate them. Every emotional response piles up in an enormous muffled pile that causes you to feel a numb general pain that doesn’t feel like any particular emotion and can’t be resolved until it can be untangled. This is how depression feels—intense pain that isn’t any particular emotion that can be expressed and relieved.
5. Your parents were alcoholics and you had to be the adult in the house. You got your younger siblings to bed, to school, to sports. You woke your parents up so they would go to work. You kept yourself and your siblings out of their way when they were drunk and violent. You cleaned up the mess after a drunken evening. You were scared and traumatized over and over by this. You had to be on alert most of the time, ready to assess the danger and protect your parents, your siblings, and yourself from whatever came at you. In the process, you never really relaxed or knew what you felt or trusted anyone to take care of you.
So you grow up that way and as an adult feel on alert, responsible, and alone. You don’t even know who you are or what you want, because there’s never been a chance to focus on any of that. You are the hero, but empty inside. You don’t even think of discovering what might fulfill you, but you certainly don’t feel fulfilled. You are not getting much out of your life—joy, love, fun. You don’t even know how to have a real human connection, because the only ways you know to relate to people are to protect them or protect yourself from them. Feeling alone and empty, you try to fill yourself up with food, sugar, or maybe even alcohol. All of that makes you feel better momentarily, and then much worse. Depression is the result.
Of course these are only a few examples of an infinite number of possibilities. If you relate to any of these experiences, or have had others that could have caused you to become depressed, please get help to resolve the trauma, so you can be your full, best, happiest self.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California
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