Women and Depression

One of the things I educate people the most about in my office is the reason for feelings. This may sound silly, but I've found over the years that most people don't know why they have feelings, and more so, what to do with them. Society, as a whole, is timid and almost skittish about emotions. Unfortunately this part of our humanity isn't touched on in most schools, churches or homes. One of the most common struggles people have are feelings of depression; however it remains a misunderstood topic like feelings in general. Lack of education, myths, shame, and stigmas keep people in isolation and away from seeking much-needed treatment.

Depression can be scary, and hard to navigate. For people who have never experienced it, depression can take them by surprise. For others, depression is something they are familiar with, as it has been a part of their life story. For people who have depression, the sun doesn't seem to shine quite as bright, or feel quite as warm on their face. They might find that they're not as hopeful about something that typically lifts their spirits, or that they've lost interest in things that usually make their heart happy. It might be harder to take care of responsibilities, invest in relationships, make decisions, or get out of bed. They might be irritable, eat more or less than usual, cry easily, or not laugh or smile the same way they once did. An interesting thing about depression is that people don't often realize it's depression they are experiencing. They think it's their actual reality and life. I often hear clients not able to see any truth about themselves or the goodness they bring to the world.They dwell only on what they haven't accomplished yet, what they haven't done right, and how they are a burden to those around them. They think they are the culprit and cause of the depression, rather than the depression causing the sadness.

Depressed feelings are commonly related to feelings of loss, unresolved or unrecognized grief. Often life events happen, and when these events happen it means a loss of a previous role, way of life, or dream. These losses can be common, such as coming to a recognition that life has not turned out the way you thought it would, such as when you move, marry, graduate, end an addiction, come to a holiday, or experience health changes. Unresolved or unrecognized grief can be losses experienced early in life that have not been honored or taken seriously. Depression can also result from a genetic predisposition, lack of exercise, sleep, eating right, quality relationships, and wrong thinking about self and the self as it relates to the world.

Depression is a normal reaction to painful or difficult events in life. Clinical depression or Major Depressive Disorder is different. Major Depressive Disorder is when this mood or loss of interest or pleasure continues for at least a two-week period. You notice a persistent change in your normal mood, and your social or occupational functioning is negatively impaired because of the change in your mood. Feelings of hopelessness may occur, or you may have thoughts or plans of hurting yourself. This is a major red flag that it is time to reach out for help, through supportive friends, a professional counselor, or doctor.

Women are especially prone to depression. Women suffer from depression two times more than men due to hormonal shifts throughout their lives, and women are especially prone to depression in their childbearing years. The emotional, physical, and lifestyle changes can be incredibly overwhelming beginning with pregnancy. Postpartum depression can follow pregnancy, along with depression that can happen when women wean their children. Hormones are not only scattered and unruly, but the pressure moms feel to do things “right” and well can take a toll. Pictures of the smiling mother and baby are posted online, but not the ones of the exasperation in the middle of the night when that same baby can't soothed. For first-time moms, a new identity and role is being created as a mother, which means the loss of her previous role. If this is a struggle, it is important to look at this and give yourself time to grieve in order to be able to honor and complete the loss, rather than pretending anything differently for anyone.

One of the myths of society is that certain feelings are bad and certain feelings are good. Certainly, some feelings are easier to feel or tolerate than others, but this misses the point all together. I operate under the guise that feelings should not be put in charge, but they should be looked at as teachers. Feelings can be sages to our spirit, we have them for a reason, and they can lead us to live aligned with our values and the way we are wired. When you know what you're feeling and why, major change starts to occur.

Another myth society has about sadness is that it's wrong, bad or should be fixed. We are told, “Don't be sad,” “Pray harder,” “I know how you feel,” “Be grateful you had (insert loss) for so long,” “Keep yourself busy,” “Be strong for others,” “It will just take time.” All of these losses are unhelpful comments and only leave us feeling like we need to hurry up and feel better. This creates a sense of shame and inauthenticity as we try to “be” better. The struggle to stuff the feeling or to pretend you're fine is energy draining and not a longterm solution.

Children can begin to be taught emotional intelligence by having their feelings mirrored back to them. If children are told not to feel what they are feeling or if they are told what they are feeling is wrong, then they often interpret this as something is wrong with them, and internalize feelings or show feelings as shameful. It's the difference between telling a child, “That is sad isn't it,” or “I'm sorry that makes you angry and I want to talk about it with you” versus more hurtful phrases like “You're too sensitive” or “Stop acting that way.”

When we begin to really start to listen and honor why the feeling is there, we begin to work with ourself and not against ourself. Once the validation happens, healing begins, and a sense of self and hope starts to settle back into our life. The following suggestions come from interacting with clients who struggle with depression, as they have sought to make sense of their pain and move towards feeling themselves again.

* Become curious. One way to move out of depression is to cultivate a sense of curiosity versus resistance to our depressed feelings. If we imagine ourselves “sitting” with our depression, it can often teach us that we need to make some changes in life or it can show us what is really important to us. Depression is most often there for a reason, and embracing this reality rather than denying, stuffing, or fighting it can bring the self-awareness we need to move through the depressed feelings.

* Take a step toward becoming more flexible. Living as a flexile person can not only help us manage expectations of life but it also aligns with the reality of life: it is ever changing and adapting, and if we live rigidly we will be in a constant state of disappointment.

*Get back to the basics. Are you breathing deeply, and through your abdomen rather than your chest? Are you exercising? Exercising can be the equivalent of anti-depressants. What are you putting into your body? Our bodies never lie. They function best when they cared for. This means nurturing ourself the same way we do for so many others.

*Stress management. Stress changes the chemistry of our body. People who are depressed have different levels of a hormone called cortisol. This difference in levels causes depressed people to see the world more negatively and to be more prone to identifying with feelings of low worth and hopelessness. It is similar to a lack of sleep, in that everything is harder when we haven't slept. With depression we get into a rut of rumination and negativity that is often started by one reoccurring negative thought. A process of emotional flooding then occurs after we have a negative thought and then the vicious cycle of negative thoughts and possible negative behavior ensues.

Attunement and mindfulness. Another reason women are more prone to depression is due to brain makeup. Men and women's brain are very different, as well as their emotional responses and needs. Women tend to rely on both hemispheres of their brain to process emotions, where men tend to do this in only one hemisphere. This makes it easier for men to escape or decrease the intensity of an emotion easier. This brings up the concept of mindfulness, which is paying attention to thoughts in a particular way without judgment and with compassion. By “watching” our thoughts, we begin to notice what we are thinking and becoming more critical about what our thoughts tell us, and if they are helpful or not. By not stewing in our thoughts, we can detach from them quicker which helps them lose their power. Brains in general have a plasticity, which means our brains are changeable throughout our entire lifetime. We have the capacity to change our thoughts in turn to change our feelings, as there is often a direct connection between the two. Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to your thoughts and the world around you. We are often swept away by faulty thinking and wrong beliefs. One lie that we believe can mean anything from a bad day to a lifetime of heartache. Attuning yourself to your thoughts, “watching” what your mind is telling you, can be the first step in self-awareness to changing your existence. The basic idea is that what we focus on expands, and once we start focusing on the truth of our worth and our capacity, our feelings and behaviors then begin to shift. If you catch yourself having the same unhelpful thought over and over and over again, ask yourself why you want to remain attached to that thought? What is it doing for you? Mindfulness is also the idea that you can experience a thought or feeling but that you don't have to get caught up in it. We are often swept away on a roller coaster ride if our thoughts and feelings are in charge. Neuroplasticity means we can change our thoughts if they don't work for us anymore.

*Seeing a professional. Sometimes a professional counselor can be the objective person to help come alongside you in your journey towards towards happy and healthy. A professional can also help honor your feelings and provide you the validation necessary for you to feel that you are capable and worthy of change.

*Medication. Depression changes the chemistry of the brain. Anti-depressants can work on the neurochemicals called serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Doctors are not sure how this works exactly, but we know it can help people get to a playing field where they can start feeling better and accessing some of their new coping skills. Medication usually takes 4-6 works to begin working, and your doctor can work with you in regards to the time frame you need the medication for.

*Gratitude is the highest energy state. When we focus on what we have, we feel a sense of thankfulness and fullness. What we focus on expands, whether that's gratitude or envy, contentment or longing.

*Fun! Give yourself permission to not take yourself or life so seriously. What did you love doing as a child? This might be an indicator of what you're missing out on now that could fill you up.

*Create. Creating helps us not only focus on something other than our thoughts and feelings for a while, but it can give us a sense of accomplishment. Create new brain channels. Rearrange your house, your day, your driving route. Forcing our brain to think differently is one way to open up creative channels. When we open up creative channels, it can help us get out of the rutted and mundane feelings depression can cause.

Remember, you are not alone in this, even if the depression you're feeling may tell you otherwise. There is hope and a life of happiness and healthiness that you are worthy of and capable of attaining. Why wait any longer? It might be the challenge of a lifetime to reach out to someone, but you and your life are worth it. It is the best gift you could ever give to yourself and those who love you.