By Ellen McGrath, published on May 7, 2003 - last reviewed on August 13, 2007
If you're going to take action against depression, then you need to understand that child abuse commonly underpins adult depression. In almost every case of significant adult depression, some form of abuse was experienced in childhood, either physical, sexual, emotional or, often, a combination.
Recovering from depression as an adult requires some detective work in ferreting out the nature of the exploitation. If you don't do it, you'll be crippled in recovering. It isn't advisable to unearth or recapitulate every nasty detail of past experience, but you do need to get a general map of the abuse landscape.
Scientists know that traumatic experiences such as child abuse or neglect change the chemistry and even the structure of the brain. They sensitize the stress response system so that those who are abused become overly responsive to environmental pressures. They shape wiring patterns in the brain and reset the sensitivity level of the machinery.
Eventually, even small degrees of stress provoke an outpouring of stress hormones, and these hormones in turn act directly on multiple sites to produce the behavioral symptoms of depression—the vegetative state, the sleep disturbances, the cognitive dullness, the loss of pleasure. They push the brain's fear center into overdrive, churning out the negative emotions that steer the depression's severity and add a twist of anxiety.
To undo the imprint of abuse, you must access it, expose it and process the experience. Otherwise, it creates a rotting core of self.
Both depression and abuse are legacy issues. They run together in families, passed down from generation to generation. The intergenerational transmission of abuse is invariably associated with the symptoms of depression. Abuse brings with it the vulnerability to depression.
There are many actions you can take to curb the legacy of abuse and stem the depression vulnerability it generates.
Map the landscape of the abuse you experienced. Become the cartographer of your psyche.
This is not something you can do completely on your own. Talk to those who shared the landscape with you and ask them to share with you what they remember. It is not likely that you remember everything on your own; denial is a coping mechanism everyone uses. You overcome the limitation of your own awareness by checking out your experiences with siblings, aunts and uncles, whoever was around when you were young.
Once you map the landscape you begin to get control over it.
Educate yourself about trauma and abuse. You don't need to uncover every incident of your childhood, but you must touch on the major ones.
Do not rely on yourself to undertake this process alone. It is not something you can do alone; you need help from others. For one thing, it's too difficult to do without the support of others. For another, the information is too inaccessible to unearth on your own.
It isn't essential to embark on this process with a therapist, although it helps enormously to have a good one. But you do need smart and caring friends who can provide support.
Recognize that by virtue of the hypersensitivity of your response system, current difficulties can trigger fear and alarm reactions that quickly veer out of control in brain circuits that bypass the reason. When your trauma zone gets triggered, you are likely to react in ways that impair relations with others and lead down a path to depression.
But you need not be a slave to reactivity. Instead, learn to jump out of the trauma zone and look at your problems and how your responses get triggered.
The more we find out about emotions, the clearer it is that they are connected to physical health and well-being. The practical implications cannot be overstated. There is more than one pathway to gaining control over your emotional reactivity. While you can certainly employ mind-centered techniques to heal your mental state, you are not limited to them.
You can also enlist your body to heal your mind. Pay attention to the care of the body. Being connected to your body has the additional advantage of delivering you from feelings of helplessness.
A number of body-based experiences are critical to giving you a sense of control over emotional experience. At the most basic level is rest. Make sure you get adequate rest.
Exercise is vitally important in improving the way you feel. It increases your capacity to withstand emotional challenges. It boosts confidence in yourself and generates well-being. It also increases your sense of control over experience.
One of the simplest and most immediate ways to gain emotional control is to engage in deep-breathing. Deep breathing relaxes the nervous system and calms emotional alarm circuits unwittingly set off when experience triggers your trauma zone.
Just as there are physical routes to healing the mind, so are there spiritual routes. Whatever spiritual connections you have, now is the time to strengthen them. A strong spiritual framework adds solace to the difficult exploration of early trauma. It also helps you stay in touch with the big picture.