New Hope for Reversing the Trend in Depression and Suicide
Emotion education holds a key.
Posted April 15, 2019
Most of us are taught that depression is a flaw in brain chemistry. But another important—and hopeful—way to understand depression is through understanding our emotions. Life experiences, especially adverse ones, ignite many emotions in the brain. Research has shown that burying these emotions is one of the things that leads to depression and many other symptoms of mental and physical illness. Suicide rates and rates of major depression are rising in our society, despite the ubiquity of pharmacological interventions and Cognitive Behavior Psychotherapy (CBT), two mainstream treatments.
Emotion education holds a missing piece to reversing this trend. All people need a basic education in emotions and how the mind handles them, especially when it comes to stressful life events and traumas.
Safely Releasing Traumatic Emotions
Alexander, who had escaped a war-torn country, was depressed and suicidal when I first met him. He had thoughts of ending his life because of the seemingly inescapable pain he felt. Core emotions—like fear, anger, and sadness—are natural, biological responses to stressful events. Traumatic events, including the invisible traumas of childhood, may create such intense and complex emotions that a person can’t process them effectively. Instead, a person may push them off to the very back of their mind to maintain their sanity.
When emotions aren’t processed, it can throw the mind and body into a state of imbalance called dysregulation. In our society, symptoms of dysregulation are frequently given various labels and diagnoses like depression, chronic anxiety, personality disorders and more. At the root, these diagnoses share a common component: blocked and buried emotions that ultimately give way to the unbearable sense of being disconnected from one’s self.
I helped Alexander recover by teaching him about emotions, and then helping him safely release the terror, anger, and sadness that had been trapped inside his body for many years. Releasing buried emotions helped his nervous system to regulate.
During one session, I had him name the emotion he was experiencing: terror. He was physically trembling. We sat together as Alex focused inward. I told him to stay with it and to have compassion towards himself. After several minutes, his body calmed and the trembling quieted. The energy from the terror that had been trapped in his body, and which caused him unimaginable distress, was lessened.
Processing Emotions Rather Than Avoiding Them
Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I thought the idea of experiencing emotions as sensations in the body that have energy was a “new age” unscientific idea. Turns out I was wrong. In anatomy class, I saw with my own eyes that the vagus nerve connects the emotional brain to organs all over the body. This makes sense because emotions are there to allow the body to respond quickly to both threats and things that are good for us, like connection and learning. But it wasn’t until 2004, when I was in trauma training that I learned how to help people recognize and release their emotions.
Alex’s depression began to lift as we liberated the underlying fear, anger, and sadness. While the emotions from that time were too much for Alex to bear alone, with my help he could safely process them. With his nervous system regulated, the suicidal thoughts stopped.
In our society, no one teaches us what emotions are, let alone how to work with them safely and skillfully. We learn how to avoid our emotions using defenses such as addictions, over-working, under-eating, isolating ourselves, ruminating and so many others. Chronic reliance on defenses eventually leads to a sense of being disconnected and dissociated both from our authentic self and others. These symptoms are often labeled as “depression” because they present similarly. When I ask a client to put more words on the experience of being depressed, I hear phrases like, “I feel disconnected, deadened and hopeless.” They are describing what it can feel like to be cut off from one’s core emotions.
Everyone benefits from learning to understand and work with emotions, instead of avoiding them the way our society teaches us to do.
Learning about our emotions can help us understand them. It is the first step to making emotions less scary and overwhelming so we can learn to stop avoiding them. Education undoes damaging myths, like “strong people don’t have emotions” or "only weak people suffer.” When we understand emotions, our suffering changes from shameful to human. And when we learn to work with our emotions, becoming familiar with how they feel physically, we feel better. We stop being hampered and side-lined by the traumas and wounds we have experienced, and we unlock a healing potential to restore a deeply felt calm and connection to our self and others.
(Patient details have been altered to protect privacy)
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Spiegel & Grau
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking