Thursday, November 08, 2007

Depression and Energy

I was talking with a friend today who was advocating the use of medication in treating depression, even "situational" depression, as opposed to "biologically based" depression (if such a distinction is meaningful, which is disputed among the experts). This friend was saying that IF this distinction has meaning, she thinks that medication can be helpful not only to those with biologically-based depression, but even to those whose depression is caused by difficult life circumstances. Here is why she thinks so. Difficult life circumstances can cause depressive symptoms. While the ultimate "cure" for this kind of depression is to deal well with the difficult life circumstances, medication can still be helpful as part of the process. One common depressive symptom is lowered energy. Medication can raise energy levels, which in turn can help the person deal with their difficult life situation better.

I found myself liking aspects of her theory very much, but still resisting her conclusion. But rather than write about the pros and cons of medication for different kinds of depression, I would like to highlight what I like about her theory.

I do think that there is a strong relationship between (certain kinds of?) depression and energy levels. I've long been fascinated by human energy. There's a certain kind of physical energy we have that is strongly affected by our physical health and fitness, but it seems to me that there is another kind of energy as well: psychological energy? spiritual energy? psycho-spiritual energy?

The reason I believe this is because I notice when the two do not coincide. There are times when I am physically very tired, but through a strong sense of determination I push on through that physical fatigue. This can be quite an exhilarating state of being. But there are other times when I can tell that physically I really am fine -- well-rested, not ill -- and yet my overall sense of energy feels low. In fact, this can be quite a miserable state, because physical rest is not helpful for this kind of tiredness at all. It can be a weariness of soul. It can be a sense of being tired of having to make hard decisions. This is the kind of low energy that can be a depressive symptom.

The two are not completely unrelated. Over time, the one can affect the other. Getting physical exercise can revive sagging spirits (low psycho-spiritual energy). Pushing one's physical energy too relentlessly, too long, can eventually cause high spirits to droop again. But high spirits can recharge physical energy (if you are just tired and not exhausted), and low spirits may, over long periods of time, cause physical health to deteriorate.

What I find especially helpful about my friend's theory is that if a boost in energy can help one get through trying situations better, there may be other ways than antidepressant medication to gain this boost of energy. Exercise, in fact, is known to help alleviate depressive symptoms. There are meditation practices as well that can help boost overall energy.

So, when feeling overwhelmed by life's events, to the extent that you feel yourself lapsing into depressive low-energy, it can be helpful to shift attention away from what is overwhelming you and focus on your energy level itself, and consider what you might do to re-charge that energy. Exercise or some form of meditation may help. Or sometimes what we need is something to recharge our enthusiasm for life. We need to try to reconnect with who we really are, what we most value, and what brings us joy.

I think that depressive low energy comes about when we are feeling particularly ineffective: when we have put forth a great deal of effort to deal with life's challenges, but things don't get better, or they even get worse. We experience low energy because something is trying to tell us to slow down, quit wasting our effort: it's obviously not working. It may in fact be important to slow down and reconsider our approach. But if we decide or realize that we must press on, and yet continue to find it difficult to summon new energy, remembering that we are more than how this situation characterizes us, and our life is more than this challenging event, can be a way of finding new energy.

Even so, there still may be times when it is very hard to do that: very hard to get back in touch with enthusiasm, joy, and a positive sense of self. Nevertheless, our failure to make ourselves feel better does not cause us just to vanish. There is still something that holds us up, and holds us together, even though we may be feeling profoundly lost. If we just let it hold us, there will come a time when a sense of the meaningfulness of life will start to flow back into our awareness.

This miracle too is why I believe in God.


  1. In my experience there are two kinds of joy. There's the upbeat, yippy-yahooie, goofy, enthusiastic, high-energy, sometimes practically manic kind. There's also the low-energy, calm and peaceful kind. It took me a long time to actually learn to feel the low-energy kind of joy, and to recognize it for the good thing it is.

  2. Yes, the calm, low-energy, peaceful kind of joy is very important to recognize and value too! Thank you, Heather, for pointing this out!

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I found your insights refreshing and hopeful. One month ago out of desperation I turned to antidepressants to help alleviate my severe depression. My experience with these drugs was a nightmare and I discontinued their use. I am aware that many people have found them very helpful, however, I feel the public knows entirely to little about their adverse health risks. I did not fully understand them before I started taking the medication. There is no great answer to this dilemma. I am in the process of discovering natural approaches to healing myself and hope to help others also as I work in the mental health field. I have become recently interested in the area of social therapy.

  4. Thank you, Jodi, for sharing your thoughts.

    Some natural approaches can be very powerful. One counselor told me that vigorous exercise can alleviate depressive symptoms for 24 hours. When I'm in a pretty deep depressive slump, I can't believe this is true. My low energy makes it really hard to get out to exercise. But if I do manage to do it, I am always amazed at the effect it has on me. So this has become my favorite natural strategy (when I can get myself to do it)! This is one of the reasons why I have appreciated the way our snowy weather where I live forces me to get outside exercising!

    I am not sure I know what social therapy is, but it sure sounds promising! I have been thinking a lot about how to build a better social support system for myself. I try to be supportive of my friends, but I don't do a very good job of calling on my friends for the help and support I need. I'm so afraid of asking for too much that I hardly ask at all. But I think people like helping each other out, and the key is finding a good balance, I think.

    Thanks again for writing, and I wish you well!