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February 25th, 2008


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12:14 pm - Musings on emotions, depression, and individual variation
In the comments to a recent post of mine, I was discussing my emotional reactions and made the following statement:

I simply don't hold onto any negative feelings. This extends well beyond feelings of guilt - if someone I truly care about does something I don't like (or even that makes me very angry), as long as the emotional balance I mentioned in my previous response remains strongly in their favor, I forgive them easily and rapidly, at least for singular incidents. A long term pattern of actions that annoy me start impacting my overall view of the relationship and certainly needs changing. However, I will forgive and completely cease being angry about almost any single incident that is not utterly horrible very rapidly indeed, at least with someone who I like and enjoy being around.

Without continued strong external provocation, emotions like anger, regret, and frustration all fade far more rapidly in me than in most people I've met. My guess is that this is also the reason I that I have absolutely no tendency to become depressed, and in fact in the absence of truly horrid external circumstances, depression is essentially impossible for me, I suspect that the reasons for all this are at the level where individual psychology and idiosyncratic neurochemistry intersect, but whatever the reason, I'm very happy for my own neurochemical makeup.


I'd been meaning to write more about this comment, because the more I thought about it, the more significant that I realized that this particular idiosyncrasy of mine is. Many of the people I'm close to, including teaotter, amberite, and Aaron all have a tendency towards depression, and in talking about the above observation with Becca, she definitely agreed that when she's having more problems with her depression, one of the biggest problems she has is not bouncing back from/being able to let go of negative feeling well after the experience that created them is over.

Then, I was reading my f-list, and someone I know mentioned (in a locked post, so I won't discuss what was said in any bit the most general terms) that they had recently started taking anti-depressants, and had noticed that after having an especially frustrating day, that they felt upset and frustrated while the events were occurring, but afterwards, this frustration rapidly faded away.

It took me many years of being close to several people with a tendency to depression to understand that this was (at least for all such people I've known well) one of the key issues involved in their depression. It took me a long time to understand this, because I've literally never felt that way. I feel as upset, scared, angry, or annoyed as anyone else during an upsetting, frightening, or annoying situation, but once it has actually been resolved, within some time that is between a few minutes to (at absolute most) an hour, I've gotten over almost every event that does not have significant lasting consequences. Situations where my life has chanced noticeably for the worst (such as the death of a pet, or the end of a friendship) naturally linger somewhat longer, but after a night's sleep I still feel significantly better. The only time I don't feel significantly better is if there is some active and on-going long-term problem, such as the money problems I've had at various times in the past. Then, I feel unhappy and upset when ever I am confronted with the problem, and my overall mood is somewhat negatively affected. However, as soon as the problem was resolved, I very rapidly felt better.

Another issue with depression that Becca has mentioned several times, and that I've also observed in several other people I've known with a tendency to depression, is that depression seems to make is considerably more difficult for someone to make an effort to fix problems that are wrong in their lives. Now that I think about it, this tendency makes sense to me – if fixing a problem either does not resolve the emotional issues that this problem is causing or if the emotional issues take several days or even several weeks to improve once the problem is fixed, then that person is simply not going to have the same emotional drive to solve the problem. In vivid contrast, I know with absolute certainty that once I fix a specific problem in my life, I'll rapidly feel better.

In any case, in addition to being exceptionally thankful for that particular quirk of my neurochemistry, I'm also very pleased that there are now a variety of anti-depressants that I have seen make a major difference in the lives of several people I know. Thinking about this issue also makes me even more certain that providing free and high quality social services should be the duty of every nation, since I've seen several studies that show that sources of physical and emotional stress that are sufficiently serious and long-lasting have long-term affects on people's moods and mental states, especially if these stresses occur at a young age. From various articles I've read, one of the most common impacts of such stress is a highly increased likelihood of depression. I've heard various reactionaries claim that various sorts of stress, especially when someone is young "makes people tough", when the reality of the situation seems much the opposite.

It's also rather humbling to understand how much of my optimism and generally positive attitude is due purely to circumstances that have nothing to do with my own actions. I've always been puzzled (and occasionally annoyed) by people who talk about "taking responsibility for their actions"" or ""taking charge of their lives"" when so much of who and what we are is the result of various circumstances which we have literally no control over. Yes, there is a great deal that each of us can do with and about our individual circumstances, but all of us also owe a great deal of who we are to chance and circumstance, which is why I fully agree with political philosopher John Rawls that "You can tell the justice of a society by how it treats its least well-off members,".
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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Comments:


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From:talonstrike
Date:February 25th, 2008 09:15 pm (UTC)
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Yes, depression tends to be feedback loop. If you are depressed because of specific problems and can't find the motivation to fix them, your inaction is likely to compound your problems, making you more depressed and less able to fix them, and so on.

For me, though, the effect was not just about the recovery time being slow after fixing the problems -- or even, I think, primarily about that. It was more about a belief that any attempt to improve my lot would most likely come to naught, and that the effort would be exhausting. When I was depressed, there were days that merely getting out of bed and taking a shower was a Herculean effort.

More recently, I have become increasingly aware of how many of the circumstances of our lives we *do* have control over -- and that is part of the reason that my depression is in remission. I no longer believe that the most likely outcome of any attempt at improving my lot is failure. I used to think that I was being strongly pulled toward that outcome by forces beyond my control, but once I got some traction from Wellbutrin and some evidence to the contrary, that belief evaporated and I gained a great deal more control over my life. There are still some circumstances that I'm trying to learn how to overcome (as you may have noticed if you read my journal), but on the whole, I find the idea of taking charge of my life to be empowering and a way of naturally keeping depression at bay.

Edited at 2008-02-25 09:16 pm (UTC)
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From:hasufin
Date:February 25th, 2008 09:50 pm (UTC)
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For me, it's a little of column A and a little of column B. If something bad happens, and I have occasion to call up that particular memory, then it all comes back - it's not like an hour (or day, or year) later I've dissociated the memory with the feelings that it caused. There are things which happened years ago about which I'm just as angry as the day they happened. But... only when I pull them up.

The thing I've noticed with people who tend toward depression or other emotional issues is, these "negative" emotions are more likely to bleed into unrelated issues, that having a bad day at work actually prevents such people from being able to enjoy a party that evening. Not "not in the mood" but it actually prevents the enjoyment, and the upset and frustration will end up getting redirected to the party (or whatever else is available). Thus the "taking it out on others" aspect.

I suppose it comes to a different treatment of emotions by and large I keep the emotions associated with what caused them, but for some people the emotions come in, set up shop, and exist independent of whatever brought them on.
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From:lupagreenwolf
Date:February 25th, 2008 09:56 pm (UTC)
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For me, depression tends to be more environmentally triggered. If there are constant stress points in my immediate environment--anything from no sunlight to tension between me and someone I care about--then depression's a lot more likely. It doesn't "just happen" for me.

I have gotten better about seeking and destroying individual triggers, doing what I can to fix them. Paganism and magic offer a wealth of tools for creative problem-solving, internally and exteranlly, and I've gotten better at using them in the past few years. Not that it's been perfect, but trial and error mixed with stubbornness have done a lot.
From:dulcimergoddess
Date:February 25th, 2008 10:45 pm (UTC)
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oddly enough, in me depression often has direct physical causes. when i'm upset, i stop eating and eventually sleeping -- which leads to some scary thoughts within three days' time. it's just the way my body works.

of course, there's the personality part, too. but it's amazing how physical triggers -- a poor night of sleep, etc. -- can affect thoughts.
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From:moominmuppet
Date:February 25th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
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Now that I think about it, this tendency makes sense to me – if fixing a problem either does not resolve the emotional issues that this problem is causing or if the emotional issues take several days or even several weeks to improve once the problem is fixed, then that person is simply not going to have the same emotional drive to solve the problem. In vivid contrast, I know with absolute certainty that once I fix a specific problem in my life, I'll rapidly feel better.

That's definitely how depression can contribute to worsening problems in my life, but is rarely a cause of the depression itself, which comes and goes regardless of how well or badly my life is doing. However, if I do end up in a depression while trying to cope with serious crap, it definitely makes both sides worse -- the depression and the crap-dealing.

However, when everything in life is going swimmingly, I can still be in a months-long depression, and will find any conceivable reason to ruminate on negative things (whether it's the condition of the planet, the eventual heat-death of the universe, or what-have-you).

As someone who's taken a lot of drugs, I can say it's a lot like a drug, although not one I'd take for recreation. As much as I can look at the thought processes and say "Ah, look, depressive thought pattern, how ridiculous", it doesn't make it feel any less craptastic for that. It's very similar to "gee, these drugs are affecting my perception and making the walls all woobly and me all giggly" -- doesn't change the effect.
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From:heron61
Date:February 26th, 2008 01:04 am (UTC)
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One person on my f-list who wishes to remain anonymous asked me to post their response, since I don't allow anonymous comments, part 1:

I had Major Depressive Disorder [MDD] for about 20 years, ages ~10 to ~30. Technically I may still have MDD, though I may or may not be symptom free, but I will refer to "when I had MDD" meaning "back when I had raging, untreated MDD for 20 years".

What your friend said, "one of the biggest problems she has is not bouncing back from/being able to let go of negative feeling well after the experience that created them is over", was precisely my experience as well. When I finally said to my therapist that I was ready to look into meds, and she asked me what I was hoping to get from them, I replied: "Resilience. I don't bounce back. One little thing gets under my skin, and knocks me on my ass for a week."

One of the commonest bits of off-the-cuff advice the clueless give the depressed -- and far and away the most useless to the seriously clinically depressed -- is "sleep on it". When I had MDD, I would wake up feeling emotionally pretty much identically to how I felt emotionally when I fell asleep. I always thought people were really stupid for saying "sleep on it".

Till I started taking an SSRI. It was breathtaking to me. Uncanny. My feelings go away! On their own! Oh, so that's what people expected to have happen.

And feeligns started fading even in the course of the day. If someone said something rude to me, I'd have a flare of irritation, and then, and hour later I'd have forgotten about it. Mirabile!

I stopped taking an SSRI about year ago. Originally, the plan was to give me a much-needed break from physically debilitating side-effects and clear out my system to try a different pharmacological approach. But then something astonishing happened. Or rather, didn't happen. I stayed MDD symptom free.

In particular, I continued to be resilient. In the past year, as I've experienced all sorts of subtle somatic and psychological phenomena which may or may not be symptoms of MDD (ask me about my present insomnia!), but my emotional resilience has persisted. If something upsets me, I can just wait, or go to sleep, and it goes away.

Similarly, btw, the notion of consoling was one which made no personal sense growing up under MDD. In particular, talking to other people about what troubled me only made me feel much, much worse, and nothing anyone else ever said -- or that I could even imagine someone else saying to me -- or that I ever say portayed as consoling -- ever made me feel better. I understood the concept of consolation only by observation of others and by popular depiction.

That's something else which changed radically on SSRIs. All of a sudden, people saying things like, "I'm sorry to hear that" and "Everything's going to be OK" actually made me feel better. It was very strange to me! Very wow.


Edited at 2008-02-26 01:18 am (UTC)
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From:amberite
Date:February 27th, 2008 11:30 am (UTC)

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To the OP, who hopefully is reading this response.
I've heard that one of the mechanisms by which SSRIs work is this: they actually cause dendritic growth. So there seems to be a biological reason why you can take one for a while and then start feeling fine without.

I'm the person reporting the success with antideps -- I think I kept the post flocked so it wouldn't turn up on first searches of me, that sort of thing, nothing serious.

Ironically, realization that this was depression (and the fact of being in a foreign country where I wouldn't have to deal with the American health care system, which when one understands some neurology and refers to medicines by their chemical names, automatically assumes one is a criminal) was what got me to seek out the multi-purpose medication that I'd been wanting to try for ADD for a long time. I researched the psychopharmacology to death, then bought some Wellbutrin in Thailand, OTC. It seems to be helping with a lot of minor mental irritations and causing almost no side effects.

The "sleep on it" advice works for some, not for others. I suspect this is good advice for people who are naturally predisposed to be mentally active in the mornings. I'm the opposite, so I usually feel like shit when I wake up and feel great just before I go to bed -- leading to all-nighters in which I've tried to sustain my functionality, knowing that "I can finish this in the morning" is almost always a lie. That's always been true for me even before I started having major problems.

Come to think of it, I've been doing better in the mornings on Wellbutrin, too.

Anyway, on other points... I agree with your comments on willpower.

Willpower and 'chinning up' isn't a cure for depression, any more than eating is a cure for pneumonia, but if you come down with pneumonia and you don't eat, you'll have a much harder time getting better and a much easier job of getting worse.
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From:heron61
Date:February 26th, 2008 01:05 am (UTC)
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part 2:

is that depression seems to make is considerably more difficult for someone to make an effort to fix problems that are wrong in their lives. Now that I think about it, this tendency makes sense to me – if fixing a problem either does not resolve the emotional issues that this problem is causing or if the emotional issues take several days or even several weeks to improve once the problem is fixed, then that person is simply not going to have the same emotional drive to solve the problem.

A tempting logic, but not my experience. I, perhaps unlike a lot of people with depression, never lacked for motivation to fix things; I always want to fix things that are bad, wrong or broken. I'm just like that. The issue was energy. My experience was perfectly analogous to descriptions of Fibromyalgia I've read, especially the famous Spoons essay. In Fibromyalgia, you have not enough energy and if you burn through it, you pay for it in a flare-up of pain in your muscles. In MDD, I had not enough energy and if I burned through it, I paid for it in a flare-up of completely baseless, targetless anguish. Or "psychache" as one suicidologist puts it.

The thing which tipped me over to deciding I Need To Check Out Meds Now was an experience I had of going to what was basically a jam session. It was a really great jam and I had a really great time and met many nice new musicians and made some good music over about four hours. And then, the next day, I crashed, and crashed hard. I had a full-on Major Depressive Episode, of the wanting to stay in bed all day, not having enough energy to actually get up and kill my self sort. Four days worth.

And I was like, "Enough. This is insane. Literally. I have to pay for four hours of ensemble music with four days of suicidal depression. This is between me and the things I love best to do in the world. This is between me and my career."

In vivid contrast, I know with absolute certainty that once I fix a specific problem in my life, I'll rapidly feel better.

When I had MDD, I knew that fixing a problem would make me feel better about that problem (and possibly better in general, such as in the case of managing to feed myself when I was hungry), but that the energy expended might knock me on my ass. Whole classes of problems cost way more to fix than fixing them paid. House cleaning is an obvious one; healthy people may say things like, "I feel so accomplished when I clean up my house and have a tidy environment to live and work in", but not only didn't I get much of a charge from cleaning or cleanliness, but the cost of doing that work was staggering.

So it wasn't just that fix things was insufficiently immediately rewarding, it was that fixing things was actively punishing.

And yes, that conditions behaviors. I am still learning how to make myself do unpleasant things that need doing and will make me feel better if they're done, because I am so deeply conditioned to expect getting whipped by the misery stick if I push myself at all.

I've always been puzzled (and occasionally annoyed) by people who talk about "taking responsibility for their actions"" or ""taking charge of their lives"" when so much of who and what we are is the result of various circumstances which we have literally no control over.

Ironically, I have found, both for myself and in some others, those to be powerful and useful attitudes to adopt to fight depression. Under the sway of depression, raw will-power + cold intellect can be the only thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, that gets you to medical care, that gets you through the night. I managed to have raging, untreated, suicidal MDD for 20 years yet have a career (more or less self-employed!), cultivate a vibrant social life, establish myself as a pillar of my community, get out of bed every morning (mostly) and not die. And Nobody. Ever. Suspected.

Sheer, bloody-minded will power: it worked for me.

It's not that I disagree that attempting to shame people with depression into taking better care of themselves is poor form. It surely is awesomely counterproductive. But the stick some would use to beat you can be the cane you lean on to walk.


Edited at 2008-02-26 01:17 am (UTC)
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:February 26th, 2008 01:29 am (UTC)
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I remember having a pessimistic disposition from age two. I have always been very healty physically, but suffered from chronic worry, anxiety, and nearly constant guilt until last June.

Until then, I firmly believed that contentment interspesed with gratitude for small pleasures was the highest state I could achieve.

Whimsywanderer showed me I was quite, quite, quite wrong about this. From her and Foxgrrl, I learned what joy was, and was joyful for six months after this.

Then I made a mistake. I thought I had to do certain things because it was Christmastime. Even then, I did not get depressed like I would have in the past.

Then I went to PanTheaCon and learned that "purifications" to cleanse people from "sin" are only life-draining. I figured out that that is how "purification" works - the vitality of the "purified" person is temporarily suppressed by guilt, so that the person does not feel like commiting the "sin" in question.

I figured out I had been draining myself of energy since age six and a half by trying to reform myself. I learned that just because I want certain things does not mean I am automatically wrong.

Since PanTheaCon, I have been joyful again. I have reason to believe my neurochemistry has been altered. I am laughing inside, which I have never done until June 2007.
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From:waterfire741
Date:February 26th, 2008 05:49 pm (UTC)
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Personally, I wonder more about the specific neurochemistry involved with depression and anxiety disorders; it's been proven that the more emotion is involved with a memory, the better our ability to recall it later. This explains why we remember the 'bad' stuff more easily than the good, since the bad stuff gets more chemicals flowing in the brain. Having some problems with depressive tendencies myself, I have to wonder if the established linkages that recall memories are also a feedback loop in that when one is depressed OR anxiety-ridden, one cannot remove thoughts and memories that reinforce the chemical bath in the brain; in short, when you're depressed, your brain more easily reads memories and thoughts with a similar chemical 'signature', thus causing the feedback loop.
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From:heron61
Date:February 26th, 2008 08:31 pm (UTC)
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Take a look at Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson, he gives and excellent review of recent neuroscience. One of the bits of data I ran across there was that there are two sorts of memory - normal memory, which is associated with the hippocampus, and emotional memory, which is based in the amygdala. Memories with significant emotional content, especially stress, anxiety, or fear related content are stored in both, and amygdala-based memories are both recalled more rapidly and with their associated emotional reactions. Researchers are pretty certain this is the mechanism involved in both phobias and PTSD, and it makes sense that some problem with having an overactive emotional memory could be associated with various anxiety-related problems.
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 26th, 2008 11:15 pm (UTC)
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I would not be quick to label your advantages "neurochemistry." For one thing, I can attest that back when I was depressed, I frequently had trouble letting go of negative feelings. After some cognitive restructuring, I became less depressed. Ascribing depression to neurochemicals is like identifying an angel food cake as arising from egg whites.

Second, neurochemistry changes constantly. Structure is more permanent. Few psychological phenomena can be identified as consistently arising from a particular structural changes. While someone's equilibrium is an important factor, it is not the only one, and probably rarely the most important one.

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