Dear Therapist..."What's the Best Way to Shift a Sudden Depression?"
I’m not sure what’s going on with me. My usual state is one of high energy and enthusiasm. I have a great life: good job, loving girlfriend and plenty of mates. I’m typically excitedly chasing the next adventure, whether it be a big night out or a trip abroad. About two months ago the dinners, the trips, even my work and my friends and girlfriend started to feel a bit ‘meh.’ My usual energy is lacking. I’m not sad, more numb.
My GP (who knows me very well) thinks I’m mildly depressed and has put me on a waiting list for talk therapy. I asked about antidepressants but his recommendation was not to migrate too quickly to that option.
In the meanwhile, is there anything else you would recommend?
It can be incredibly alarming to feel our natural energy and love for life drain. Understandably, we can view this shift as a ‘problem’ called depression in search of a ‘solution.’ But what if the depressive symptoms are just that – symptoms alerting us that something in our psyche, in our being, is out of balance. According to Carl Jung, depression can be thought of as a messenger, calling psychic energy towards what needs to be addressed in order to find healing.
In the Red Book, Jung discusses the idea that we are governed by two spirits: the spirit of the times and the spirit of the depths. We are all pretty familiar with the spirit of the times – it concerns fitting in the prevailing cultural climate, getting approval from others, achieving a set of goals (job, girlfriend, mates…check, check, check).
The spirit of the depths garners far less attention in 21st century living. It is timeless, comes from within, the world of the soul. And is often overlooked to our detriment. Echoing Eastern philosophy that has long ascribed mental disturbances to an imbalance between the outward and inward movement of consciousness, Jung put forth that we need to keep a balance between the spirit of the times and that of the depths.
So far, so theoretical. In short, go inward in search of the source of the depressive symptoms. What does this look like in practise?
First, set aside any feelings you have about the feelings as these tend to get in the way. You feel ‘meh,’ lacking energy, numb. OK, that’s where you are. Any feelings you have about this – either judging or denying or wishing them away or whatever – can close down your inner exploration before it even gets going.
Next, also set aside the very understandable but also unhelpful need for quick answers. While you are ultimately curious about where in you the depression comes from, the spirit of the depths can’t be rushed or prodded into compliance.
Having side-stepped a couple of common obstacles, you can engage in a practise of intentional introversion. Regularly setting aside a few minutes to check in with yourself. One way of doing this is a practise of tuning into bodily sensations. Our bodies are always speaking to us, giving us valuable information: "There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom" (Nietzsche).
Sit quietly, turn your attention inward and notice any physical cues that arise. These physical feelings are trailheads to our deeper emotions. When you get quiet and pay attention, what do you notice? Can you merely observe these sensations and any fluctuations that may occur as you breathe with them? This is a non-directive, non-interpretive practise. Staying in the role of observer, receptive to what is: the physical sensations, or absence of them (numb is a perfectly legitimate sensation to experience).
A second way to cultivate a relationship with the spirit of the depths is regular journalling. Sitting down with pen and paper – rather than at a screen/keyboard – because when we write by hand this allows for more emotional engagement. The practise is one of stream of consciousness writing, leaving your inner editor aside as there is no end reader for these pages anyway. Again, this is a non-interpretive practise. Quoting ‘father of American psychology’ William James: "The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion." Journalling in this way is just an invitation for whatever percolates from within to emerge; the opportunity to bring forth different aspects of ourselves on the page.
There are myriad other ways to engage with the depths. One client of mine swears by her daily walks as a form of moving meditation (no headphones as distraction!). Another lets the words from within form his poetry. Jung himself developed a technique called ‘active imagination’ – nightly ‘experiments’ with the unconscious using visualisation – during his personal journey described in the Red Book. The key point is cultivating some dedicated time to turn away from outer things in order to face what is in ourselves. In this way, we can hope to regain balance.