Am I depressed or simply in a bad mood?
It is said that to know the difference between being depressed and simply being in a bad mood, you normally have to have experienced both. It is a cruel twist of fate that when we are depressed and most in need of the support, love and comfort of others, we find ourselves least able to accept it.
Whilst support, love and comfort will ease our pain when we are in a bad mood, when we are depressed these precious gifts often have no effect whatsoever on how we feel and may even make us feel worse.
When we are simply in a bad mood, we will normally seek to make ourselves feel better by watching an uplifting film, going for a run or ‘connecting’ with a friend. Depression, by contrast, is more about disconnecting. Disconnecting from others, disconnecting from painful emotions and disconnecting from yourself. Depression has been described as a prison where the sufferer is both the prisoner and the jailer, not only denying themselves the smallest comfort but devising a relentless campaign of self-punishment and self-hatred too. It is this desperate sense of utter isolation and dislocation from the world that perhaps best describes the difference between depression and a common ‘bad mood’.
For those living with someone with depression, it can be a difficult and confusing time, particularly if they cannot judge whether the individual is simply ‘down’ as opposed to clinically depressed. Whilst someone with depression will normally appear intellectually aware of their surroundings and the basic rules of life, they are somehow unable to properly interpret their experience of those things. They will know that people are reaching out to them in love rather than condemnation, for example, but they will not be able to interpret and accept that action for what it is. There will often also be an unhelpful ‘sub text’ running. How they respond to life is also somewhat ‘corrupted’ as if a virus has got into their software and infected how they interpret and respond to signals. It’s not their fault or their intention. It just is. And this is very different to being in a ‘bad mood’.
The problem is that many people with depression find they cannot describe their experience particularly well, because it is new and confusing for them also. For some, it is so overwhelmingly frightening that they simply withdraw, batten down the hatches and maintain ‘radio silence’. Safe in the prison, no one to get them.
Well meaning friends and relatives reach out, try to buoy them up, tell them it will pass, or perhaps point out that there are others worse off; that it’s just one of life’s ups and downs. They reassure the sufferer that they are capable, deserving and loved. Someone in a bad mood will know and accept this and when the storm has blown over they’ll be fine; someone with depression will hear the words but their ‘infected software’ will struggle to find the meaning in them. The storm doesn’t just blow over for the person with depression.
Perhaps, somewhere deep within, the person with depression may know that there is some truth in those words, like a faint echo, but it’s still not quite believable. The dots just don’t connect like they used to. They may think: “How can I tell them that I am suddenly too scared to go to that family party, or shopping, or have my best friend round for lunch? My best friend for heaven’s sake? How can I explain that I had ‘no choice’ when I resigned from a perfectly good job, despite having mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay? How can I say I felt in imminent danger of going out so I had to cancel the appointment? Or provide an explanation of why I’ve done nothing all day and am still in my pyjamas despite it being 4pm in the afternoon?" It doesn’t make sense. Not to the sufferer, nor to those on the outside. But pointing it out is the very worst thing a helper can do. When the sufferer knows they should be eating properly, exercising, counting their blessings and replying to messages, someone pointing out to them how easy these things are only makes them feel worse about themselves than they already feel. They are easy things to do and the fact that they cannot do them is all the proof they need to show what a failure they are.
Sometimes, as the offers of support, love and comfort are batted away or found simply to be ineffectual, a more direct stance may be employed with comments such as: “you need to snap out of it”, “you have to pull yourself together", “you can’t keep burying your head in the sand” or worst of all “don’t you care about anyone else’s feelings?".
And, as the emotional chasm between the sufferer and the helper widens, the connection between them is lost like a bad telephone line which hisses, crackles intermittently and eventually fails. The sufferer then finds themselves utterly alone. We think we’ve done our very best to help. But they then think they were right all along - life really is worth being depressed about. The person in a bad mood may rant and rage for a while (even quietly) but they will not typically and irrevocably generalise that one incident has ‘ruined’ their whole life. They will be able to keep a sense of perspective on the cause of their bad mood.
Being depressed has been described as being lost in a fog, or encased or trapped in something heavy and oppressive and you are always utterly alone. Depression brings an enduring, terrible isolation with it. Confidence moves out, criticism moves in, and the gateway is guarded by the big “black dog” as Winston Churchill famously described it. The prefrontal cortex of the brain loses its ability to make decisions easily until the teeniest, tiniest decision like “what shall I eat?” or “what shall I wear?” becomes a decision of such magnitude that the sufferer doesn’t even attempt to make it. They perhaps don’t eat or get dressed that day.
Yet, despite their cognitive functions being impaired, the sufferer is acutely aware that they cannot make a basic decision. Unsurprisingly, this leads to further feelings of inadequacy, guilt, disappointment and failure. They beat themselves up for being weak, stupid and ineffectual. They compare themselves to others who are ‘doing better’. They chide themselves for being ‘rubbish’ so they seek refuge in their prison where It’s safe.
Unlike being in a bad mood, being depressed is a profound and generally prolonged emotional experience, but depression does not have to be a permanent house guest. It is not a genetic fault. As strange as it may seem, we create it and can, therefore, un-create it. We already know that it is not the bad events that happen to us that dictate how we feel, rather how we interpret those bad events. As the saying goes, 'the world is as we perceive it'. Failing to get a promotion may cause one person to be in a bad mood for a while, but it may cause another to become depressed. Although it may seem random, to become depressed we have to have developed a set of complex and interlinked (negative) opinions about ourselves, our world, how the one relates to the other and then hold onto those opinions as immutable 'truths'. Black and white. No question.
Telling our loved one, who is in the grip of depression, that they need to ‘think positively’, can seem like the most obvious and natural thing in the world if you are on the ‘outside’. To your loved one, however, you are telling them to uproot the belief system that lies at the very core of who they believe they are.
Hypnotherapy is a natural and gentle intervention that is highly effective in diffusing the emotional arousal that comes with depression. With patience and understanding the client can be helped to make space for the often debilitating thoughts and feelings. They can then begin to challenge the ‘faulty’ thinking and limiting beliefs that hold the depression in place, gradually leaving behind the isolation and sense of hopelessness. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Have courage.