The Upside of Depression and the Downside of Medication

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Are there advantages to being depressed? Something good about something we think of as so bad? A recent New York Times Magazine article by Jonah Lehrer makes just that case: Depression’s Upside.

The essence of the argument is that some episodes of depression allow for and encourage a kind of analytic rumination that is productive. Put another way, the tendency in depression to focus on a problem, mulling it over to the exclusion of other thoughts, permits the sad person to find a solution to his difficulty and change his life in a positive way.

The counter-argument, however, is that the ruminative process is both painful and unproductive — that it often creates a kind of self-flagellating preoccupation with one’s trouble rather than a process that leads to something good; that unhappiness and focusing on pain and its concomitants simply feed on themselves to no helpful end.

In my clinical experience, therapy with people who are depressed over loss or injury often breaks down into two phases. The first of these is a grieving process, where the person expresses and processes (or sometimes purges) the feelings of anger, sadness, emptiness, desolation, and hopelessness that come with the loss of something of value — a love, a job, high social status, a capability, a fortune, etc.

The second phase involves learning from one’s painful experience about how to live differently, make different decisions, associate with different people, become more assertive, overcome fear; value things differently in life such as money, material things, status, accomplishment, friendship, and love.

Naturally, neither of these two phases is absolutely discrete — they blend into each other and overlap each other. As a practical example, someone who has had a series of bad relationships will typically need to grieve the unhappy end of the most recent one and, in the process, learn how he happened to choose a person or persons who made him so miserable; then changing whatever needs to be changed internally and externally so that different and more satisfying choices occur in the future.

People who are like the hypothetical individual just cited usually come into therapy in emotional pain and seek relief of that pain as promptly as possible. This desire is entirely reasonable — who wouldn’t want this? Some of them request medication, which is often the fastest way to “feel better.”

But many are leery of psychotropic drugs and see them as artificial, hoping that therapy will produce a more lasting fix without dependency upon a foreign substance. Indeed, while a good therapist will strongly encourage the use of medication for someone who is seriously depressed, i.e. suicidal, unable to work, sleeping away the day away (or almost unable to sleep); that same therapist will also know that medication sometimes serves to “de-motivate” the patient, giving him or her a relatively quick solution that allows that person to tolerate an intolerable situation. In the New York Times Magazine article mentioned above, Dr. Andy Thomson describes this problem eloquently:

I remember one patient who came in and said she needed to reduce her dosage. I asked her if the antidepressants were working, and she said something I’ll never forget. ‘Yes, they’re working great. I feel so much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.’

Clearly, this woman was aware that she needed to be in some amount of discomfort in her relationship with her husband in order to be motivated to get out of it. The drug made her feel better, but, it also reduced her incentive to change herself and her life. It was, in effect, a kind of band-aid, rather than a real cure. It anesthetized her and, in so doing, robbed her of something that was essential for new learning and behavior change to occur.

Unfortunately, most people who come to therapy are neither as courageous or insightful as the woman just described. Once they feel significantly better, whether due to therapy or medication, it is common for them to be less interested in continuing treatment. They have recovered from the event that precipitated their entry into therapy, but they might not yet have learned enough to avoid making the same mistakes that contributed to the problem in the first place.

Such a person can reason that the cost of therapy (both financially and in terms of time, effort, and the difficulty that comes with changing one self) is now greater than emotional pain from which they might still be suffering. Put another way, at this point, doing therapy “causes” more difficulty and pain than not doing therapy, just the reverse of what seemed true when they started the treatment process.

At this stage, those who continue in therapy have something that an old mentor of mine, Truman Esau, used to call “therapeutic integrity.” What he saw in some of his patients was an almost heroic desire to make themselves better regardless of how much the actual process of doing so was difficult, uncomfortable, or painful.

These patients didn’t shy away from problematic truths about themselves or others. They worked hard to stretch and challenge themselves, knowing that it was crucial to improve. They didn’t simply want a quick fix. Like the woman in Dr. Thomson’s example, they recognized that some pain was essential to being motivated. They knew that there was no such thing as “a free lunch,” and were willing to do whatever it took to repair and better their lives.

If you are in therapy now, it will be important for you to be sensitive to this shift from the often intense distress that brought you into therapy, to the point when the therapy itself might seem distressful. This can mean that the therapist is not skillful or that he is pushing you too much, but it just might also signal that some of the most difficult life changes you need to make are still ahead of you, even if the cost of making those changes seems greater than when you started treatment.

If you leave therapy because it is hard and unpleasant work, the problems you have won’t care. They will simply continue to reside in you, work on you, and trip you up. It is not enough to get over your last disappointment or unhappiness, but to change yourself enough to avoid future problems.

Few things that are worthwhile come to us for free.

The above image titled Depression is the work of Hendrike, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Happens in Psychotherapy?

What does psychotherapy do and how does it do that? Good questions, and even some therapists might have a hard time answering them. Of course, some of the goals are obvious: reduce depression, have better relationships, eliminate anxiety, enjoy your life more, and stop worrying. But what are the elements that get you there? I’ll give you a sense of some of the factors that permit those goals to be achieved.

1. Trust. Many people entering treatment have trust issues: they trust too easily or not at all, usually the latter. Trust will start with the relationship between you and the therapist. Simple things: does he listen? Does he understand? Does he seem interested and dedicated? Is he dependable? Does he care? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then it will be a bit easier to begin to trust others. The experience of a benign relationship with one person can open you to the possibility that this experience can be achieved elsewhere in your life.

2. Validation. Many people coming into psychotherapy having been told that they should “get over it,” that they “shouldn’t feel that way,” that they shouldn’t complain or “whine;” or having been ignored, dismissed, or criticized too often when trying to express themselves. Some folks believe feelings are unimportant; others might state that it is not “masculine” to feel too much, and so forth. As a result, many new patients have so buried their feelings that they are alienated from themselves and don’t know whether it is appropriate to think or feel as they do. A good therapist creates a safe place for talking about such things (trust again), and gives the person a sense that there is value in what they feel and think. Over time, this action, by itself, can help improve self esteem and reduce sadness and alienation.

3. Grieving. If one has not had supportive relationships (with people who are both trustworthy and validating), the sense of loss or absence contributes to sadness, and sometimes to depression. The relationship with the therapist allows you to express the emotions related to loss (both sadness and anger) to someone who listens patiently and shows concern. As you process those feelings of loss, your sadness should gradually diminish. The therapist serves as a witness and again, as someone who validates your pain. Grieving in isolation too often contributes to the feeling of disconnection and alienation from the world. Grieving with someone who cares reconnects you to one of the things that can be good in life: human contact.

4. Learning new things. Any good therapist needs to provide some guidance and tools that enable change. This might come in the form of helping you learn and practice new social skills (including acting these skills out with the therapist), assisting you in changing how you think (cognitive restructuring) that helps you reduce self-defeating thoughts, training in how to be assertive (again with role playing in the therapy session), or meditation.

5. A change in perspective. A good therapist will provide you with new ways of thinking about the world and about your life. Since he can see you from the outside, he is more likely to see you in a way that you cannot see yourself.

6. Facing things, not avoiding things. We all practice avoidance some of the time, and some of the time it is a useful thing. Unfortunately, many of us practice it all too much. We distract ourselves from pain and avoid challenging situations. We can use food, TV, shopping, sex, drugs, alcohol, the internet, and computer games to get us away from whatever it is we can’t handle. We worry about problems rather than coming up with a plan of action and taking them on. We don’t ask out the pretty girl for fear of rejection, or say “no” to people who want to befriend us for the same reason. We stay at a “dead-end” job because of our insecurities. And, of course, unhappiness is the result.

A therapist can assist you in identifying the patterns of avoidance, help you to gradually become able to tolerate anxiety (by use of such things as cognitive restructuring, role playing or meditation) and give you tasks that gradually increase in difficulty so that you reduce avoidance and begin to take action that works.

7. Acceptance. By acceptance I am referring to acceptance of the nature of life and the discomfort that comes with living; acceptance of the fact that being open to life allows you to experience satisfaction and joy, but also opens you to pain; and awareness of the temporary nature of most of that discomfort. The more that you take life on its terms, the less you will be trapped by it.

Remember playing with the Chinese Finger Puzzle as a kid, the cylindrical woven structure made of bamboo, open at both ends? You put your two index fingers into it, but when you pulled hard to get your fingers out, you became more stuck. Only by releasing the tension and moving your fingers toward the center of the device, did it collapse and no longer held you tight. Life is a lot like that to the extent that we must stop engaging in behaviors that only make us more “stuck.”Acceptance allows you to free yourself, at least somewhat, from what is distressing about life.

8. Valued Action. If you are caught in the struggle with your emotions, or focused on avoidance of pain, what is good in life will be hard to achieve. Therapy can help you to think about the life you would like to lead, the life that is consistent with your values, and help to relieve you of the habits that keep you so wound-up that you don’t have time to think about what it is you would really like to do, and what it is that would lead you to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. What is your true self? Therapy can help you find out and encourage that person to exist in the world.

The description I’ve given you is based, in part, on my experience in life and training, especially training in such therapeutic approaches as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based behavior therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Other therapists may have a different view of what is important and how to help you get to the point that your life is more satisfying and less fraught with depression, anxiety, or chronic relationship problems. But here, at least, I hope that I have given you some sense of direction and some reason to be hopeful about the possibility of change in your life.

Therapy, Responsibility, and the Nuremberg Defense

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Therapy, like life, requires taking responsibility for what becomes of you. But, as the comedy team Cheech & Chong famously noted, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” What does that have to do with “the Nuremberg Defense?” Read on.

If you are old enough (or a good student of history) the word Nuremberg has a certain resonance for you. It is a German town that was a center of the Holy Roman Empire and the Renaissance; later becoming the host of Nazi Party rallies between 1927 and 1938, the site of the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping German Jews of their citizenship, and equally well-known for the war crimes trials that were held after WWII, in an attempt to hold Nazi villains to account. Such Nazi higher-ups as Hans Frank, Rudolph Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher were brought to justice there (see above photo); Hermann Goering escaped hanging only by committing suicide.

A common refrain during the testimony of the accused was the statement “I was only following orders.” This line of explanation was used so often that it became known as “the Nuremberg Defense.” It was found insufficient by the judges, who reasoned that the accused had the moral responsibility to refuse orders to commit “crimes against humanity,” even assuming that it could be demonstrated that such orders were given.

Since I don’t treat war criminals, you might be asking yourself how the failure of some of these long-dead Nazis to take responsibility applies to treating people with less dramatic problems of depression or anxiety or relationship disappointment? In the course of talking with my patients, I often discover that they have suffered from some sort of misfortune; be it inadequate, negligent, or abusive parents; accident or injury; or unfair treatment at school, at work, or in love. Sometimes the stories are heartbreaking. It is perfectly proper for patients to blame at least part of their unhappiness on these events and these people. Moreover, it is often essential that they grieve those losses, give voice to their anger and sadness, and rail against the unfairness of life. And it is important for a therapist to help them as they process their grief.

But therapy cannot end there.

The patient, if he is to improve his life, cannot simply assign responsibility to some other person as a release from the need to take charge of what becomes of himself in the future, any more than a Nuremberg defendant might hope that assignment of responsibility to the commanding officer would take him off the hook for the unspeakable acts he committed.

Put more simply, neither the war crimes defendant nor the common therapy patient can point to someone else, say “He is the one who caused this,” and leave things at that. Just as the SS criminals were asked, “And then what did you do?” so must we all, regardless of what misfortune has happened to us, ask ourselves, “Now what? Do I simply accept the injustice, forever blame others, and stay defeated and aggrieved in-perpetuity, or do I grieve my loss, take responsibility for my life, and try to get beyond the injuries I’ve suffered?”

We all know people who, however small or large the disappointment that they have experienced, never get beyond criticizing, blaming, whining, and feeling sorry for themselves. While some of this is often necessary to get past the hurt, a lifetime of it is simply a waste, a personal failure to take control and to admit and accept that if life is to have meaning and value, we all have to do something positive with that life, regardless of bad breaks. Even if fairness demands that others compensate us for our losses, if such compensation cannot be obtained, life still calls us to repair ourselves. As a therapist colleague of mine, at the risk of sacrilege, used to tell those patients who seemed to forever bemoan their fate, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

Shakespeare commented on responsibility-taking in Julius Caesar when he gave Cassius the words:

“Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

This is not always literally true. But there is no better way to live than to try to make our circumstances the best we can, however unlucky our lot. A good therapist will help you get there.