What If Your Depression was a Canary in your Coal Mine?

In some places, “depression” gets Googled as often as every two seconds.

“How can I cure my depression” is certainly one of the hottest search trends of the last year… and it’s only getting hotter.

As we explore the origins, metabolization, and long-term effects of living with trauma – Big T or little t – it becomes more and more apparent that depression, anxiety, and the attendant miscommunications, resentments, guilt, blame, paralysis, self-destructive tendencies, and abuse…

Well, they’re not isolated incidents. 

It’s hard to continue believing there’s an “us” and a “them” when it comes to mental health.  Most of the time, looking a little bit more closely at your habits and patterns reveals that you – the self you imagine to be the measured composite of all of your experiences and wisdom – are not always in charge.

There’s a theory about that…

Maybe, depression isn’t a punishment for something you’ve done wrong, or only the result of unlucky genetics, or a life condemned to sadness and darkness.

Maybe it’s a warning.

Maybe it’s yet another way that our bodies shout at us when we’re not doing what’s right for them, and we’re so distracted and disconnected we can’t understand what it’s saying to us.

Feeling Depressed May Signal a Bigger Problem

We’ve been trying to come to a conclusion regarding the amorphous nature of depression. How do we, as a society, define it?

Is it a lifelong disease, caused by a genetic and immutable chemical imbalance?

Is it a condition brought on by dysbiosis in the gut’s microbiome, the play where most of the body’s serotonin is created?

Is it circumstantial – as in, no amount of SSRIs or antidepressants can make someone living in poverty or in an abusive relationship happier?

On and and on, we ask these questions. 

If depression is a “malfunction” or “disorder” of the autonomic nervous system, which is supposed to keep our consciousness humming without hiccups, then as a state of being… 

Depression is a distress signal. It’s a flare. It’s an S.O.S. sent from our body’s mechanics saying, this is not standard operating procedure.

We used to think that depression begins in the mind – you think sad thoughts, those sad thoughts create a negative feedback loop, you hard-carve those neural pathways, and the body responds in kind. 

There’s a deep and powerful connection between our thoughts and our physicality – they inform each other. Sad feelings create lethargy, exhaustion, headaches, stomachaches, and more in the body. 

But according to the Polyvagal Theory, we’re thinking about this all wrong.

Depression Shuts Us Down Because of Danger

According to this theory, the body senses that something is out of whack. The neuroscientist who developed it, Stephen Porges, explains that the ANS is responsible for all the feelings your consciousness experiences – good and bad.

That’s because it’s always clocking your environment. 

Everything okay? Perfect, have some peace and calm.

Something is awry? Let’s assess this threat…

When we feel anxiety, it’s usually because our ANS has registered an unwelcome entity – abuse, negativity, a bad vibe, whatever you want to call it – and we haven’t decided what we’re going to about it yet.

Fight? Flight? Fawn? Or freeze… Bingo. 

Depression, or the freeze response, gets codified as “immobilization”, which in this theory, becomes the logical response after the ANS has determined it can’t make a difference here. If you’ve weighed your options and realized you can’t change your situation at present, or without humongous and possibly dangerous effort, your body and mind can make the choice to disassociate and shut down.

The dorsal vagus nerve turns down the metabolism, dulls pain, and makes sure we feel disconnected. 

In other words, it diminishes our capacity to feel suffering – or anything, really. 

And when nothing changes internally or externally… meaning the threat doesn’t go away…

The body never gets the message to let up on the freeze response. 

Being trapped in generational poverty, abusive relationships, unsatisfactory living conditions, in an addiction, experiencing systemic bigotry…

All of these circumstances would signal to the body that something is not right. And if we can’t fix the situation, we at least don’t have to feel the crushing pain of it.

Depression may be trying to help us by telling us:

  1. You’re not about to go through this pain unprotected – don’t worry, we’ll make sure you don’t drown in it.
  2. Something isn’t the way it should be – look around… what is it?

Porges says that shifting out of depression isn’t only about removing negativity – it’s about installing positivity.

Don’t just get rid of the threat. 

Signal to the body and mind that everything is okay.

Sometimes that means building protective factors, rearranging your environment so that it projects safety and ease to you, or only doing what makes you feel positive and protected until you feel resilient enough to face more.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.