A while ago, I listened to this short talk from therapist Gilbert Renaud where he talks about depression as a coping mechanism that helps us protect ourselves from harm:
To say the least, this is questionable because clinical depression is an illness that often takes lives. However, if we’re talking about a depressive mood that is handled with support from friends and/or professionals, Renaud nails it. A depressive mood handled with care lets us go through the difficult emotions of grief, sadness and hopelessness, without inflicting too much harm on ourselves. It gets us preserved throughout the bad times — like a pickle in a jar.
Difficult emotions need acknowledgement. We need to take the time to listen to them, and see what they can teach us. They may be telling us that we lost something important, remind us about something that happened in the past, or simply indicate that our present life is just difficult.
I was surprised to find out that letting myself be depressed and listening to myself may help me in any way. Before I first tried it, it just seemed so counterintuitive. But now, I agree with Renauld that depressive moods may protect our lives and, with time, deliver us to a better place — where we can grow. A place where we can learn new coping mechanisms that are more conducive to our well-being, where we can accept and appreciate ourselves, and experience an array of emotions — good and bad — that we have kept frozen.
Some time after watching Renauld’s talk, I met with a similar approach to coping in an article by Alicja Senejko:
Senejko Alicja (2017). Szczypta optymizmu, czyli różne wyjścia z sytuacji bez wyjścia. In: Gdzie się podziało moje dzieciństwo. O dorosłych dzieciach alkoholików (pp. 85—94). Kielce: Charaktery. In Polish, pp. 53-57 at scribd.com.
Senejko divided coping mechanisms into constructive and non-constructive ones. The former are reactions to stress that actually help relieve the stress, such as discussing the possible ways of resolving a problem. The latter are seemingly irrational reactions that help us adapt to the stressful situation without really getting out of it. Examples that Senejko gave were avoidance of situations and people that we associate with the stress, and engaging in activities that help us temporarily dissociate from it.
Arguably, a depressive mood is one of the non-constructive methods of coping with difficult emotions. Without promoting progress, it allows us to adapt, and preserve ourselves until the time we feel strong enough to confront the stressful situation. According to Senejko’s research, people who use both constructive and non-constructive methods of coping, cope with stressful situations more effectively.
That’s a reason not to beat ourselves up for feeling low and apathetic, but to accept this state, and employ some constructive coping mechanisms as well, such as seeking support from other people and/or professional help.
I’m living proof that this combination works — after a long time of going through depression and staying in therapy, I’m in a place where I can grow, learning and trying out new things, trying to reconcile my past with the more self-aware person I’m becoming. Placing carefully there a strange thing and a known thing here… Carefully moving a perhaps fraction of flower here placing an inch of air there… Yes, spring is coming, and I had the urge to finish this post by quoting e. e. cummings.