What is depression?

Depression is a mental state characterized by extreme feelings of sadness, despair, hopelessness, and low self-esteem, often accompanied by physical symptoms such as loss of appetite and energy; the negative mood is out of proportion to any actual event or condition that may have precipitated it.

(Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology)

One thing that has struck me often is that the word depression (like that other over-used term, stress) is a very imprecise term. To deal more effectively with our mental states, we have to be able to make fairly precise distinctions – and “depression” is pretty vague categorization. “Depression” encompasses such diverse states as sadness, anxiety, guilt, lethargy, despair, etc.

It might not seem much of an advance to move from talking about “depression” to saying that you feel “despondent” and “worthless,” but the more precise the description of the mental state, then the easier it’s going to be to do something about it (“easier” of course being a relative term).

It’s a bit like if you went to the doctor and he said, “Ah, yes, your problem is that you’re ill.” That diagnosis would be accurate, but not precise enough to be helpful. Just as the treatment for a cold is going to be different from that for food-poisoning, the way to work with anxiety is not the same as the way to work with sadness; although both can be what people mean when they say they are “depressed.”

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that a particular “depressed” person will not experience a wide range of emotions! Any depressed person will experience a variety of states. But this relates to another observation: if the category of “depression” is used in a very indiscriminate way (i.e. the particular mental state is not more precisely identified) then the sufferer can have the impression that his/her mood is unchanging and fixed, when in fact it might be have shifted somewhat from despair to sadness. That feeling of being stuck can be deeply frightening and demoralizing, helping to deepen any existing depression.

On the rare occasions that I have been “depressed,” one of the most distressing elements has been the feeling of being stuck in a mood from which I will never escape. This seems to be a common feature of depression. I think that realizing that one’s mood is in fact changing, fluid, and dynamic – rather than fixed and static – is likely to be helpful. But if we don’t probe to identify our mental states more specifically, then we won’t see the finer gradations.

If you tell yourself that you feel “depressed,” then you won’t know what’s really going on. Try to make finer distinctions in describing your mental states.

15 Comments. Leave new

  • patrick wilcox
    December 2, 2008 3:53 pm

    I have suffered from depression for countless years, and the single most important thing to be said about it is this: depression is not a mood. It is a brain disorder characterised by imperfectly understood changes in biochemical funstioning. Just like a physical disease, it can generate a wide range of symptoms: lethargy, sucidal thoughts, pain in the spine and joints (caused by a dearth of the neurotransmitters that are meant to dampen down ever-present wear-and-tear pain,) loss of interest in – you name it, sleeplessness, and so on. Negative moods are only another symptom, thus subtle distinctions between them are not especially important. What matters is the underlying brain-chemistry.

  • Hi Patrick,

    You’re certainly correct that depression is not a mood, although it is a mood disorder.

    I think it’s wise to be wary of seeing “brain chemistry” as the only factor involved in depression. Even when the chemistry is primary our thinking can exacerbate the situation. Our thoughts, posture, etc, have an effect on what happens chemically in our brains.

    But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and since meditation has been proven clinically to help with depression I think it’s clear that paying attention to how we interact with our experience (including how we label our emotions) can play an important role in dealing with depression. You might want to explore Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, which employs meditative tools.

  • I have been severely depressed for many years, so I can agree that depression is defintely more than one emotion… and one of it characteristics is indeed that it is perceived as a monolithic, unchanging, unmoving state. It has always been, is always, and will always be like that. Even if part of you still remembers that there where times when the depression was absent or lighter, it makes you feel like that was just a second. This depression is the truth…

    What I found fascinating in the teachings is the expression “surpressing out of ignorance.” Depression is depressing. More and more I come to realize that the whole “trick” of depression is to keep you stuck and blind, distorting every information that comes at you. Before you can even clearly see a potential door it slams it right in your face: there is no way out. No solution. But it is wild to see how imaginitative depression can suddenly become when it comes to turning even “pleasant information” into something to hit yourself over the head with.

    Knowing that helps. You need to really record every time when you wake up out of that crazy daze and realize how our depression lied to you, because it is lying to you all the time. Stopping to believe it is a major feat. So I try to ridicule my depressed thoughts (not myself!). Tell them to “talk to the hand.” “I guess your answer to everything is to kill myself again, you are becoming quite boring.”

    Because even with a physical illness, how you approach your condition makes all the difference. The Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has also been succesfully used by people with chronic pain, lung diseases and so on. Don’t ever believe that depression is “just” an inescapable fact, and that you can do nothing about it. That your fate is no longer in your hands. That is exactly what your depression would like you to believe!

    As far as I am concerned, if I am indeed chronically depressed (which is apparently the case), I guess I will just have to set myself up to participate in the mental paralympics… ;-) and I will be dragging my depression and anxieties with me over the finish line, kicking and screaming!

  • Loes, thanks so much for your comments. I know exactly what you mean when you say that our depression lies to us and can twist any situation into something negative. I, too, watch for those moments of clarity when I can step outside of the depression and see it as this separate, manipulative entity that deceives me. Thanks also for reminding me that my approach to this makes all the difference — your resolution to fight its manipulation really made me feel better. Always good to know someone else is fighting the same fight!

  • Bodhipaksa,

    I was wondering what you thought of the term chronic depression?

    • As I’ve mentioned, I think we need to look deeper than the label “depression” to see what emotions and thoughts are actually going on, but clearly there there are people who experience painful states of mind for long periods of time, which is what the label “Chronic Depression” indicates. What did you have in mind?

  • When i meditate, i can achieve a thoughtless state, which is when you have no or almost no thoughts.
    But the background feeling is still there, which is depressive(sadness, darkness, fear, unjoyfull) how can i change
    that what i call background feeling?

    please help me.

    • Hi Oscar,

      This is why mindfulness is not sufficient for most people. I’d strongly suggest that you take up lovingkindness meditation as well, and perhaps focus mainly on that form of meditation for some time. If the depressive feelings don’t begin to show any sign of lessening then you might want to talk to a mental health professional. Sometimes meditation isn’t enough.

  • I have been practicing meditation on and off for 5 years now and studying buddhism for the same amount of time. I had depression at the beginning but came off the SSRI’s about 3 months ago. I have had a difficult time lately and have found it very hard and have now been recommended to go back on them. I have started the course but wonder if it is really necessary or is it the chance to really look and face the negativity and thought patterns? I feel like I should be better at it all by now and should have more control over my mind but am not sure if I am in the right place to be able to look into it. Any ideas? many thanks and I really enjoy and appreciate your website.

    • Hi, Robbie.

      Whether you should stick with the SSRIs is really a matter for you and your doctor.

      That thought that you “should” be better at managing your depression is itself a trigger for depression! Life is is complex, and it’s hard to get a handle on the workings of the mind. I’d suggest that you remind yourself that it’s OK not to feel OK, and that it’s OK not to know what to do. We’re all just muddling through!

  • Depression is killing me..no where to turn…please help

  • Depression is the realization that you’re no longer sleeping and another terrifying day has come. Depression is climbing when you’re legs won’t walk and your lungs won’t breathe and your head doesn’t seem to care anyway. Depression is losing friends and wrecking relationships and alienating everyone. Depression is falling and falling and falling and there’s suddenly no floor. Depression is all-day despair. Depression is shallow breathing and clenched toes and stomach tightness. Depression is sadness layered on sadness. Depression is how many pills would it take, who would find me and what about my dog who won’t understand and just get really scared and nervous? Depression is fear and anxiety and I’m so tired of feeling this way. Depression is this won’t end, there are no good choices and there’s no way out. Depression is I just want to sleep all day. Depression is why can’t I just sleep some more? Depression is regret. Depression is why did I say that, why did I do that, what was I thinking? Depression is I took too many meds.

    Depression is I need help.

  • I have suffered with depression for as long as I can remember. I have tried lots of different “therapies”, none of which has been very successful. I was told by a wise friend that depression is a message from your soul that something needs attending to. Maybe sitting with your internal self to find out what has been hidden. When you can finally face whatever you have been suppressing, give that part of you the love and understanding it needs, then it can be released never to return. I have found this to be the best way to deal with depression, although it seems to be a long road. However, my depression used to stay with me for many weeks at a time, now I find it’s shorter and less intense. So something is working. I try to accept it and treat it as an old friend who is trying to help me.

    • I think that’s a good way to look at depression, Vicki. One of the things that keeps us trapped in depression is our resistance to the unpleasant feelings we’re experiencing. As a friend of mine says, “What we resist, persists.” Accepting unpleasant feelings and having kindness toward them helps us to move through them more quickly.


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