We live in a very feelings-based culture. Reacting perhaps to repressive attitudes of the past, the 1960s began a feeling revolution in the US and across the world. Curiously, along with this feeling revolution, we’ve also seen epidemics of depression increase exponentially. Why?
The Gift of Emotion
Emotions in and of themselves are gifts.
God gave us an amazing array of feelings and emotions…and for a reason. We’re designed to move toward all that’s good, beautiful, and true and move away from what’s not. Feelings play a crucial role that enables us to do that. They give us information. Just as thirst is a physical feeling that alerts us that we need water, emotions are feelings that move us interiorly in our hearts and subsequently move us to action. Dr. Conrad Baars expressed it best when he called emotions “psychological motors.”
Emotions in and of themselves are gifts. Some would say they are neither good nor bad…although I intend to make the case that they are actually all good. Many refer to “negative” emotions like anger and sadness which is misleading. It’s more accurate to say there are unpleasant emotions, just as there are unpleasant feelings in the physical realm. Smelling sour milk is unpleasant…but it is a good thing to be able to smell it and avoid getting sick. So, it is with our emotions. Some certainly do feel better than others but the unpleasant ones serve just as important a purpose for our overall good.
Some Feelings Are More Popular Than Others
“If it feels good, do it” became our culture’s mantra.
Certain feelings are simply not popular to feel or express. I know it sounds weird to say they’re unpopular, but I think that’s the real problem with them. Concurrent with this feeling revolution was a push toward hedonism and pleasure-seeking. “If it feels good, do it” became our culture’s mantra. Hence, if it feels unpleasant we try to avoid it. We push it away. We power through. When we suppress a feeling so habitually, it becomes an automatic process known as repression that serves to keep it out of our conscious awareness. And for a time, it seems effective. Bad feelings – gone. But where do they go?
Our emotions don’t just leave when we refuse to reckon with them. They go underground and get buried alive. If we’re not aware of them, they can take on a life of their own that we can’t control…or, more accurately, we can’t guide by reason.
It takes quite a bit of energy to keep emotions repressed. It’s exhausting ultimately. Like holding a balloon under water, we eventually lose energy and it can pop up to the surface, sometimes with a vengeance. The force we use to keep it repressed is most often fear – another emotion.
Of course, fear does have a rightful place in our psyches. It’s our natural response when we sense we are unsafe. It gives us the energy to fight or flee from danger. But it can usurp its position, overflow its banks, if you will. When fear starts to work on our other emotions, we have a problem. And what can develop are the depressive and anxiety disorders so common today.
We’re simply not designed to work this way. Think of it as driving with your foot on the brake. You’re going to use up a lot of fuel, strip your brakes, and begin to feel mighty out of control when that happens.
Sadness: Cure for Depression?
There are times in life when sadness is the appropriate and necessary emotional response.
When it comes to depression, frequently the problem is that we haven’t allowed ourselves to feel sadness. Work, hobbies, drugs, alcohol, entertainment, video games, promiscuity, and pornography are a few examples of the many distractions available to avoid this dreaded emotion.
But sadness is not necessarily a bad thing. It is part of the emotional system given to us as a gift from God. A gift? Really?! Yes. Really. There are times in life when sadness is the appropriate and necessary emotional response. When we lose a loved one through death, a friend through misunderstanding, a spouse through divorce; when our health presents challenges and limitations; when we experience disappointment, all of these things trigger and require sadness as a healthy reaction to them.
By allowing ourselves to experience sadness, we can then find ways to guide that emotion and rally other emotions, like hope and courage, to eventually resolve it. Finding someone to talk to who understands, who offers us compassion is an important way of dealing effectively with our sadness, as is prayer and the prayerful support of others. Through talk and prayer, we can find meaning in our suffering and strength to persevere through it.
Too often we look for quick fixes – distractions as well as medications to make sadness go away. Sometimes medications are needed and helpful but too many people see them as the entire solution. Unless depression has solely a physiological basis, then medications will only remediate some of the symptoms in order to enable the sufferer to work through the underlying issues that caused the depression in the first place. In many cases, there is sadness (and anger) that was never given its due.
We toss the word depression about rather casually today and that’s a mistake. Depression is not simply feeling down but a clinical and often debilitating condition that requires professional treatment. I’ve even caught myself saying “I’m so depressed” every now and then when I’m having a bad day. But I’ve learned to stop and analyze what I’m actually feeling. Often, I’m just sad…or even just tired or stressed.
By clarifying what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it, we have the information we need to decide what to do to feel better. At times, we just need to feel our sadness, perhaps have a good cry, and let it be. Many emotional wounds simply take time to heal. When it doesn’t resolve on its own we need to talk it out with a trusted friend, priest, or counselor. But whatever we do, we need to recognize sadness as a natural part of life, one that sometimes can help us to avoid depression.