In researching holistic healing for depression over a number of years, I’ve given a lot of thought to the odd nature of the feeling-state of this particular mood disorder.
On the one hand, depression is a non-feeling. That’s the whole problem in a nutshell; we depressives find ourselves in an emotional dead zone and yearn to “feel” again, even if the feelings are negative – angry or sad, for example.
On the other hand, there’s a kind of depression much more akin to despair, and in these cases, our feelings seem to be on overdrive. There’s a heightened sense of not only our worth, but the stakes attached to anything we do, no matter how mundane. It’s almost like normal emotions are magnified into caricature.
As I said in my last post, I have found there to be three broad categories of depression that may all yield the same bio-psychological state, but they come from dramatically different starting points: our biology, our emotions, or our meaning.
I’ve interviewed dozens of doctors and psychologists for The Depression Dialogues and Mad in America, and as I’ve done so I’ve listened especially carefully to how they described their patients’ feeling-states. I’ve compared this with the language used by my own private coaching clients and my own experience of multiple depressions.
In the process, I’ve come up with a kind of “field guide” to the most common feeling-states underlying depression, as well as what we can infer from these feelings in terms of what type of depression is at play, and what kind of intervention is most likely to be successful.
Here then, are the 6 most common feelings underlying depression.
1. The Dead Feeling
When I was 25 years old, I pulled a piece of paper out of my wallet that had been in there for over a year. It was the name and number of a psychotherapist a friend had recommended.
I’d been too proud to admit I needed help, but what finally broke me was the realization that living with what I had come to call “the dead feeling” was no longer sustainable.
Most depressed people are familiar with this feeling. It’s like all the things that make you feel alive – gumption, enthusiasm, emotional spark – have just gone.
In therapy, I learned that certain emotional patterns I’d learned in childhood were leading to a quiet battle within me. My adult self wanted to live a certain way; a way which was often at odds with what I’d learned was “right” or “safe” as a child. That dissonance created a psychic paralysis, aka the Dead Feeling.
But there was something else I did at that time which was equally important, and that was changing the food I ate.
I’d heard some health nut types extoll the benefits of removing white flour and sugar from your diet. And though it seemed odd to me (this was in the mid-90s, when pasta was still considered a health food), something told me to try it.
I was a young person living in New York on a budget, so cheap empty carbohydrates formed most of my dietary intake. Falafel, pizza, pasta, ramen and breakfast sandwiches on big fluffy deli rolls were daily staples for me. I dropped them all, and refined sugar as well.
Within two weeks I saw an uptick in energy. Within a month, I was no longer sure if I could really call myself “depressed,” since I seemed to be managing pretty well and I no longer had my daily, miserable What’s the use? type of thoughts while lying in a heap on my kitchen floor.
Years later, I learned that my simple experiment has been validated by reams of research in the metabolic sciences.
The bottom line is that eating whole, nutrient-dense food and emotional processing work are the two big keys to ending the Dead Feeling.
2. The Exhausted Feeling
In this type of depression, there’s a sense of being bone-tired all the time and no matter how well you eat, how much you sleep or how little or much you exercise, you just can’t seem to feel any energy.
Of course, in this state a person also feels “depressed.” The whole body is depressed, so naturally that extends to our neurotransmitters which are firing as usual, but sluggishly. Our thoughts and feelings end up dragging their ass as much as the rest of us.
This feeling-state is almost always biological in nature. Ideally we wouldn’t even call this “depression,” we’d have a different name altogether. Actually, one of my doctors from The Depression Dialogues coined just such a term.
Dr. Oscar Serralach had been seeing many new mothers for post-partum depression. After doing blood workups on these women, he almost always found some type of nutritional or hormonal imbalance as the cause. So he stopped referring to it as post-partum depression and began calling it post-partum depletion. (He wrote a terrific book about this called The Postnatal Depletion Cure.)
This doesn’t just affect women. The famous British singer Robbie Williams underwent testosterone therapy when his doctor told him he had “the testosterone of an 80-year old man.” He was feeling depressed and having trouble functioning, but after getting his hormones back into balance, his energy returned to normal.
If you suspect this is what’s underlying your depression, look in your area for a functional physician. They will likely order blood panels to check for nutritional abnormalities and hormonal imbalances, and possibly a stool test to rule out gut dysbiosis or infections.
3. The Weepy Feeling
In my experience, this type of depression is not as common as the Dead Feeling or the Exhausted Feeling, but it’s experienced by some. In this feeling-state, you may feel slighted and abused, sad and put-upon. There tends to be a “too-muchness” to life, and the typical way of coping is to weep your way through it.
Ironically, this feeling has the same root as the Dead Feeling, it’s just expressed in the opposite way. Long-held beliefs that make you feel helpless and hopeless (and probably worthless, ashamed and anxious as well) are at the root of this depression.
People struggling with this feeling-state respond well to psychotherapy that works at the deep core emotional patterns, as well as some cognitive-behavioral self-talk to avoid getting bogged down in long-standing negative thought patterns. A note of caution, though: CBT alone is not always the right path for this feeling-state, because it can sometimes make you feel like your deeper feelings don’t matter, and you need to simply suck it up and “think better!” Given that one of the core wounds of depression is a feeling of not being heard, I think CBT can sometimes work at cross purposes here.
As in other types of depression, diet can be a culprit. If you suffer from the Weepy Feeling and are a vegetarian or vegan, I recommend adding some animal foods back into your diet to increase your saturated fat intake. See Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth for a deeper exploration of this.
4. The Floating Feeling
I had a period in my late 30s when I realized even though I wasn’t really “stuck,” I also wasn’t moving forward.
Since I had become a mother, my days were certainly busy. But they were busy with things that didn’t always hold any vital tension or meaning.
It was a depression rooted in life circumstances. My career had not taken off as I’d hoped, but I had not yet discovered my new career, which would create a veritable explosion of new vitality and passion for me. It was as if I were floating through space. Moving, yes. Directional, no.
When I talk to clients who are in this state, they report that one day melds into another. They know they should “do something,” but have no idea what.
It’s depression by paralysis. A person experiencing this will usually be functional, but there’s a bit of the Dead Feeling inside and a general sadness or blankness about where your life is going and what you should be doing.
When I found myself in the Floating Feeling, I had already explored old emotional patterns in therapy, so I decided to see a life coach instead. This got me started on a path to a career transition that acted like a B12 shot to my entire life.
Life coaches – especially those that specialize in life transitions – are useful helpers if you’re experiencing the Floating Feeling.
5. The Meh Feeling
About 6 months after giving birth to my second child, I experienced a depressive episode strikingly different from my first two depressions.
In this depression, I didn’t feel dead inside. Nor was I in an existential crisis. I could laugh. I had moments of genuine happiness, especially with my children. But my overall feeling about life could best be summed up as “meh.”
It felt like nothing mattered. It was hard to care about anything. It was as if my life was reduced to a series of inconsequential decisions about mundane events that just all felt kind of blah.
When I began describing this feeling to other moms, I was surprised to learn they were very familiar with the Meh Feeling.
For most of us, one issue driving this was that our own passions and ambitions had become subverted to the needs of our children. But I discovered there was an even bigger causal factor than diminished personal identity. That was hormonal imbalance – an occupational hazard of motherhood.
Our hormones and neurotransmitters work hand-in-hand to create our basic feelings of drive, motivation and zest for life.
I saw a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine specializing in female hormones, and she gave me a mixture of custom-blended Chinese herbs to take every day for a few months. At the end of this course of treatment (in conjunction with some important work I did with a life coach), I felt like my old self again.
Bottom line, I recommend seeing a hormone doctor stat for the Meh Feeling.
6. The Black Feeling
This feeling-state is like an inky-dark cloud of negativity casting a shadow over your entire life, and often it refuses to blow over. Folks with this type of depression fall prey to what therapists refer to as “black and white thinking,” which often sounds like this:
- I always attract the worst.
- That would never work for me.
- Everyone knows that’s basically impossible.
The Black Feeling almost always has trauma at its root. At some age (usually a young one), you learned a basic lesson: life is not safe, and life can hurt you.
Therefore, you might think that psychotherapy specializing in the healing of trauma would work well here, and you’d be right. (EMDR is a terrific therapy to help identify and defuse early trauma that still directs your feelings today.)
But here’s something interesting: I have found that depressives who suffer from the Black Feeling also tend to use food in abundance to self-medicate. And invariably it’s with the very foods that will make the Black Feeling even worse; namely sugar and empty carbs.
So usually some sort of whole-food nutritional component that emphasizes adequate protein and fat is also very helpful in eradicating the Black Feeling.
This feeling-state truly needs a multimodal approach. A rich, nutrient-dense diet combined with a therapist who can explore your early childhood belief system, in tandem with mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral strategies to stop negative self-talk in its tracks would be a terrific protocol. In my experience, if you do only one aspect of that without the others, you tend to keep falling down, over and over, into that inky black hole.
You may be thinking, can a person have more than one of these feeling-states underlying their depression? The answer is a definite yes. It’s useful to mull over these different states of being and intuit what the dominant feeling-state of your depression is, and what other feelings may also be at play.
It’s time we stop dreaming about a “magic bullet” cure for depression. It doesn’t exist. Human beings are complex, and so is depression. While I genuinely understand the desire to reach for a pill when we’re feeling utterly incapacitated by depression, I think both as a society and as individuals we can aim higher than that. I think we can use depression as a profound opportunity to discover what’s operating in our bodies and lives at a much deeper level.
I would love to share my free Daily Survival Guide for Depression Ebook. Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think.