A New Way to Understand & Treat Depression: Part 2 The Story of Phil and His Grief
In our society, we mostly learn how to avoid emotions using a myriad of defenses such as addictions, over-working, over-eating, under-eating, perfectionism, ruminating, judging, and many others. Avoiding emotions like grief, anger, and even joy eventually leads to a sense of being disconnected both from our authentic self and from other people. Symptoms of blocked and buried emotions often get labeled as “depression” because the symptoms are the same: disconnected, deadened, and hopeless. While blocking our emotions may protect us in the short run, in the long run, however, it costs us dearly.
Alex’s depression, from Part 1 of this article, lifted because we liberated underlying fear as well as other core emotions. While the emotions from that time were too much for Alex to bear alone, now with help, he could safely process them. With his nervous system regulated, the suicidal thoughts stopped.
Phil had a different buried emotion -- sadness -- causing his depression.
The Connection Between Buried Sadness and Depression
Phil, a 23-year-old highly accomplished young man, came for AEDP therapy because he felt depressed and numb. When I explored events in his life, I found out his father had died of a heart attack when he was a teenager. Phil’s dad was a firm believer that a man should always control his emotions and never cry.
Because of this learned belief that it is weak to have emotions, Phil was never able to grieve his father’s death. He coped by keeping busy with sports and school. But eventually, his defenses, the creative and brilliant ways our mind protects us from emotional pain, broke down and he developed symptoms, like the depression that brought him to therapy. I suspected that if Phil could grieve his father, he’d feel better and his depression might lift.
“Despite what your father told you, you are not weak for having emotions. All humans have core emotions like sadness, anger, fear, joy, and excitement. They happen in response to the environment and they are NOT under our conscious control. All we can control is how we deal with emotions once we have them," I told Phil. "When someone we love dies, sadness is the healthy biological response to our loss. We cannot just ‘get over it’ or ‘suck it up’. We cannot think our way out of emotions. We must experience emotions on the deepest level, which means feeling them physically until they fully release. That’s how people recover from losses to feel better.” That deeply resonated with Phil. He wanted permission to feel.
The work involved guiding him into his body to access his buried grief. As Phil shared the story of his father’s last days, I invited him to slow down and tune into the sensations he felt below the neck. Almost immediately, he started to tear up.
“Just notice the feeling coming up, without judgment. Just welcome it with compassion and curiosity in yourself.” I said.
“My chest is heavy. And I feel pressure behind my eyes,” Phil shared.
“Just stay with what you notice physically. As you feel the wave of emotion, breathe slowly and deeply.” Phil cried as I sat quietly with him, my heart open. After just a few sessions like this, where Phil experienced the emotions he had previously buried, Phil felt himself again.
Education on what emotions are and how they work in the mind and body demystifies them. It is the first step to making emotions less scary so we stop avoiding them. And, education undoes damaging myths, like “strong people don’t have emotions” or “only weak people suffer.”
The lack of an emotion education in our formal schooling is hurting us. Why? Because all of us have the same core and inhibitory emotions: anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, guilt, anxiety, and shame. And since emotions are not under conscious control, how we handle emotions makes a big difference in whether we feel ok or whether we develop symptoms like depression.
When we understand emotions, our suffering changes from shameful to human. And when we learn to work with emotions, becoming familiar with how they feel physically, the need to avoid them eases. We stop being hampered and side-lined by the traumas and wounds we have experienced, and we unlock a healing potential to restore a deeply felt calm and authentic connection to our true Self and others.
(Patient details have been changed for confidentiality)
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
Siegel, D., Fosha, D., & Solomon, M. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York: Norton
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking