Depression: Rethinking the Cause and the Cure

Introduction: the scope of the problem

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Major Depressive Disorder” affects 16.1 million American adults in any given year, and the National Institute of Mental Health notes that an additional 3.3 million American adults suffer from “Persistent Depressive Disorder”. Although other types of depression have been classified (such as “Seasonal Affective Disorder” or SAD), these two disorders alone account for affecting roughly 8% of the American adult population by themselves. In addition, it has been reported that 1 in 8 Americans is currently taking medication that is used to treat depression.

And while depression in itself is not an illness that is directly linked to death, people with depression are statistically more likely to commit suicide, which is the #10 leading cause of death in the United States. Furthermore, the World Health Organization lists depression as “the leading cause of disability worldwide”, with more than 300 million people of all ages suffering from depression worldwide.

In 2016, a study by Health Affairs found that Americans are spending $201 billion to treat mental health conditions (of which depression and anxiety disorder are the most common). This amount is more than Americans spend on any other illness, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. To sum up all of this data: depression is quite possibly the most common AND the most costly illness – not just in the United States – but across the entire globe.

Current Treatments for Depression

People who are suffering from depression currently have two choices for treatment: medication or psychotherapy (or both). The use of medication seems to have been justified by the theory that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, even though the “chemical imbalance theory” has been attacked as lacking evidence. The other alternative is psychotherapy, or more specifically: Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). This type of therapy, which somewhat ironically is an “evidence-based practice”, was specifically designed to treat depression (and later anxiety disorders). CBT works by targeting unhealthy thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and emotional responses in order to change these patterns into ones that are healthier.

Research into the effectiveness of both approaches has come up with some interesting conclusions:

  • Initially the success rate of medication was believed to be around as much as 80-90%, but new data suggests the actual numbers may be closer to 33%, which is about the same rate as patients who are given a placebo. Furthermore, medication only seems to be helpful in reducing symptoms in cases of severe (i.e. clinical) depression.
  • In a meta-analysis of 31 studies involving medication for treatment, it was shown that within 3 years there was a 40% relapse for those discontinuing medication. Interestingly enough, even when continuing medication there was still an 18% chance of relapse.
  • CBT is at least as equally effective in treating depression as medication, although 1 in 3 (roughly 33 percent) will suffer relapse within a year after treatment is concluded.

In general, both types of treatments appear to have limited success although the success rates are somewhat dismal. Neither type of treatment is even 50% effective, and after taking into account those who fall back into depression within a relatively short amount of time, the effective treatment rate falls to roughly 15-30%. And without any evidence of the effectiveness of treatments long-term (4+ years), it cannot actually be proven that either treatment is at all effective long term.

“Known” causes of Depression

In treating depression, it should be noted that we are not actually treating the illness itself, but in fact we are treating the cause of depression. So in order to treat depression effectively, it stands to reason that the correct cause of depression must be identified. However, the two types of treatments suggest a disagreement surrounding the cause: treatment via medication suggests a chemical imbalance, while treatment via psychotherapy suggests a psychological issue. On that note, here are excerpts from recent articles regarding the cause of depression:

WebMD: “Depression is an extremely complex disease; no one knows what exactly causes it…

Harvard Medical School: “Research suggests that…chemicals are involved, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high…” (Notice the word “suggests”; it would have been more honest to say “we don’t know what causes depression.”)

Healthline: “Depression isn’t a simple condition with a known cause.”

To be fair, the articles list some factors that “increase the chance of depression” (such as abuse, genetics, loss of loved one, etc.); however, it is wise to point out that while these events might have a positive correlation with people suffering from depression, none of the articles give any data to prove that the factors actually cause depression, or how.

The Actual Cause of Depression

In 1975, American psychologist Alexander Lowen matter-of-factly pointed out in a book entitled Bioenergetics that the cause of depression is the result of suppressing one’s emotions. In general, Lowen spent a significant amount of his career studying the psychological and physical results that occurred in the body when emotions were processed in an unhealthy manner. And while Lowen may have been one of the first people in modern psychology to recognize this fact, he was certainly not the last. So one question that we need to immediately address before we proceed is: “if this is in fact the actual cause of depression, why isn’t this more widely accepted?” To suitably answer this question, I would like to briefly turn to the topic of quantum physics.

Quantum physics seems to have gained a lot of popularity lately; for example I increasingly see more and more articles about this topic shared on social media. Initially, this led me to believe that quantum physics was an exciting new topic within the scientific community, i.e. something that had started to take off within the last several years.  But in fact many of the important studies and research for quantum physics were actually done back in the 1930s and 40’s. And while quantum physics is the successor of “classical physics” (which teaches that waves and particles are separate), classical physics is the science that is still taught in American schools to this day. Why? Apparently, it is due to one simple reason: the conclusions of quantum physics explain phenomena that mainstream society is still unwilling to accept. For an example: quantum physics (using the holographic theory) can be used to explain “psychic” activities such as precognition and intuition (which is not possible using classic science).

On a similar note, Lowen’s findings appear to be ignored by mainstream science and psychology for exactly the same reason. In Lowen’s case, he explained that the mind and body were connected in such a way that emotional health could affect physical health, an idea that science couldn’t explain and that many people even now are simply unwilling to accept.

Depression: a Defense against Pain

In Bioenergetics, Lowen commented that people who were depressed had suppressed their emotions to the point that they could no longer feel them, creating bodies that he described as “lifeless”.

Think for a moment what your reaction would be if your partner, parent, or somebody else close to you physically hit you in the face? How would you feel? Chances are you would feel hurt, betrayal, maybe even shame. Now consider what would happen if this action continued repeatedly; i.e. if you were hit every day? It is likely that you would probably become increasingly numb to the pain of this event, knowing that since “there is simply nothing you can do”; you simply have to endure the pain.

The numbing to the pain is how depression occurs, except that there is not necessarily a dramatic event that initiates the painful life scenario. For instance, a person could be in an unhappy marriage. Or an unsatisfying job. Or have a difficult relationship with a child. In each of these situations, the pain is long-term. But the painful scenario doesn’t always happen in one day, instead it could have been a happy marriage that slowly became an unhappy one, or a fulfilling job that steadily turned into a stressful and unfulfilling one.

Pain is a signal from your body that something is wrong and action is required. Put your hand on a hot stove and your body will instantly tell you to remove it, for example. However there are times in life when we are so scared of the consequences of taking action that we simply decide to live with the pain instead. And when we experience the same pain for a long enough period of time, we will eventually become numb to it.

Furthermore, the pain is sometimes not sharp enough to cause a recognition of a “real” problem that needs addressing. For instance, a person who is in angst because she is living with the idea that life is meaningless and has no purpose doesn’t necessarily accept the fact that this isn’t a healthy view that needs to be addressed; instead she might believe that this idea – as well as the pain – are simply a part of everyday life. But in this scenario (as with the previous ones), not dealing with the pain will eventually lead to numbness of it.

It’s important to realize that in this dualistic world, when we become numb to negative emotions, we automatically become numb to the positive ones as well. So when we come to the point that we no longer feel the pain, we are also depriving ourselves of the ability to feel life’s pleasures. And the result of not being able to experience either pain or pleasure is the experience of depression.

Note that people in depression find themselves in a bind that they usually cannot escape from without a correct understanding of the cause. To be more specific: they continually question why they are not happy, and as a result they will immediately run from any feelings of pain or negative emotions, believing that these emotions are “keeping them from their happiness”. But what is actually happening is that by further suppressing the negative emotions, they are continually preventing themselves from being able to experience the positive ones.

Major Depressive Disorder

So far I have been discussing the causes of mild depression, but it is also necessary to address the more severe type of depression known as “Major Depressive Disorder” (MDD). In general, there does not seem to be any commonly accepted “hard and fast” rules for determining whether or not depression is MDD, so for the purposes of this article we will use the following definitions: mild depression is when emotions have been suppressed to the point that they are no longer felt, and MDD is depression in which negative emotions are so strong that the sufferer feels that the pain has become almost “unbearable”. MDD appears to flare up at random; additionally each flare up can potentially be worse than the previous.

At this point I will add my own hypothesis about the cause of MDD. The likely culprit of MDD would appear to be long-term mild depression: it appears that at some point, the body itself feels it is no longer capable of suppressing the negative emotions any longer, and simply releases them all at once, causing emotional chaos. Understandably, medication is perceived as being helpful in order to simply “bring the situation under control”, although the most likely outcome of medication is bringing the client back to the condition of mild depression (which is why future and more intense flare-ups are still possible).

“Getting Over” Depression

As with most things in life, mild depression typically doesn’t last forever (whether it was treated or not). And since there is the possibility of depression going away “on its own”, one might suggest that depression itself is something that just “happens”, somewhat like a rainy day. But such thinking would ignore the fact that everything has a cause (even rain).

So why does depression stop “on its own”? First, remember that depression is caused by a constant and dissatisfying life situation that causes pain. What eventually happens is that a new “life event” will happen in life that sparks such a strong emotion that it cannot be ignored. Let’s use the example of an unhappy marriage to illustrate the point.

John has been married to Linda for 15 years. For over 5 years, the marriage has been dissatisfying but John is afraid to leave. Then one day, his 6-year-old son is killed in a tragic accident. Note that although John is numb from the pain of his unhappy marriage (which is a constant source of pain), the death of his son is a new source of sharp pain that jolts John back into being able to feel again; i.e., this pain is so horrible that he simply can’t help but feel it. And by once again being able to feel such a sharp pain, John also has the capacity to feel pleasure again.

Keep in mind that the life event doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative one. In John’s case, it could have just as easily been the marriage of a child, which is such an exciting event that momentarily brings him an incredible sense of joy and life fulfillment. But once the joy or pain wears off, John could quite easily fall back into a state of depression if the original life situation hasn’t changed.

On the other hand, consider what would happen if the life event had been that John’s wife decides to divorce him. Once again, this new event causes a surge of emotions that cannot be ignored, and once the divorce is over, John finds that he is no longer in the unhappy marriage that was the source of his depression, and therefore the unhappy marriage will no longer be able to cause him to slip back into depression (although there is still the risk of depression in the future, especially if his behavior patterns lead him into another unhappy marriage).

Ending Depression

Since the cause of depression is ultimately the suppression of pain to the point of numbness, the way to end depression is via any type of therapy or series of exercises that focuses on targeting and eliminating this numbness. At the physical level, Lowen noted in Bioenergetics that suppressed emotions will eventually manifest as tensions in the body. Therefore, regaining the ability to feel emotions can be initiated by relaxing those bodily tensions in order to release and ultimately feel the emotions that have been stuck in the body.

Energetic blocks

With the increasing popularity of movement therapies such as yoga and pilates, people are increasingly becoming aware that the body comprises of not just the physical and mental levels, but an energetic level as well. And here it should be stressed that emotional blocks that are not cleared on the energetic level will eventually manifest on the physical level as illness. Therefore, therapies that focus on clearing energetic blocks can play an important part in healing a client with depression.

Therapies that can potentially help with depression

The following therapies can potentially aid with a person overcome depression by helping to release suppressed emotions. Note that more than one type of therapy can be used concurrently, and there is no “right way” to treat depression. The main thing to keep in mind is that the goal is to reduce or eliminate suppressed feelings in order to restore “life” to the body.

Note: A person who desires to end depression should keep well in mind that the original cause of depression was typically in not taking action because of the fear of taking action. (And when considering how many millions of other people in this world suffer from depression, this is not something to be ashamed of). But it is important to note that in order for permanent progress to be made in countering depression, it may very well be necessary to eventually face those fears. Additionally, in order to release emotions that have been suppressed, it is likely that they will have to be “processed through” in order to clear them from the body. Therefore it is highly recommended to use the support of professional therapists or counselors when attempting to heal oneself of depression.

Body-Mind Therapy: psychotherapy that incorporates body movement to promote emotional healing. Examples include core energetics and bioenergetics.

Body Work and massage therapy: practitioners use hands-on techniques to manipulate bones, muscles, and other tissues. Examples include massage, rolfing, deep tissue, reflexology, craniosacral.

Energy Healing Therapy: practitioners use their bodies to channel healing energy into clients to restore life-force energy, remove energetic blocks, and help heal emotional trauma and physical illness. Examples include polarity therapy, Reiki, Vibrational Healing, Healing Touch, and Barbara Brennan Healing Science.

Movement Therapies: body-awareness and/or breathing exercises designed to improve health and increase energy flow in the body; these therapies are typically conducted a group format. Examples include yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and aikido.

Disclaimer: this article for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health care provider for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.