Depression affects so many people that it is often called the common cold of mental illness. At some point in their lives, 10% to 25% of women and 5% to 12% of men will become clinically depressed.
Depression is no fashionable affliction. In it is real, insidious, and when in full bloom, debilitating. Yet far too many people are oblivious to their own deep sadness or simply refuse to recognize it. Emotional vulnerability? Verboten–especially among the achiever set. They’re less likely to ask for help than Tea Party members are to ask for a tax hike.
Ignorance and denial are not cures for depression. They are guarantees that when you finally own up to your sadness, it will kick you a hell of a lot harder than when you started suppressing it.
Here are 10 ways to detect depression early and let the healing begin.
1. You are over-confident and fearless.
Many people–and especially high achievers–cope with depression by acting in ways opposite to how they feel. (Shrinks call this “escapism.”) Engaging in daredevil pursuits, be it mounting a takeover of a rival company or quitting your job to open a restaurant, makes you feel invincible, when you’re really in the dumps. There is a method to this madness: The major cause of depressions–those not born of biochemical imbalances, of which there are plenty–is feeling out of control or helpless. Achievers loathe that feeling and fight like hell to deny it through action. But that, ultimately, won’t work.
2. You’ve gone from one drink with dinner to three before appetizers.
“Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.” Bernard Shaw’s observation is as true now as it was then. Drinking alcohol is the most common tactic people take to self-medicate emotional pain. The problem with this strategy is that when you finally recognize the pain driving you to drink, you’ll have two disorders to contend with rather than one.
3. You’re obsessed with achievement in bed.
Have a limp libido? Going on a Hugh-Hefner-like tear may not lift your spirits. If you find you’ve traded serial monogamy for seducing any partner that will have you, there is a good chance you’re trying to keep depression at bay.
4. Conflicts quickly escalate into fights.
One common but exceedingly dumb way to dull the feeling of helplessness brought on by depression is to show people you’re nobody’s patsy. Get cut off on the highway? Run the bastard off the road. Have an idea shot down at a brainstorming session? Take the opinionated punk outside and pummel him. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll have enough bruises to distract you from your emotional pain.
5. You feel nothing.
Rather than be sad, many people would choose to forgo feeling altogether. But some people end up getting stuck in neutral–dooming them to invite the same pain again and again. Worse, this zombie-like approach creates anxiety in those around you and alienates those who care for you.
6. You can’t stop socializing.
Immersing yourself in group activities sounds healthy–and for many people it is. However, if the sole purpose is to keep you from wrestling with your thoughts and feelings, having a brimming social calendar is not the answer (and you probably won’t be all that fun a companion anyway). Like the toxic mortgage securities still stinking up bank balance sheets, you have to flush out the dreck before you can start investing anew.
7. You can’t concentrate.
Everyone suffers from scattered thoughts now and again. Those who are depressed but who possess too much control to act out recklessly may do so in fantasy. But how to distinguish a healthy daydream from potentially dangerous ones? Healthy dreams involve changes in your life that you can realize in a handful of steps. Unhealthy ones take you from middle-class to movie-stardom overnight.
8. You have trouble accepting praise or goodwill.
Martin Seligman, the psychologist who revolutionized our thinking about depression, studied the behavior of dogs that were given electric shocks. Eventually, they would lay helplessly in their cages, not responding to tugs on their leashes that would have moved them to safety from the shocks. The human corollary: If you find yourself ignoring favorable gestures or simple interpersonal warmth, chances are you’re not a malcontent. You’re depressed.
9. You work harder, not smarter.
When people are depressed, they have trouble seeing novel solutions to their problems. Instead, they do more of the same. The classic example is trying to exercise your way to happiness: If you already log a few hours a week at the gym, spending another 30 more minutes every day may briefly lift your spirits. But that relief is ephemeral. When it dissipates, get off the treadmill and get to the root of what’s bothering you.
10. You laugh and cry at times that don’t call for it.
In psychiatry, the concept “inappropriate affect” refers to behavior that is emotionally out of sync with the stimulus that prompted it. People who are depressed but do not know it exhibit a unique variant of this problem: They over-react to insignificant sadness, and ignore major league bad news.
This flavor of depression, a stepchild of alexithymia which causes a gross lack of appropriate feelings, can really make you feel out-of-control. I first came across it when one of my clients told me of taking his children to the movies: “I cried in the theater when a deer lost its mother,” he said, “but when my partner handed me the legal papers demanding a dissolution of our business, I threw them in my ‘In Box’ and proceeded to order lunch.”
Abraham Maslow, one of America’s most influential psychologists, observed: “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” Fess up to how you feel so you can fight on.
You’ll be amazed at how relieved you’ll feel when you do.